Strategic location a plus for Tunisia's ICT sector

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Bolstered by a well-educated workforce, competitive costs, proximity to Europe and broadly good telecoms infrastructure, Tunisia has emerged as a regional centre for IT-related industries and export-oriented industries such as offshoring and business process outsourcing (BPO), though it is facing growing competition from nearby markets like Egypt and Morocco. A vibrant start-up community is also helping the country move up the value chain, and it is home to an increasing number of local companies producing and exporting proprietary content.

Internet Use

Internet use has been growing rapidly in recent years, driven by factors such as the launch of 3G mobile internet services in 2010. The International Telecommunications Union put the percentage of individuals using internet in 2014 at 46.2%, up from 43.8% the previous year and 8.5% a decade earlier. Usage is below that of North African peer Morocco, with 56.8%, which is in part a result of earlier adoption of mobile internet services in Morocco in 2008. However, it is well above neighbours Algeria and Libya with 18.1% and 17.8%, respectively.

Economic Contribution

The National Institute of Statistics does not publish data on the IT sector specifically as part of its breakdown of Tunisia’s national accounts. However, the Ministry of Communication Technologies and Digital Economy (Ministère des Technologies de la Communication et de l’ Economie Numérique, MINCOM) estimates the size of the digital economy at TD4.5bn (€2.1bn). According to a late 2014 report from the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research, the ICT sector as a whole accounted for 7.5% of GDP in 2014, which, given that the telecoms and postal sector made up 4.8% of GDP for the year, suggests that the IT sector contributes in the region of 2.7% to national GDP.

Competitive Advantages

Key competitive advantages held by the sector include a well-trained workforce strongly versed in ICT, with around 10,000 Tunisian IT engineers graduating from the country’s universities every year. Industry players note the high calibre of sector-specific skills as well as increasingly strong soft skills valued by employers. managing director of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Tunisia, told OBG that there has recently been an improvement in some areas, especially in the soft skills of graduates from country’s private universities. “Graduates are adaptable and open to learning, which is a strong point,” he said. The sector also benefits from good infrastructure, including the highest per capita internet bandwidth in the region, although high international telecoms costs can be a handicap (see Telecoms overview).

Development Strategy

In June 2014 the government launched Tunisie Digitale 2018, a national strategy for the development of the local digital economy. The government described the key aims of the strategy as the transformation of Tunisia into an “international digital destination”, increasing job creation and socioeconomic development through measures such as the provision of high-speed internet access and greater uptake and use of ICT across the board. The plan also aims to double the size of the digital economy’s GDP from around TD4.5bn (€2.1bn) in 2014 to TD9bn (€4.1bn), as well as to boost ICT exports from TD950m (€435.7m) to TD4bn (€1.8bn).

In November 2015 the government renamed the plan “Tunisie Digitale 2020” and said that it would be revised to take into account the administration’s objectives under its five-year general economic development plan for the 2016-20 period. The strategy has four main pillars: expansion of telecoms infrastructure; implementation of e-government initiatives; e-business projects; and the Smart Tunisia programme. The last of these is a five-year, public-private partnership plan launched in November 2015 that focuses on ICT-oriented offshoring and near-shoring activities, with the aim of making Tunisia the leading francophone offshoring centre in the region. In total, the government aims to create 100,000 jobs, including 50,000 through Smart Tunisia, with a budget allocation of over €500m. The Tunisie Digitale 2020 strategy also outlines financial aid to foreign investors to support job creation and employee training, as well as to help firms set up offices in the country’s technopoles, or technology-oriented business parks. “The government has understood that the sector represents a very big opportunity for Tunisia,” said Smaoui, adding that there was strong support for the industry from ministers dealing with the issue.

Technoparks

The establishment of technopoles is designed to support sector growth by offering competitive rents to sector companies. One such facility is the software development-oriented El Gazala Technopole. The park, which hosts around 90 companies, includes start-ups, small and medium-sized enterprises, and ICT firms. The park’s main site is located on the northern outskirts of Tunis. However, it has also been expanding through the launch in 2011 of the first phase of an affiliated site, the 54-ha Manouba Technopark, located in eastern Tunis, as well as 18 regional cyberparks. Elsewhere, the Sfax Technopole is focused on the ICT segment, as well multimedia. Smaoui, for whose company the government built a purpose-built office in the El Gazala Technopole, told OBG that such initiatives were important for the development of the sector, as suitable real estate could otherwise be difficult to find. He told OBG, “Generally, real estate infrastructure in Tunisia is not ideal for BPO business.”

Public Sector Market

The public sector dominates the domestic IT market in the country. Imed Ayadi, director-general of operations at local consulting and IT outsourcing firm Wevioo, estimates that it accounted for around 80% of domestic industry turnover, and the authorities have been taking initiatives to step up IT use in public administration in recent years. Following the revolution in 2011 the government launched a new e-strategy aimed at increasing the use of ICT for the provision of government services and improving inter-operability between government departments and entities.

Shortly after the announcement of Tunisie Digitale 2020, Marouane Ben Said, assistant to the head of the MINCOM, said the authorities were also aiming to achieve a goal of “zero paper” in local government in 2016 as services increasingly move online. Sector players are thus awaiting the relaunch of major government IT projects, particularly in the areas of e-government and e-health.

However, Ayadi told OBG that administrative problems in government were having a negative impact on market development. He said, “There is a need to spend at least $3bn-5bn to develop public IT systems; however, money is not the only issue and sometimes the authorities have the funds to spend on projects, but do not have people capable of delivering them. Part of the problem is that a large gap has opened up between public and private sector pay in the recruit well-qualified people to run IT projects.”

Data Centres & The Cloud

The data centre and cloud segment has started to develop rapidly in recent years. Major local economic players are entering the segment. For example, in September 2015 local industrial conglomerate Poulina Group Holding, one of the largest companies in the country, opened a 1200-sq-metre Tier 3+ data centre, known as DataXion, the biggest of its type in Tunisia to date. The company already established a joint venture cloud computing firm, Cloud Temple Tunisia, with French IT security player Intrinsec in 2014.

Telecoms operators are also entering the market. In January 2015 Tunisie Télécom opened a new data centre, followed in June 2015 by the launch of its cloud solutions service, TT Cloud, which encompasses a range of infrastructure-as-a-service (IAAS) offerings, including cloud storage, virtual private cloud and virtual private server services.

In April 2015 Ooredoo Tunisie launched a software-as-a-service cloud service, allowing firms to access software solutions through the cloud via a monthly subscription, having previously launched various IAAS offerings in late 2014.

Ayadi argued that a key way in which the government could boost the development of the sector would be to update aspects of the regulatory framework for data management. “Public policy changes that would help include a clear policy on data protection and data availability,” he told OBG. “For example, there are grey areas when it comes to data location issues, such as the consequences of moving sensitive data from Tunisia to the cloud.” He added that regulations should also spell out penalties for data becoming unavailable due to system outages.

Offshoring

ICT-related offshoring activities, such as call centres and BPO, are well developed in Tunisia, with a sector turnover of around TD950m (€435.7m), equivalent to around 1.2% of GDP in 2014, according to MINCOM figures. The sector also accounted for 32,000 jobs in 2014. The authorities aim to raise these figures to TD3.5bn (€1.6bn) and 82,000, respectively, by 2018. As with the IT sector as a whole, one of the segment’s leading advantages is its competitive workforce. “One of the main attractions of Tunisia as an IT outsourcing centre is the availability of labour, and if provided with the right management and the right training, companies can get excellent value out of graduates,” Ayadi told OBG.

According to Smart Tunisia, the salary for a newly graduated engineer is around $13,000. Smaoui told OBG, “Labour costs are among the lowest in the region and the recent fall in the value of the dinar has further bolstered its attractiveness, making Tunisia extremely competitive as a nearshoring destination.”

Good Choice

Despite the country’s ties to France, the sector is also well placed to serve Anglophone markets. Smaoui said, “The availability of English-speaking people in the IT sector is good. Indeed, thanks to a number of private universities with a strong emphasis on English, currently we are finding more candidates speaking good English than French.”

Elyes Jeribi, executive-director of Smart Tunisia, told OBG that BPO activities, in particular for human resources (HR) and finance, were the most promising niche in the segment. “BPO is a major trend in the international outsourcing world, and Tunisia has an abundance of skilled labour in the area,” Jeribi said. However, Omar Triki, head of marketing for the Middle East, Africa and Southern Europe at local HR management software developer Sopra HR, warned that neighbouring countries were catching up with Tunisia. “Five years ago Tunisia was way ahead of Morocco and Egypt, but they have since caught up to an extent, in particular Egypt, thanks to initiatives such as the construction of smart villages,” he told OBG.

Local Content

While the offshoring sector is the best-known source of ICT-oriented exports, the country is witnessing more local content development. “There is lots of potential for Tunisia to emerge as an IT and software development centre,” said Triki. “Especially since the revolution, there have been a lot of initiatives to encourage entrepreneurship from non-governmental organisations, as well as international donors and lenders.”

Tunisian news site Kapitalis reported in February 2016 that the push to invest in start-ups is largely coming from young Tunisian graduates who face an education-employment gap. While there is no official count, the number of local start-ups is estimated to be several thousand. Newcomers include Secure Drive, founded in 2015, which specialises in embedded systems for road safety. The company’s product offers assistance reports during road accidents, as well as helps improve the reaction time of local authorities, particularly in rural areas. E-Taxi, an app similar to Uber in the US, has also gained popularity.

The availability of qualified labour in the segment is also good. “Firms can quickly ramp up capacity to meet project requirements. For example, one could find 10 or 15 Java programmers for a project in a few days,” said Triki. Mobile apps are one of the key areas of focus in the segment. “Lots of local firms are now working on app development,” Mohamed Ben Rhouma, CEO of Tunisian mobile phone manufacturer Evertek, told OBG, adding that his own firm was developing mobile applications. “We are initially focusing on educational content, but will expand to other kinds of apps later.” He added that the firm was aiming to launch its first products in 2016.

Private Sector Services

There is also scope for expanding private sector spending on IT products and services. “Private companies do not tend to invest heavily in IT,” Ayadi told OBG. “The market was not that open before the revolution and the rules have not changed a great deal since then. The banking sector, for example, only recently started to build up global banking IT systems that should have been developed 10 years ago.”

As is the case in many North African economies, intellectual property issues have also limited the development of the domestic market. However, industry figures say this is changing, as there is now greater political will to curtail the use of pirated software, which has been widespread for a long time.

Outlook

IT and related sectors appear set for further rapid expansion in the coming years. Provided the focus on investment and development of value-added projects continues, there is strong potential for growth in areas such as nearshoring thanks to the high quality of human resources. matures, there are also hopes of moving up the value chain to develop and sell more content.

Meanwhile, local companies are starting to open data centres, providing a range of associated offerings such as software-as-a-service. An increasing number of start-ups are entering the market and more locally developed intellectual property, such as software and hardware solutions, is being produced. If sustained, this could see Tunisia emerge as not only a subcontracting and offshoring destination, but as a country that exports new products in its own right.

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The Report: Tunisia 2016

Telecoms & IT chapter from The Report: Tunisia 2016

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The Report

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