Tunisia: Supporting IT start-ups
In a bid to spark greater entrepreneurship and innovation in one of Tunisia’s key service sectors, the government has sought to improve support for start-up firms in the information technology sector.
In late February, the African Development Bank (AfDB) and the country’s largest serviced IT zone, Elgazala Technopark, joined forces to set up the Tunisian Start-Up Index (TSi). The TSi will regularly assess the capabilities and competencies of local IT firms and make that information available to the public and potential investors.
A workshop introduced local start-up firms to the new framework structure, as well as registered participating companies with the TSi. The index follows similar projects in South Africa and Malaysia which have supported and encouraged the development of IT start–ups..
It is hoped that by registering themselves on the TSi, local start-ups will gain greater visibility from the global IT market, which may lead to interest from venture capital and private equity firms.
There are more than 1800 private ICT firms currently active in the country, ranging from global behemouths such as Microsoft and Nokia Siemens down to smaller start-up outfits, such as Dealoo, a local flash sale website. Estimates for homegrown tech starts-up range up to around 100 or so, according to local media, with a wide variety of services ranging from business advisory firms, such as Business Web Services (BWS), which offers outsourcing solutions, to website creation and marketing services outfits, such as Houidi.
Others include web marketing and communications firms, multimedia agencies, call centre services to clients in Europe seeking to access the Tunisian market and agricultural management.
In a region where internet usage is often modest at best, the level of IT innovation and sophistication in Tunisia has long been one of the sector’s key engines. Even before the so-called “Facebook revolution” that ousted former President Ben Ali, Tunisia had long had one of the most dynamic ICT sectors in the Middle East and North Africa region. In 2009, the sector’s contribution to overall GDP was around 11.5%, up from 3.9% in 2001. More recently, in the 2010-11 period, the AfDB ranked the country 35th in the world in terms of ICT development.
A lof the country’s performance can be traced back to its status as an early adopter of technology services, prompted in part by the need to develop the economy’s tertiary sector given the limited scope for agricultural and extractive production. In 1996, the Ministry of Communication Technologies (MCT) set up the Tunisian Internet Agency (Agence Tunisienne d’Internet, ATI) as regulator, followed in 1997 by the El Gazala Technopark .
The proliferation of content and services – both homegrown and imported – that focuses on the information and communications technology sector in Tunisia is perhaps not surprising given the rapid development of internet infrastructure in the country. The spread of the internet has grown rapidly from 2.8m subscribers in 2008 to 3.5m in 2009, representing 27% and 33.4% of the population, respectively,to more than 4m in 2011, according to the ATI.
The potential for mobile internet growth is also high, with the number of mobile subscribers reaching 9.75m in 2009, an increase of 1m, or 13.37%, from the 8.6m recorded in 2008. With a population of around 10.5m people, the mobile market is rapidly approaching saturation.
For the majority of the country’s internet users, access comes from a subscription to an asymmetric digital subscriber line (ADSL). ADSL users accounted for up to 75.5% of all internet subscriptions in 2008, up from 45.1% in 2007. Broadband subscriptions, however, remain low. In 2008, only 2% of the population were recorded as having one.
In September 2010, the country’s telecoms regulator, the National Authority of Telecommunications of Tunisia (Instance Nationale des Télécommunications, INT), announced its long-term strategy on broadband internet and how it planned to improve its effectiveness. The INT commissioned the local Telecommunications Study & Research Centre (Centre d’Etudes et de Recherche des Télécommunications, CERT) and UK-based Epitiro to carry out a broadband study on the main internet service providers (ISPs) in the country.
The aim was to analyse broadband speeds, file download speeds and reliability of service, particularly during peak periods of usage. The survey involved the top-five private sector internet service providers: Globalnet, Hexabyte, Topnet, Tunet and Planet.