How Tunisia’s young entrepreneurs are hoping to boost the economy

Two dozen casually dressed entrepreneurs were gathered around a Scandinavian-style wooden table, eating glazed pastries and pouring each other cups of coffee. They introduced themselves — web designer, graphic designer, gamer — in a mix of French, Arabic and English. With its sleek blond wood floors and rustic pallet sofas, we could have been at a hip cafe in Brooklyn or Berlin. But this is Startup Haus, a co-working space in downtown Tunis, just a stone’s throw from the city’s busiest intersection.

Startup Haus, which opened in March 2016, is one of six co-working spaces that have popped up in Tunisia since the 2011 revolution. Last year, Cogite, which opened in 2013 as the country’s first co-working space, was ranked in Forbes’ Top 10 co-working spaces worldwide. The annual Co-Working Summit for entrepreneurs in the Middle East and North Africa region was hosted in Tunisia in 2015 and 2016. Long overshadowed by the entrepreneurial ecosystems in the Gulf states, Egypt and Jordan, Tunisia’s co-working spaces and entrepreneurs seem to be having a moment.

“Since 2011, you can say there’s been a boom,” Miriam, the manager at Startup Haus, told Al-Monitor during a recent visit.

Although the legal framework pertaining to startups has not been updated since the country’s startup minister, Noomane Fehri, was booted from his post and financial lending from national banks is still difficult to procure, Tunisia’s entrepreneurship sector has been on the rise.

Foreign interest — from financing to sharing soft skills — has helped boost the market. Hivos International, a Dutch organization, opened a Tunisian office focusing on promoting youth entrepreneurship. Startup Haus is supported by two German organizations, Impact Tunisie and Westerwelle Foundation.

But the most promising aspect are the Tunisians themselves.

“As a young Tunisian after the revolution, it is as if we have a breath of fresh air. I really believe in entrepreneurship to create jobs,” said Khouloud Talhaoui, a 27-year-old business developer with Iris Technologies, which rents an office space at Startup Haus. The start-up helps apiculturists manage their beehives with new technology. Talhaoui admits that the spirit of entrepreneurship is “still in its infancy,” but attention is increasing.”

On the ground floor, Startup Haus has three enclosed offices for established businesses; they are all currently in use. Responding to demand, the Haus has plans to create several more offices this year. Around 25 individuals use the mezzanine, which is for people who are in the initial phases of project creation. Other co-working spaces, like Cogite, have several hundred entrepreneurs and digital nomads filtering in and out of the space each day.

Tunisia has a surplus of educated youth, many of whom are unable to get traditional jobs. Unemployment currently hovers around 15.5% across the country, with youth unemployment reaching up to 42%. Co-working spaces normalize entrepreneurship, provide a flexible and cheaper option than an office, and most importantly, provide a community of like-minded, supportive individuals.

“I love working with others in a space where everyone helps each other,” Housem Zouaghi, a 25-year-old computer scientist and multimedia engineer told Al-Monitor. Zouaghi studied in Canada before returning to Tunisia to create his gaming startup, which has now branched out into advertising and web design. Zouaghi started with two employees; in five months, he’s hired six more people.

Like other co-working spaces, Startup Haus offers workshops, training sessions, skill shares and speakers. Last month, an Egyptian marketing expert gave a lecture on trends in digital marketing. Cogite hosted a Global Entrepreneurship Week in November, with classes on education and women’s empowerment. Creativa, a co-working space in the northern suburb of La Marsa, has organized feng shui sessions.

Many events are free and open to the public, and the spaces themselves are imbued with a positive, can-do attitude. Though most co-working spaces are concentrated in Tunis, the country’s capital, two new spaces opened in Sousse and the southern island of Djerba.

“We have the youth, the hope and even the financial support,” Talhaoui said. Co-working spaces are helping to create a more favorable climate for entrepreneurs, and the future looks bright.

“I don’t have any reason to leave,” said Zouaghi with a smile.




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