Over the years Tunisia has become a regional hub for ICT thanks to a strong array of comparative advantages: a well-educated and competitive IT workforce, relatively low operating costs, close proximity to Europe, and a strong network of IT and telecoms infrastructure.
With the country facing increasing competition from neighbouring Morocco and more anglophone-oriented markets due to growing demand for English in offshoring activities, the Tunisian government is looking to implement policies designed to cement its population as a competitive and attractive IT-oriented market.
Tunisia’s IT sector is governed by many public actors. The Ministry of Communication Technologies and Digital Economy (Ministère des Technologies de la Communication et de l’Economie Numérique, MINCOM) is in charge of drafting general policies and overseeing their implementation with the objective of contributing to Tunisia’s socio-economic development. MINCOM is also in charge of developing international cooperation programmes, and maintaining relations with relevant international and regional organisations. Moreover, all public companies and organisations operating in the IT sector fall under MINCOM’s purview.
One example is the National Digital Certification Agency, which works with developers to secure online transactions and data exchanges – such as online banking and e-government activities – as well as manage digital certificates and licences. The Tunisian Internet Agency (Agence Tunisienne de l’Internet, ATI) is tasked with developing internet connectivity in Tunisia through the national exchange point TunIXP. The National IT Centre (Centre National de l’Informatique, CNI) is a public agency in charge of auditing the country’s IT sector while also supporting the deployment of IT systems in public administration offices.
In a MINCOM report published in December 2014, the digital economy was estimated to be worth around TD4.5bn (€1.9bn) that year, and the IT sector represented 7.2% of the country’s GDP. The same source named more than TD950m (€407.4m) in exports from the sector, or 2.7% of total Tunisian exports in 2014.
Tunisia’s internet usage has been steadily increasing in recent years, particularly since the launch of 3G in 2010. According to the International Telecommunications Union – the UN agency that gathers data on ICT usage around the world – the percentage of individuals using the internet in Tunisia in 2015 was 48.5%. That figure was up from 46.2% the prior year and up significantly from 9.7% in 2005. Tunisia was well ahead of neighbouring Algeria and Libya, where the percentage of individuals using the internet stood at 38.2% and 19%, respectively. Tunisia ranked behind only Morocco in North Africa, where the percentage of individuals using the internet was 57.1% that year.
According to the most recent data available from the same UN agency, 93.1% of households had access to mobile internet in 2014 (mainly 3G), whereas 17.1% of households had access to internet at home in 2012.
In May 2016 Egyptian web developer IPL media began testing a public Wi-Fi network in Tunisia in a bid to improve access to internet throughout the country. In partnership with local telecoms and internet providers Tunisie Telecom, Orange Tunisie and Ooredoo Tunisie, IPL media began testing its networks in the suburb of El Ghazala in northern Tunis.
Tunisia has well-developed ICT-related offshoring activities – such as call centres for business process outsourcing – with a turnover of around TD950m (€407.4m), or 1.2% of GDP, in 2014. And while the sector accounted for around 32,000 jobs that year, the offshoring business landscape is changing.
Although Tunisian engineers and ICT workers are highly qualified and known for their professional skills, call centres are declining. According to Omar Triki, head of marketing for the Middle East, Africa and Southern Europe at Sopra HR, this is likely due to high demand for English speakers, which Tunisia does not have an abundance of. “Tunisia’s existing IT facilities, such as smart villages and dedicated infrastructure for offshoring, is either ageing or lacking, which hinders Tunisia’s ability to further develop the industry and expand it across West Africa like Morocco does,” Triki told OBG.
Private engineering school ESPRIT operates a start-up incubator that supports a number of IT entrepreneurs in their projects, and is primarily aimed at innovation in the health and transportation sectors.
BeThree is one example of the projects supported by the ESPRIT incubator. BeThree is an internet of things bracelet with an algorithm to monitor the oxygen rate in the wearer’s blood, swift changes in heart rhythm and high blood pressure. The bracelet warns the wearer – as well as the wearer’s general practitioner and family members via GPS location – of a potential heart attack or stroke. Another start-up supported by the incubator is the Secure Drive Company, whose main goal is to reduce the number of car accidents in Tunisia. The company developed a miniature black box for cars to collect data on shocks and speed in order to alert the nearest hospital and the family of the car owner, via GPS location, when an accident occurs. Map My Tunisia is yet another project developed with the help of the ESPRIT incubator. The aim of the project is to passively use the smartphones of drivers to collect data on the state of traffic in order to warn other users of any road maintenance, slow traffic or traffic jams. The ESPRIT incubator provides IT entrepreneurs funding, coaching and specific teachings on how to sign with foreign partners to further develop their products.
One Tunisian start-up sucess story is that of Expensya, a system launched in 2014 that aims to help small and medium-sized enterprises more easily report their business expenses. This is accomplished through data collection on a mobile phone, which is then uploaded to private cloud storage for simpler data management and exporting. In June 2016 the company announced it had raised enough funding to continue expanding abroad and improving its technology. By the middle of 2016 the company was selling its services in 23 markets, including within the EU, the US and South Africa.
Tunisie Digitale is a part of the country’s National Strategic Plan (Plan National Stratégique, PNS) to develop Tunisia’s digital economy. According to Jawher Ferjaoui, CEO of the ATI, the PNS was first conceived in 2008 and launched in 2010 to cover an initial period spanning 2010-15. Ferjaoui explained that while the PNS was postponed following the 2011 revolution, it has since been reconceived.
Launched in 2014 for the 2014-18 period, Tunisie Digitale aims to develop the country’s ICT infrastructure and capitalise on the sector’s strengths to further the country’s socio-economic development. Tunisie Digitale also seeks to support and stimulate entrepreneurship and innovation in the ICT sector, as well as move towards an e-government platform, reduce inequality to IT access countrywide and change popular perceptions of the IT sector – namely trust. According to the 2014 statement, the strategy’s main goals are to increase the value of the digital economy from TD4.5bn (€1.9bn) to TD11bn (€4.7bn), and reach TD6bn (€2.6bn) in exports by 2018. On top of wanting to ensure that three out of every five households have access to the internet, the plan aims to create up to 95,000 new jobs by the end of its fifth year. The Tunisie Digitale PNS was renewed in 2015 to cover the period through to 2020.
Local internet and telecoms players have been providing cloud services to their customers for the past couple of years. Tunisiana, the pre-2014 branding of Ooredoo Tunisie, launched its cloud service in 2013 through its B-mail platform for businesses and professionals. The following year, Tunisiana signed a partnership with Google to extend its cloud services to a wider array of clients, as well as to mobile devices.
Prior to Tunisiana, local cloud operator Tunisie Electronique launched its cloud services in 2012. Two years later the company co-signed an agreement with Ooredoo, a Qatari-based telecoms provider, and ICT giant HP as part of Ooredoo Tunisie’s shift to develop and improve its own cloud services. Ooredoo continued to develop its cloud offerings in 2015 with the signature of an agreement with Cloud Temple Tunisia – a subsidiary of cybersecurity firm Intrinsec and the Poulina Holding Group. The agreement specifically targeted Ooredoo’s corporate clients, and was aimed at reinforcing the company’s cloud and cybersecurity. As a result of these efforts, ISO 27001 certification was awarded to Ooredoo’s cloud services in September 2016. The ISO 27001 certification is the international reference for data confidentiality, availability and integrity.
The Tunisian government is also looking to develop a cloud for its work. “A national private cloud is one of the government’s objectives under the PNS. Given the level of confidentiality required for the Tunisian government’s sovereign data, such as citizen registration data, this cannot be hosted abroad; the government cloud needs to be hosted locally,” Ferjaoui told OBG E-GOVERNMENT: Under the PNS’ Tunisie Digitale programme, the CNI is looking to boost e-government functions. “The PNS will transform the Tunisian administration by digitising it and making it more transparent, reactive, efficient, and closer to citizens and economic actors,” Sofiene Hemissi, CEO of the CNI, told OBG.
The government is looking to establish an inter-ministry network to share digital information between the different ministries, all while preserving data confidentiality and citizens’ right to privacy. In addition, the government is working on implementing a unique login number for its citizens that will allow them to upload their personal data (such as date of birth and social security) and share that data with the relevant ministries. “Doing so would simplify the bureaucracy, but it is a lengthy legal process. The authorities are consulting legal experts and civil society to find the best way to regulate and protect the data, as well as control its access and use,” Hemissi added.
Nurtured by a young, dynamic and educated population of ICT engineers and developers, the Tunisian IT and related sectors are likely to continue their expansion. Thanks to major government initiatives such Tunisie Digitale, the country is looking to further boost technological capabilities by supporting entrepreneurs and innovators in the IT sector, as well as further digitising the government and its processes.
“Tunisia is especially well placed for developing cloud services and high-speed internet, given that all the needed server capacity can now be found in-country,” Elyes Ben Sassi, general manager at internet service provider Topnet, told OBG.
However, obstacles to the sector’s growth remain. In order for Tunisia’s IT sector to properly mature, the public and private sectors must work together to upgrade existing technoparks and IT infrastructure, as well as open additional digital centres to enable young entrepreneurs to create. “The success of start-ups in Tunisia will depend on simpler administrative procedures and on better support, both financial and structural, from incubators and financial institutions,” Ben Sassi added. All these efforts should attract additional offshoring companies to develop their operations in the country.
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