The historical building of Basilique Saint Pierre in Kef, Tunisia, recently hosted an event to mark the holy month of Ramadan and to launch a new action plan for supporting young start-ups in Tunisia.

Alongside our partner, IACE, SPARK staff introduced the tri-factor action plan and how it would work in the context of our Local Employment in Africa for Development (LEAD) programme. The plan consists of a mentoring programme, an accelerator programme and an entrepreneurship competition.

Young businesses, dear as a child

“We wanted to gather young entrepreneurs under one roof to introduce our programme and encourage them to make use of these resources in order to grow their businesses”, explained Mohammed Abdel Karim, SPARK’s LEAD Manager in Tunisia.

The 40 attendees seemed curious but a little sceptical. The majority of the entrepreneurs own businesses established no longer than two years ago: early seeds that could be promising if propagated well. While close proximity to Europe allows Tunisian businesses to benefit from the European market, it also challenges them to compete with international products and services.

It’s a tough world out there

Salma, the owner of a wooden decoration business, attended the event hoping to gain insight and support to overcome the challenging shortage of supply. “Besides marketing problems, I’m mainly concerned about the lack of supplies and raw material. It holds my business back and limits my competitive edge”, she said.

Dr. Majdi Hassen, the Project Manager and Executive Director of IACE, explained that: “entrepreneurs can enroll in one of our locally tailored programmes, designed to help sustain and grow their businesses”. In response to Salma’s concerns he said: “your commitment boosts our determination to support your business”.

A promise is a promise

More and more questions from the entrepreneurs continued to be answered, long into the evening. Discussions of shared challenges erupted and solutions were offered amongst the young business men and women. While some entrepreneurs couldn’t wait to sign themselves up to the programmes on offer, others were struggling with empty promises that had been made to them by other organisations. “I’ve been promised funding several times in order to broaden my business, but it never happened”, said Mohammed, a 29 year old entrepreneur.

Dr Majdi Hassen explained that: “our role is to offer expertise and access to a network of enterprises to help start-ups grow and stand on their own feet. We will push for positive changes where possible but, of course, the government gets the final word.”

Arab spring brought much more than a spring

Since the Arab Spring in 2011, Tunisia’s economy has struggled to provide jobs for the 15% of unemployed young Tunisians; one third of whom are university graduates. In order to overcome the education-employment gap, young Tunisians are taking the lead by launching start-ups. Tunisian youth are creating a movement and contributing considerably to local economies. Yet they face structural challenges everyday, which threaten their fragile businesses. Limited access to legal and technical mentoring, public funding and unfriendly banking systems are among the challenges yet to overcome.