While prospects for Tunisian retail are improving, the sector has faced challenges in shifting online. Mostly due to online payment limitations, but also to a certain degree of mistrust of online purchases, Tunisia’s e-commerce market remains underdeveloped. Recent state intervention and the rise of e-commerce start-ups have helped to improve the environment; however, more targeted action may be needed to boost cross-border flows and further develop the domestic market.
The continued expansion of 4G networks throughout the country has helped to positively impact the online ecosystem in Tunisia, with mobile data usage up 30% year-on-year in August 2017, according to Tunisia’s National Telecommunications Agency. By November of that year, roughly two-thirds of the population were accessing the internet via mobile devices.
Despite the increasing availability of internet access, online sales remain low due to the incompatibility of Tunisian credit cards and foreign commercial websites, meaning that consumers are restricted to domestic online purchases. This limitation is due to the fact that the Tunisian dinar is a non-convertible currency, and thus is not traded on global foreign exchange markets. In early 2018 Omar Al Bahi, the minister of commerce, reported that online transactions in 2017 did not exceed TD166m (€64m). This is relatively low in relation to total retail sales, which hit $15bn in 2016, according to consulting firm AT Kearney.
Efforts to improve payment capabilities have been under way since May 2015, when the Ministry of Communication Technologies and Digital Economy (Ministère des Technologies de la Communication et de l’Economie Numérique, MINCOM) launched the Digital Technology Charge Card, which allows users to make online purchases for software, mobile applications, web services and publications in support of entrepreneurial activities. Individual users are limited to TD1000 (€384) in annual purchases, but the programme has been expanded to IT companies, which can spend up to TD10,000 (€3840) annually. As of May 2017 MINCOM recorded about 8500 active cardholders. Given that around 34% of Tunisians do not possess a bank account (see Banking chapter), the charge cards should help more of the population access the e-commerce market and thus boost online sales.
Other efforts to facilitate online payments have been less successful, however. Ongoing discussions between MINCOM and US global payment system PayPal looked promising, with Anouar Maarouf, minister of communication technologies and digital economy, announcing in mid-May 2017 that negotiations to introduce the online payment service to Tunisia were on track. Less than a month later, however, PayPal announced that it was no longer continuing with the plans, providing no further explanation for its retraction. According to industry experts, PayPal insisted on clearance for the transfer of money from Tunisian accounts to international accounts; however, this condition is not in accordance with Central Bank of Tunisia (Banque Centrale de Tunisie, BCT) policy, which prohibits such transactions.
In response to PayPal’s withdrawal, MINCOM reportedly intends to contact other competing services, like US-headquartered Stripe and UK-headquartered Skrill. Additionally, this could push the BCT to consider the use of cryptocurrencies. Alternatives to online payment that already exist include an Android app created by software company Monetas, which allows Tunisians to transfer money instantly via their smartphones.
While efforts to foster a more liberalised and globally integrated payment system are proceeding slowly, the development of the Tunisian e-commerce market has continued to garner support from private sector players. The recent emergence of Tunisia as a start-ups market could help the online retail segment progress. Among the start-ups involved in e-commerce, online customer services developer Favizone was named the winner of the Tunisian leg of the 2018 Seedstars World start-ups competition.
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