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By Lily-Hayes Kaufman
Rushing out of the car, cellphone in hand, our driver Rafik doesn’t waste any time snapping photos of Tunisia’s newest monument to Mohamed Bouazizi. Some 50 kilometers outside of Tunisia’s capital, the memorial to Bouazizi—the fruit vendor who lit himself on fire, igniting the protest that toppled Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and kicked off the Arab Spring—is a giant pushcart with a row of polished marble spheres, like anonymous faces looking up at it. In the distance, a giant poster reads, “Revolution of Freedom and Dignity.” Above it, a three-story photograph shows Bouazizi striking a pose in a bomber jacket with fireworks exploding behind him. It looks like a gaudy concert advertisement, but Rafik’s excitement reveals genuine depth to the optimism regarding the future of the country that the poster represents.
Moments later, two young locals stop us at the monument. They are less hopeful. “Where is the change?” one asks rhetorically, shrugging his shoulders. Bouazizi set himself on fire to draw attention to the fact that he was unable to find a respectable job. At the time, the unemployment rate hovered around 14 percent. Today, it has risen to 19 percent, one quarter of which, by some accounts, are university graduates.
Visiting this country during a transitional period, I found that people were eager to offer their unsolicited opinions about post-revolutionary Tunisia. Like my driver, many were confident, hopeful, and even euphoric for Tunisia's future. While others, like the young locals at the monument, point to the still very serious problem of unemployment. But both optimists and pessimists agree—job creation is the key to revitalizing Tunisia’s economy. For that to happen, the nation needs to foster entrepreneurship, promote Tunisia as a destination for foreign investment, and increase government transparency and accountability. After a repressive government like Ben Ali’s, it’s a tall order.
Under the old regime, most entrepreneurs preferred to stay under the radar for fear of Ben Ali getting involved in their business. Small business owner Rekaya Ferid produces up to 100 kilos per day of makroud, a traditional Tunisian pastry. Although Ferid’s business is a small one, she tells me that under Ben Ali, all entrepreneurs had to be careful. If they became too successful, Ben Ali or his wife would come and take whatever they wanted. In Ferid’s case, Ben Ali did come once, but she got lucky. “He came, but he just ate a cookie, and then he left.
Even with Ben Ali gone from power, this fear of attracting attention is still a stumbling block for potential entrepreneurs. Alia Mahmoud seeks to change that attitude. She is developing the Maghreb Enterprise Development Initiative (MEDI) at the Mediterranean Business School in the capital, Tunis. A non-profit think tank devoted to fostering entrepreneurship in the Maghreb, MEDI is committed to job creation through new enterprises.
There’s simply a lack of entrepreneurial role models for young Tunisians, according to Mahmoud. While there were well-known large business owners, examples like them would not make realistic role models for the typical Tunisian. As soon as you say the word “millions,” millions of dinars, millions of dollars, the kids are going to zone out. How can they relate to an entrepreneur who has the opportunity to study in a fancy school overseas or has millions of dollars in the bank? Perhaps with the right role models, mentoring, and tools Tunisians may start more businesses and create more jobs.
To this end, Mahmoud’s strategy for MEDI is to produce research on entrepreneurship, organize regular events for entrepreneurs to network, and advocate for public policies that will facilitate the development and growth of small and medium size enterprises. Mahmoud also talked to me about the value of upgrading the skills of unemployed graduates and matching to the needs of the market by placing them in startups or established companies. “Supporting start ups cannot only create jobs, attract investment, and promote innovation that leads to economic growth, but also contribute to changing mindsets.”
Hand in hand with fostering entrepreneurship, in the wake of the revolution, there has been an emphasis on promoting foreign investment in Tunisia. A month before my trip to the country, I attended the Tunisia Partnership Forum in Washington DC, organized by the U.S State Department. Its goal was to encourage a profitable job-creating partnership between the United States and Tunisia.
One of the attendants was Mohamed Malouche, the founder and president of the Tunisian American Young Professionals (TAYP), a non-profit diaspora organization committed to promoting investment and entrepreneurship in Tunisia. In the event, he addressed investment opportunities in what he calls “The New Tunisia.” Born and raised in Tunisia, Malouche now lives and works in the U.S., where he founded TAYP. A month later I spoke with him in Tunisia, where he pointed to the recent introduction of a bill in the U.S. Congress to help strengthen the private sector in Egypt and Tunisia. Malouche was optimistic, calling the bill “major news for any entrepreneur in Tunisia. This could be an opportunity for entrepreneurs working in Tunisia, being supported by the U.S. fund.
In fact, my trip overlapped with a visit from Senator Joe Lieberman, who was in Tunis to show support for the new democracy and to talk about the $30 million in loan guarantees and the $20 million Tunisia Enterprise Fund that the U.S. is providing to Tunisia.
Not all small business owners are so impressed by foreign involvement in the Tunisian economy. Hager Bourguiba owns a small artisanal store not far from the presidential palace. As the adopted daughter of the founder of the Tunisian republic and first president, Habib Bourguiba, she’s experienced revolutions before. In 1987, Ben Ali led a coup that resulted in the impeachment of her father. The latest revolution, she says, hasn’t changed the country enough. “The same corrupt ministers are in charge,” she says. “The same families who had alliances under Ben Ali will still be doing well and running the show.”
Mondher Ben Ayed, Ph.D, the President and CEO of IT leader Tunisie Micro Informatique (TMI), and former President of the Tunisian-American Chamber of Commerce (TACC) is cautiously optimistic about the introduction of democracy in Tunisia. “Democracy is good, and will take the corruption out so the families that had a vested interested will no longer have their control,” Ben Ayed says, “But democracy does slow things down so now to change the laws you need to go through parliament. Some people think things will change over night but it is more complicated.”
Ben Ayed sees Tunisia entering into what he refers to as a ‘recovery phase’ in which the interim government will address urgent needs, yet will be unable to introduce significant structural reform. But he feels that even just mitigating corruption alone will have a significant impact on the Tunisian economy. He estimates that lowering corruption, solving fiscal evasion, and strengthening the rule of law and transparency, could increase economic growth by two percent.
Tourism appears to have been hit the hardest by the social revolution, although most of the infrastructure is still there. Beautiful hotels that once overflowed with visitors are now nearly vacant. In our case, in regards to our 200-room hotel, only the lights and heating in the part of the wing where we were staying were turned on.
Our tour guide, Hassen Hammi, is a veteran of the industry. He specializes in the history of the numerous civilizations that conquered Tunisia—Phoenicians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Spaniards, Ottomans, and the French. There seemingly isn’t a single structure in the country that he can’t speak at length about. Leading tours for over 10 years, he has also learned to speak four languages fluently to accommodate the whole spectrum of tourists that normally visit Tunisia.
Tourism is important to Tunisia’s economy, accounting for 6.5 percent of GDP and 450,000 jobs. Hammi told me that in 2010 Tunisia received over seven million tourists. In 2011, however, he estimates the number dropped to around three million.
For Hammi, the tumult of the Arab Spring has not been good for business. He admitted that this was his first job of 2011. It was the last week of December.
Lily-Hayes Kaufman works for Barclays Capital and with entrepreneurs from conflict regions through Bpeace.org. She is a contributer to Forbes.com and her blog can be found at PinkYemenade.wordpress.com
(Photo Courtesy of anw.fr)