Tunisia's entrepreneurs call for pro-business reforms

Ramzi el Fekih (second from the left) meeting with some of his staff
Image caption Ramzi el Fekih (centre) wants to see less red tape in Tunisia

Three years ago thousands of Tunisians protested on the streets, demanding, among other things, more economic opportunity.

The protests led to the departure of the country's former ruler, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and sparked the wider Arab Spring across North Africa and the Middle East.

However, despite the removal of President Ben Ali, economic reforms in Tunisia since 2011 have stalled due to continuing political unrest, which dragged on until the end of last year.

Yet with a moderate, interim government of independent figures appointed in December, and the country's new constitution being agreed in January, there is now renewed optimism that pro-business changes will be forthcoming, to enable entrepreneurship and small businesses to flourish.

The sense of confidence has been strengthened by backing from the World Bank, which last month awarded Tunisia loans totalling $1.2bn (£719m) to help drive economic and political reform.

The World Bank said that this figure included $750m "in support of government reforms to level the economic playing field and promote growth and job creation", and $100m to increase lending to small and medium-sized companies.

For most Tunisian entrepreneurs, reforms to make their jobs easier cannot come quickly enough.

'Very constraining'

Ramzi el Fekih, 46, says the key to helping new businesses launch and grow in Tunisia is a better judicial system.

Mr el Fekih is chief executive of Viamobile, a mobile phone banking and payments app.

Image caption The World Bank's Laurent Gonnet wants the country's commercial lenders to be less cautious

He launched the business in Tunisia in 2009 after returning to the country following 25 years working abroad, including 20 years in the mobile phone technology sector in California.

"The biggest difference between working here and in California is the lack of trust," says Mr el Fekih. "People try to protect themselves, because they have been had before, but it becomes very constraining."

"There is so much control, that we can't move, but what we need is a judicial system that punishes people who don't follow the law."

Mr el Fekih says he would also like to see much less regulation and bureaucracy, complaining that it took him two years to get Viamobile approved by the country's central bank.

But despite his frustrations, he says he has no regrets about to returning to his homeland.

"I really believe that there is a huge potential in Tunisia and Tunisian entrepreneurs," he says.

Mr el Fekih is hoping that now, with the new constitution in place, the Tunisian state will move fast on reforms. His analogy is borrowed from the world of mobile technology.

"What politicians can do is design an easy and accessible operating system, so entrepreneurs can follow and create applications," he says. "Now is the time."

'Great opportunities'

For fellow entrepreneur Zied Jallouli, 29, the big problem for start-ups in Tunisia is securing financial backing.

"Raising funds here for a big idea is really, really tough," says Mr Jallouli, shaking his head.

Image caption Zied Jallouli had to look to a Swedish national to secure the funding he needed

He and his business partner have created a smartphone app called Disrupt CK, which they claim can help people to buy clothes or other consumer goods similar to those they see in a film or TV show.

Mr Jallouli says you simply point your smartphone at the television, press the app button, and it will produce a list of suggested items.

While Mr Jallouli couldn't get a Tunisian bank or wealthy Tunisian investor to back him, he was ultimately able to secure investment from a Swedish ex-pat.

The Swede in question is Thomas Adner, a former executive for Swedish packaging giant Tetra Pak, who had been working in North Africa for eight years.

Mr Adner is so impressed with Mr Jallouli's product that he has even joined the company as its chief marketing officer.

"There are some great business opportunities in Tunisia," says Mr Adner, who points out the low cost of hiring well-trained web developers and programmers.

"You can run quite a few miles with the cash that you have," he says.

But Mr Adner still sees numerous hurdles to doing business in Tunisia that need removing.

"Back home [in Sweden] it takes about 30 minutes to register a new business, and in two days all the paperwork is done," he says.

"Tunisian authorities make it not only very difficult to start a company, it takes months if not longer. There is so much red tape here, for anyone who wants to start a business.

"The government really needs to make it easier to start a company."

Laurent Gonnet, the World Bank's financial sector specialist in Tunisia, also agrees that much work needs to be done in the country to help businesses.

He says the country's commercial banks are "extremely cautious and risk averse", particularly when it comes to technology companies.

He adds that "Tunisia is also one of the last countries that lack a private credit rating system", making it even harder for entrepreneurs to convince banks to lend them money to back a business idea.

'Urgent matter'

Thankfully, the country's politicians now seem committed to pro-business reform, no doubt spurred on by the World Bank, and a difficult economic backdrop, with unemployment at 16%.

Image caption Dhamir Mannai says the interim government is working to reduce the burden on businesses

The hope is that this commitment will not be curtailed by general elections due at the end of this year.

"We are reviewing the investment code in order to reduce red tape," says Dhamir Mannai, an assembly member from the CPR party of current President Moncef Marzouki.

Meanwhile, Moncef Cheikhrouhou, a member of the opposition Democratic Alliance, and the deputy chairman of the parliament's finance, planning and development committee, says that "entrepreneurship is most needed to create wealth".

"We are treating this as an urgent matter, and are looking for input from entrepreneurs as well," he says.

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