The Arab Spring has brought with it widespread use of social networks and mobile devices in a country which serves as an ideal marketplace from which to reach out into Africa and the Middle East.

Tunisia offers “many advantages” for ICT sector firms

At the 6th annual Rencontres Internationales du Numérique (International Digital Forum) hosted by French export promotion agency Ubifrance on 23 and 24 October in Paris, L'Atelier caught up with Zohra SADOK, Ubifrance’s Export Advisor for the New Technologies, Innovation & Services (NTIS) in Tunisia.

L'Atelier: Which high-tech sectors in Tunisia are the most dynamic?

Zohra Sadok: The ICT sector is extremely dynamic in Tunisia. It accounts for 7% of GDP and is growing by 14% per year. That means around 100,000 jobs in the country. There are some 1,200 companies on the technology scene in Tunisia, among them overseas firms, especially French firms. Sagem, Alcatel, Orange, Bull and IBM are of course highly active. The actual technology is spread over many fields; all sectors of the economy are affected by ICT technology. However, there’s real enthusiasm for mobile.

Three operators – Tunisie Telecom, the incumbent operator; (private telecommunications company) Tunisiana; and (French multinational telecoms corporation) Orange – share the market between them. And market coverage is well over 100%: there are 12 million SIM-chips in use for a population of 10 million. Moreover, the rollout of 3G, which Orange initiated in 2009, has enabled the applications ecosystem to grow very fast. These days the development field is mainly driven by the emergence of Cloud-based services. We’re talking here about a very promising market. There’s now a data centre up and running in Tunisia and two more are planned. IT security is also starting to be an area for attention.

What’s happening with innovation in Tunisia these days?

In general, we have very high educational standards in Tunisia, especially for engineers. There are over 200 university courses running which each year turn out 13,000 graduates. The El Gazala Technopark was set up over a decade ago, thanks largely to French firms such as Alcatel. In addition we should point out that the Tunisian government has embarked on a vast project to move the country online. Computerising the country’s administrative departments will help them become much more responsive. Last but not least, public-private partnerships are now enabling major national projects in e-environment, e-tourism and e-health to go forward.

The Arab Spring highlighted the popular enthusiasm for using social networks on mobile devices. Is that still the case?

Yes, indeed! In Tunisia everyone wants to own the latest smartphone. Of course not everyone can afford a smartphone, but people earning only average salaries still manage to get hold of one. The revolution revealed the younger generation’s keenness for social networks, and this has continued ever since. The country now has 2.5 million Facebook accounts. That’s 31% of all the accounts in North Africa and close to 9% of the total number of accounts in the whole of Africa. Usage is mainly among the 18-35 year-old age-bracket. However, I should point out that in Tunisia people use social networks very differently from the way they do in France for example. Tunisians basically use them to share information and news, to mobilise groups of people, and to spread the word about political developments.

Have any other uses of mobile taken hold?

Mobile payments haven’t really taken off in Tunisia, in contrast to sub-Saharan Africa. People still like to handle physical money. However, several banks have initiated projects. One was to enable mobile payments in taxis, but that never really caught on. Geolocation, by contrast, is a rapidly-increasing trend. A geolocation project was launched jointly with Algeria last year, aimed at both private companies and the state apparatus. Everyone is now ready to invest today to reap the rewards tomorrow. Tunisians are also getting very excited about performance marketing. We’re seeing a growing number of websites making promotional offers and also sites for private sales.

Does this appetite for digital translate into a dynamic entrepreneurial scene?

Well, Tunisia does have a few startups. In fact the El Gazala Technopark has set up 24 incubators throughout the country. And an incubator project at a private university in conjunction with (French technical higher education and research establishment) Mines-Telecom is already under way. We also have Orange’s initiative – a training and recruitment programme for young graduates. Orange offers training in mobile applications and recruits a number of graduates to the programme each year.

How is the environment in Tunisia suited to new ICT businesses or to fostering valuable interactions?

Tunisia offers many advantages. The country is an ideal springboard from which to get into neighbouring markets such as Algeria and Libya, and then by extension markets in other parts of Africa and the Middle East. The Franco-Tunisian Digital Alliance, which was formally set up in July when François Hollande came to Tunisia on an official visit, aims to develop joint set-ups, partnerships on an equal footing between French and Tunisian companies. Moreover, we have now emerged from the ‘call centres only’ syndrome. These days Tunisia is on a technological par with India, and in addition it has the advantage of being geographically close to the target markets and also enjoys a language advantage in North Africa and the Middle East.

By Pierre-Marie Mateo