Interview: Hosni Boufaden

In what ways will the textile growth and competitiveness pact support the sector’s recovery?

HOSNI BOUFADEN: The agreement is the culmination of a process that began in May 2017. Back then the sector was going through a recession that cost the economy nearly 400,000 jobs and saw the country fall from being the 12th to the eighth-largest textile exporter worldwide. Therefore, the decision was taken to develop a medium-term strategy for the recovery of the sector. This vision was presented to the government, and a growth and competitiveness pact was signed in February 2019.

The agreement includes seven strategic development objectives – the main element of which is vertical integration – along with 11 projects in activities such as spinning, knitting, weaving and dyeing. Specifically, the textiles sector seeks to reduce its dependence on the import of raw materials and to triple its levels of value added by 2023 to reach between 35% and 40%. The pact also focuses on the creation of different steps specific to each segment of the sector in collaboration with the Export Development Centre. In addition, a new approach combining the social and environmental responsibilities of textile companies is being rolled out nationwide. Lastly, the pact encourages job creation in regional areas and directs investment towards higher-value industries. These efforts will be supported by a public-private investment fund, 20% financed by a deposit and consignment fund. A one percentage point increase in the market share of the EU would correspond to 40,000 new jobs in Tunisia, and – given that coastal areas are already saturated – growth will likely be directed to inland regions.

To what extent can competency building contribute to higher value-added activities?

BOUFADEN: Competency building can be undertaken at either the academic or professional level. In the case of professional competency building, the concrete needs of companies must be integrated in the training. Therefore, a new cooperation agreement has been signed between ourselves, the Tunisian Union of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts, and the Ministry of Vocational Training and Employment.

This partnership aims to develop apprenticeship programmes: rather than training professionals without taking into account the practical needs of companies, students will alternately take classes at a university and then undertake training at a textile firm.

These programmes offer participants the opportunity to develop business skills, and allows companies in the sector the opportunity to showcase the benefits of working in the textile industry. Other pilot schemes concern intra-company training. Academic competency building must develop the skills of students and staff to support a transition towards more a capital intensive and productive industry. To this end, the National Engineering School of Monastir has set up an agreement with the University of Munich for the first textile engineering degree in Tunisia.

How can trade with the EU be increased?

BOUFADEN: In 2018 Tunisia exported over €2.4bn worth of garments to the EU and was the only top-10 exporter to the EU to experience a growth in trading volumes, despite having less favourable trading agreements than other countries. For example, some countries have signed unique processing agreements with the EU, while Tunisia trades with the EU under the a double processing regime. This means Tunisian companies must source raw materials from within the EU to export without Customs duties. Our textiles professionals are willing to cooperate towards building a regulatory framework that takes into account the interests of both EU and Tunisian textile manufacturers. Compatibility exists between Tunisian exporters and EU firms; each party understands the other’s respective strengths and weaknesses, and Tunisia has the necessary capacity to adapt to the needs of EU firms.