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Tunisia rapidly becoming Africa’s next IT hub

Published on: 10-Nov-2017

Having overcome the political waves that rocked the economy in recent years, the country now wants to show that it is more than just a gorgeous holiday destination.   

“Talents are the only raw material we have in Tunisia,” said Mr. Wassel Berrayana, CEO of Proxym IT, in his office on the Pole de Competitive de Sousse (PCS) in central Tunisia. Mr. Berrayana, who has lived and worked in Silicon Valley and France for over a decade before coming back to his native country, founded Proxym IT 12 years ago and now employs 170 people, in three different locations. “Soon we will start constructing our new headquarters here on the PCS area,’ Mr. Berrayana said.

The Pole de Competitive de Sousse is a massive industrial area under construction, in the outskirts of Sousse, Tunisia’s industrial hub two hours south of the capital city Tunis. “When we started here we were the first IT-company operating outside Tunis,” Mr. Berrayana said. But with the high-quality national schools of engineering nearby, we cannot complain about a lack of potential staff members.”

Another company that operates from the Pole de Competitive de Sousse is Yamaichi Electronics, a German-Japanese enterprise that develops and manufactures connectors, connection systems and test & burn-In sockets, that are used in the semiconductor, industrial automation, data networking, medical and automotive markets. “You can find our products for example in your TomTom car navigation device,” said the energetic director of the Tunisia branch, Ghassene Meftah. “Contrary to what you may think, here in Tunisia we don’t do the production,” said Meftah. “Our production facility is located in Frankfurt/Oder, in the North-East of Germany, while a large part of the Research and Development (R&D) is located here, as well as the testing facilities. The brains are Tunisian.”

Initially Tunisia was high not on the radar of the senior management of the company, but after an introduction in 2007, they started with a small unit of 4 engineers. Now the number has risen to 45.

Labor high-skilled, low-priced

Entrepreneurs operating in Tunisia mention the low cost of labor as a reason of attractiveness of the country. “It’s a simple calculation,” said Amine Chouaieb, CEO of Shifco, a company that designs and produces security cameras and other gadgets. “Salaries for IT engineers in Tunisia are 5 to 10 times lower than in Europe. This gives us a competitive edge.” Chouaieb, Tunisia’s youngest IT-CEO at 31, employs 30 people and sells 70% of his products abroad. The Shifco CEO encourages foreign IT-firms to set up shop in Tunisia as well. “I don’t fear them, I welcome them. I always want to compete with the best.”

Although seen by many entrepreneurs –and the authorities- as one of Tunisia’s largest asset, there are also risks involved in the low cost of skilled workers. “There is some kind of braindrain going on,” explained Mr. Berrayana of Proxym IT. “Western countries steal our talents,” he said. Adding, with a twinkle in his eyes: “but we have found a solution for that. We set up our own ‘Proxym University’ and give talents the chance to spend some months in Europe. This way we hope they feel encouraged to stay with us.”

Anis Sahbani, the CEO of Enova Robotics, agrees this is one of the issues. But Mr. Sahbani, like his colleague Mr. Berrayana a ‘repatriate,’ having spent nearly two decades in France, is the living evidence that migration can be circular as well. “I was with the Intelligent system and Robotics Institute at the Pierre and Marie Curie university in Paris for many years,” he explained, standing in his office with six young people designing new robots on a computer. “But then I decided to come back home to start my own robot producing company,” he said.

He shows us the Pearl-Guard, a camera-packed robot on wheels that can patrol your premises and will detect any danger with his cameras and sensors. “It will warn you, but it is not equipped with a weapon for ethical reasons,” Mr. Sahbani said. Enova Robotics has started sales of the robots, the most successful model (the Mini-lab, assisting in offices) having so far sold 40 pieces. “The next step will be to automate the production,” announced Mr. Sahbani.

Government-led Industrial Parks

The Pole de Competitive de Sousse looked like a large construction site, when NABC visited in October 2017. We were invited for a visit to Tunisia by FIPA, the Foreign Investment Promotion Agency, that is always available to help foreign companies set up shop in the country. “Our efforts to attract more FDI have resulted in an 11% increase in August, compared to the year before,” said Khalil Laabidi, General Manager of FIPA. “We have changed the investment law, making it easier for foreign companies to invest. There is also more freedom to transfer money in and out of the country, fewer restrictions on hiring foreign staff and lucrative tax exemptions,” added Mr. Laabidi. “We do this because Tunisia needs growth, in order to resolve the unemployment.”

Hichem Turki is CEO of the Pole de Competitive de Sousse, and shows us the nearly completed headquarters of Yamaichi, as well as communal research facilities, that can be used by companies in the area. Mr. Turki echoes the FIPA’s invitation to come and invest in Tunisia. “First of all, the price of engineering here is only 20% of the cost in Europe,” Mr. Turki said. “Secondly, in Tunisia the security is very good. We have reliable, fast and affordable internet. And finally, we well even help you to find qualified staff.”    

Text and photos: Arne Doornebal

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