This year, Global Entrepreneurship Week (GEW) was widely celebrated throughout Tunisia. An annually occurring event, the GEW is celebrated in 160 countries with more than 15,000 partner organizations, including Cogite!  

From November 14-18, Cogite organized a full week of events  alongside many other exciting activities at L’Institut des hautes études commerciales de Carthage (IHEC), Lingare Coworking Space, Paris Dauphine Tunisie, the U.S. Embassy in Tunisia, and more. As entrepreneurship continues to be the next cool thing, we’re incredibly happy to see more GEW events in Tunisia than ever before!  

For Cogite’s GEW activities, we organized a full program of events which covered entrepreneurship from A-Z, across various different industries, initiatives, and types of entrepreneurs here in Tunisia. As the Tunisian ecosystem grows more and more diverse, our events at Cogite are reflecting the many actors and activities within the entrepreneurship community as well as across the region.

Early Stage, High Risk: The Missing Key to More Successful Startups in Tunisia?

As most entrepreneurs know, access to finance and raising capital is a challenging task. And Tunisia is no exception.

As analyzed in this year’s edition of Aventures d’Entrepreneurs (AE), there is a gap in available financing for Tunisian entrepreneurs. As we learned through our activities, Tunisian entrepreneurs can often access small loans (up to 30,000 TND) or large amounts of capital (between 50,000 and 5 million TND), but struggle to find financing that falls in between these two values. For example, 30% of interviewed respondents from our 2016 AE survey said that they need between 20,000-100,000 TND to either launch or sustain their business.

During our event titled “Early Stage Investment, High Risk: The Missing Key to More Successful Startups,” we had the pleasure of hosting three investment experts: Khaled Ben Jilani (Africinvest), Manel Khaled (Wikistartup), and Slim Moalla (Evolia Capital).

The conversation, moderated by entrepreneur Khalil Tarhouni, covered topics such as how to approach early stage investment and the state of Tunisian startups searching for early stage investment.

Given that there are very few business angels and seed funds, Khaled Ben Jilani, said that Tunisian startups should look to break even and generate revenue, even before raising funding.

The reality for all startups is that they have an extremely low survival rate, Ben Jilani continued. In Silicon Valley, he said, the survival rate is close to 2%; the percentage in Tunisia is probably even lower, especially for highly innovative companies. For this reason, he continued, it is necessary for startups to find ways to generate revenues to survive until larger funding is raised. In a country where the ecosystem is still developing to accommodate more innovative businesses, Ben Jilani insisted that startups need to generate cash from day 1. 

Thankfully, the Tunisian entrepreneurship ecosystem and support structures have emerged to help solve challenges facing entrepreneurs. However, the ecosystem still  is not mature enough to make all the changes needed and is still blocked by regulations.

For this reason, according to Ben Jilani, the Tunisian ecosystem cannot operate the same way as Silicon Valley, or London or Berlin, so Tunisia needs to develop projects accordingly. Any startups that would like to develop on a global scale should immediately join a more solid ecosystem, he added.

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Regarding valuations, Ismail Ben Sassi, founder and CEO of ilboursa.com, said that around the world, startups are valued at incredible amounts without having generated any cash, such as Snapchat, which is now valued at 20 billion USD. Why is it, he asked, that such valuations are not possible in Tunisia?

In response, Ben Jilani answered by saying that valuation is not just about the idea but also the ecosystem. If you have an idea that can be useful to one billion people, you can estimate it right away. 

He continued by saying that approximately 95% of the ideas that can serve one billion people come from Silicon Valley and develop thanks to the right ecosystem to support them, whose mechanisms come together in what he called “a perfect storm.”

In a storm, he said, the perfect conditions need to be reunited to get the perfect storm: humidity, temperature, etc. Our land in Tunisia, he continued with the metaphor, is not very fertile. So if you have an idea like Snapchat, Ben Jilani said, his first advice would be to pack your bags and go develop it in a more solid ecosystem. While there is space in Tunisia for Tunisian startups to operate, it will be with a Tunisian dimension. This is the local reality.  

For startups looking for fundraising at an early stage, Moalla raised the importance of finding business angels instead of “heavier” financial institutions. Business angels represent a great opportunity for Tunisian entrepreneurs because on top of funding, they also coach and support in different ways, he said. However, Moalla added, there are not many business angels in Tunisia, so it is essential for Tunisian entrepreneurs to foster good relationships with these individuals and to present their projects well.

As Ben Jilani concluded, the life of an entrepreneur is to fight against the elements. In our country, he added, the first element that entrepreneurs are fighting against  is the law. In other countries, he finished, entrepreneurs are fighting too, the elements that they are fighting against are just different.

Let There Be Art: The State of Entrepreneurship in Creative Industries

Creative industries are increasingly recognized for their ability to catalyze economic growth and create new and exciting forms of work. During this event, we invited three accomplished Tunisian creatives to discuss existing and future linkages between different creatives industries in Tunisia and with the larger entrepreneurship communities:  Sofiane Ben Chaabane (Cofounder and CEO of Lyoum), Walid Sultan Midani (Founder and CEO of DigitalMania) and Samia Chelbi (CEO of Createc).

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Samia Chelbi started off the panel by discussing the notion of creativity in business itself. Chelbi believes that creativity is essential to differentiating one project from another and said that global leaders are transforming their business models through collaborative approaches and creativity.

For Sofiane Ben Chaabane, creativity is a mindset. As a Tunisian startup, he said, he wants his brand to speak to each and everyone, no matter where people are, because he believes in cultural mix and that this fusion is essential to innovation.

Class Is in Session: Integrating the Entrepreneurship Mindset in the Tunisian Education System?

Entrepreneurship is a mindset that must be instilled from an early age. For this panel, we brought together Yahya Bouhlel (Go My Code), Houda Ghozzi (MSB/IHEC), Noomen Lahimer (MSB) and  Makhlouf Sayadi (International President of the Young Entrepreneurs Association) to discuss  the challenges and opportunities of embedding entrepreneurship in the Tunisian education system.

Each speaker reiterated that the Tunisian education system lags behind the latest techniques used when it comes to teaching and instilling a spirit of entrepreneurship. 

While numerous initiatives and organisations now exist to help students who would like to develop their project, Noomen Lahimer pointed out that all these initiatives and organizations mostly work in the capital and are the results of private and individual initiatives, such as those developed at IHEC or by innovative teachers like Houda Ghozzi. “In Bizerte, for example where I live, there is nothing done for students. It is important to understand that most students in Tunisia do not have access to these opportunities and this is why it doesn’t develop as fast as we would like to.”

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For Ghozzi, it is critical to introduce the concept in the education system as early as possible However, Ghozzi also emphasized the fact that not everyone will be an entrepreneur. Most young people will grow up and work within companies, but by educating them in concept such as ideation, building something, taking initiative and developing projects, we are creating a new generation of entrepreneurs and a generation of better employees.

The panel concluded with Lahimer’s contribution with the three points that he considers critical to fostering a new generation of entrepreneurs: support for research and development, quality teaching, and real-life practice of the ideas learned in the classroom.

Interconnection: The New MENA

For this panel, Cogite invited panelists from across the MENA region and Europe actively working on regional projects and initiatives.

Each country has its own unique context, culture, regulations, ecosystems, and communities. However, there appears to be a clear common dynamic in the whole region around entrepreneurship and the creative industries: all are working toward uplifting the next generation.

Mazen Helmy, CEO and Founder of the District in Cairo began the panel by discussing Egypt and how he has seen it improving. He said that the Egyptian ecosystem still has a lot of space to grow, but that it is developing rapidly and the progress of innovative startups is noticeable. He also noted that the Egyptian market is also becoming more mature, which is good for startups.

Additionally, the MENA region and its market represent an incredible opportunity for projects who usually would look towards Europe. As stated by Ali Mnif, CEO of Silatech, “for our growth, we have to collaborate together, and we have to be open to other environments like Europe and Africa to have more impact”.

New industries and more innovation are shaping this new MENA. Panel member Aline Mayard (Communication Manager at Shyft and former Wamda Middle East editor) explained, “What is really good is the diversity of startups in each country in the MENA region. In some countries, some specific themes develop better though. For example, in Egypt, renewable energies play a bigger role than in other countries, while in Tunisia, we’re seeing the rise of social entrepreneurship and new technologies”.

We also had the pleasure of virtually hosting Arthur Steiner, Program Manager Mideast Creatives at Hivos. Mideast Creatives is one of the first programs to support coworking spaces all over the MENA region. For Arthur, “there are more and more startups developing their products and services in the MENA region. There are many opportunities offered by different organisations giving the chance to startups to explore the environment of each other.”

For example, Hivos now offers a mobility grant for staff at coworking spaces, which allows founders or managers of coworking spaces to do an exchange of sorts and spend time working and learning from other coworking spaces in the region. 

Steiner has observed that many people are interested in collaborating and working together across borders in the Mediterranean. For example, Steiner noted  successful startups working and operating in most MENA countries, such as like Kharabeesh and Forsa. 

While talking about the MENA, we often talk about the incredible number of similarities. But  there are also differences, from dialects to cultural variations and we do not always have the opportunity to interact across these differences. One of the participants in the audience, a student, shared that “we have to connect on a human level. We have to be open to each other and work on accepting each other differences as human beings. If we achieve this , the interaction between  startups at the MENA region will be very easy.”

David Munir Nabti, founder and CEO of Altcity in Lebanon, “the connection can start with collaborations with closer countries, such as between Beirut, Amman, and Cairo. It is easier for startups to work together this way because economies are more similar, for example.” He also expressed “how special it feels to have people in different places working together, to have people connected to each other and learning more from each other.” Nabti also emphasized the need for more communication, such as conference calls so that people can connect more with each other.

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Nabti also believes that issues like visas, cultures, languages, and different ways to work should take away from facilitating interactions between startups in the different countries of the region.

Still Left Out: Why Are There Still So Few Women Entrepreneurs in Tunisia?

We concluded Global Entrepreneurship Week (GEW) at Cogite with a panel on women entrepreneurship here in Tunisia. 

We decided to close our GEW events with this topic for a simple reason: we see entrepreneurship as Tunisia as a way to make our country a better place for everyone. However, if entrepreneurship is not inclusive for everyone, let alone nearly 50% of Tunisians, we’ll never be able to achieve these goals!   

For example, despite entrepreneurship’s immense popularity in Tunisia,  the number of women launching their projects compared to men remain low.

According to the Tunisian Ministry of Women, 2 in 3 Tunisian university graduates are women. However, female university graduates are twice as likely to be unemployed than their male counterparts. Moreover, the World Bank reports that rates of female entrepreneurship are also very low, standing at 2.2 percent in rural areas and 1.5 percent in urban areas. In comparison, rates of male entrepreneurship are much higher, standing at 12.5% for men in coastal areas, 12.5% for women in interior regions, and 17% for men in the south. And of these women entrepreneurs, women tend to run relatively small businesses and are often more active in the informal sector.

From the very first question, the panel demonstrated the diversity of opinions and perspectives related to women entrepreneurs in Tunisia.

Houeida Anouar of Huffington Post Maghreb, who moderated the panel, kicked off the discussion by asking panelists if they agreed with the statement that there were still very few women entrepreneurs in Tunisia. And every panelist responded with a different answer!

Leila Ben Gacem, founder of Dar Ben Gacem and an Ashoka fellow, said that the portrait of women entrepreneurs in Tunisia is very different when one compares the formal versus the informal economy. For example, while there are less female entrepreneurs when it comes to startups, there are many women who have started their own businesses in the informal economy.

Zeineb Messaoud of Réseau Entreprendre Tunisie (RET) concurred, saying that there are many female entrepreneurs in Tunisia, but that they tend to run very small businesses, as opposed to larger enterprises.

For Chema Gargouri from Women Enterprise Sustainability (WES), there is also a pressing need to fight cultural stereotypes. With work that takes her all over the country, Gargoury spoke about her experience in internal regions of Tunisia, where she encountered local representatives from the Agence de promotion de l’industrie (API) saying that they were against empowering women to start their own business, despite API’s mandate to promote entrepreneurship and new businesses!

Oumezzine Dhouieb, founder of Mes Confits noted that in her experience, women entrepreneurs are treated different then men. For example, she said that the hardest thing for her as an entrepreneur is to present her project to administrators and investors. She says that many of them often equate women with being emotional and that they doubt women’s ability to balance between their familial and professional commitments.

But for her, the only possible response is to take action and to persevere. “If it’s something we believe in, it’s something that we can achieve” she said. “We need to exceed our limits to make gains. If not, we’re left with nothing but excuses.”

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Nadia Boulifa, founder of Elham Consulting, also noted the challenge of stereotypes and outdated ideas about women in business. “We live in a country where there is complicated social baggage and cliches, and it’s more difficult to manage these problems when you are a woman.” But what’s good about entrepreneurship is the creativity and learning to take risks, she added. “It’s also about passion and building things, not just traditional ideas of what it means to be an entrepreneur” Boulifa concluded.

Asma Mansour, founder of the Tunisian Center for Social Entrepreneurship, also advocated a more expansive definition of an entrepreneur. “An entrepreneur is a person that is oriented toward solutions, a person who does not stop,” she said.

Gargoury also built on the idea that entrepreneurship is not just about achieving concrete results, but learning to develop essential skills. For example, Gargoury noted that many Tunisian women suffer from a lack of confidence. Many have been not raised not to go out and take risks, he said, so starting a business means entering into a completely unknown world. However, Gargoury went on to say, when we provide positive examples of women running businesses, and show that women are capable of assuming more responsibilities, women’s confidence increases. And through providing women with the right skills, like time management, they are able to find balance and to succeed in their projects, she finished.

The panel concluded with the exciting announcement of a brand new initiative, Mubadirat. Starting here in Tunisia and coming soon in Egypt, Mubadirat is a media project aiming at supporting female entrepreneurs in MENA region in three ways: empowering women to be confident in their abilities and experiences, growing women’s initiatives into sustainable, successful businesses, and connect women to business opportunities and communities. 

This panel was an exciting beginning to make Mubadirat activities, which will include inspirational video series, thought-provoking discussions, and resource promotion for female entrepreneurs. To learn more, visit the Mubadirat page and stay in touch for exciting Mubadirat updates!