So this past month, I finally took up a pending invitation to visit Tunis, ostensibly to attend the 3rd Demo Day of the Flat6Labs Tunis accelerator, but also to connect and engage with the local ecosystem, as part of our Afropreneurs Fund’s North Africa strategy.
While I had visited Morocco a few years earlier, and spent lots of time in Egypt over the past few years, Tunisia (Ifriqiyya) was a country I knew little about, either from a tech ecosystem point of view or even as an avowed tourist.
Arriving in Tunis
I landed at the Tunis Carthage International Airport on a Wednesday morning. While it wasn’t an impressive airport in terms of size or structure (compared to the Cairo airport, it did look like a small regional or local airport), it made up for what it lacked in size, with the ease with which I passed Immigration Control, exchanged some money into the local currency, got a free sim card from the Orange kiosk and loaded 2Gb of data on it, and got out of the airport. It did help though that I didn’t check in any luggage.
No Uber, No Careem!
Disappointingly, there is a stark absence of ride-sharing companies in Tunis. No Uber, and not even the Careem I had grown to enjoy as an alternative in my travels across North Africa and the GCC region. My friend Kyane, who had facilitated the trip had told me to just hop into one of the airport yellow taxis and insist the driver turns on his ‘adad’ (meter). He advised the cost from the airport (which is surprisingly in the middle of the town) to my hotel shouldn’t exceed about 6-10 dinars ( about 2-3 USD).
However, I tried three different yellow cabs, and they refused to use meters, so I had to take one, and on the assumption that I was Ivorien or Malian, he engaged me in French all the way to the hotel, while I just nodded blankly. We arrived the hotel, and the guy insisted on collecting 20 dinars, and I refused, and gave him 10 dinars. It took the intervention of the hotel concierge before I agreed to pay him the balance.
(Side note- while French was actually a compulsory language in junior secondary school in Nigeria while I was growing up, we never took it serious as it sounded quite funny and musical to our ears. We liked the way the usually pretty French teachers pronounced ‘encore’ and ‘repete’, and all I took away from three years of French beyond it being the only red spot on my termly report cards- was Bonjour, Bonsoir, Viens, Je mapelle, Monsieur and Madame).
I had been booked at the 5-star Hotel Laico Tunis in the downtown district and just off the intersection of Avenue Mohamed V and Avenue du Ghana. While I wasn’t disappointed by the hotel in both its imposing edifice and the comforts it promised to offer, I knew I didn’t have lots of time to indulge as I had a very busy schedule lined up.
Work-space or Hotel?
Very soon I was off to my first set of meetings at Cogite Coworking Space (heart of the ecosystem, equivalent to Egypt’s Greek campus, but much smaller). Had great discussions with Afef and got an overview of the space which is quite centrally located. I wasn’t surprised to hear it had won awards for best working space several times, with the beautiful indoors, and even the garden outside which had, wait for it, a swimming pool! The work space hosted quite a variety of folks from developers to journalists. Interesting to hear over 40% of the hub members are female.
I also liked this nice outdoor space constructed by one of their startups-Prefabulous.
Thank you Afef and team for a good tour.
Lunch time came, and I stopped by one of the outdoor restaurants nearby, to order some hot chocolate and pastries. The lady rambled on and on in French while I looked on like Dundee United before I suddenly remembered that Tunisia was supposed to be a dual-language country, and I had indeed seen several signs in both Arabic and French.
So I replied her back in passable Arabic , but she replied back in French again, until I was forced to say ‘Je ne parles pas francais’ or what I hope sounded close to that, at which point she now started responding in Arabic. I was like, Aunty, where did you leave that one before?
Anyways, that was when the realization occurred to me that she, like many Tunisians, probably thought most black folks spoke French (as most black people in Tunis I was to learn, were from Ivory Coast as they didn’t require a visa to enter the country) and also, they used French and Arabic interchangeably. By the way hot chocolate here isn’t the usual plenty of milk with a smattering of chocolate, it is truly cocoa with just some milk. It was so thick and bitter I couldn’t finish it!
Very soon I was off to the main event I was in town for, the Flat6Labs Demo Day, which was holding at the Acropolium of Carthage. The Acropolium, also known as Saint Louis Cathedral , is a Roman Catholic church located in Carthage, Tunisia and completed in 1880. The cathedral sits on the peak of Byrsa Hill, near the ruins of the ancient Punic and then Roman city. Since 1993, the cathedral has been known as the “Acropolium”. It is no longer used for worship, but instead hosts public events or concerts of Tunisian music and classical music.
For history buffs, the Carthage (Arabic: قرطاج, Qarṭāj) dates back to first millennium BC and the legendary Queen Dido who is regarded as the founder of the city, having been granted by the local tribe to purchase an amount of land that could be covered by an oxhide. Smart woman, she cut the ox skin into strips, she laid out her claim and founded an empire that would become, through the Punic Wars, the only existential threat to Rome until the coming of the Vandals several centuries later. Ok that’s enough, this is not an history class! Google Hannibal if you like history though!
Back to the Demo Day, it was an awesomely attended event, and I probably met about 90% of the ecosystem at that single event, which was well executed. Startups that demo-ed included MooMe, a system and platform designed to help farmers improve the fertility and health of their livestock, Seemba, a solution to help mobile game developers to monetize, TIRA Robots focused on creating industrial robots for industry, Fabskill , an online recruitment management platform, Boostiny, Grabingo, and eRobot.
When you realize that compared to Nigeria’s 180 million population, Tunisia is about 12 million people, and Tunis has about two million people for Lagos’ fifteen million people, I was pleasantly surprised by the size of the crowd that filled the hall. As one of the stakeholders told me, ‘we are a very small ecosystem, so the only way to thrive is to work closely with each other and support each other’. Big Lessons there!
Side Note: During the demo day, one of the key stats celebrated was the growth of investment into the startup sector in 2018 to $20m. This seemed small coming from Nigeria, where a single portfolio company of ours had done just that last year but I was later to understand why this was so.
Demo Day over, my host took me to experience fresh fish and some Tunisian salad at the La Goulette area just by the Lake of Tunis before I called it a day!
A New Day!
Next day, I was off for my morning meetings and tour of B@tlabs. I missed breakfast and made a mental note to myself to stop booking breakfast along with my hotels as more often than not, I usually don’t feel like going for breakfast especially when traveling alone.
B@tLabs is an incubator launched by Tunisia’s leading private bank, Banque Internationale Arabe de Tunisie (BIAT) and is prominently located on probably the most famous street in Tunis- Avenue- Habib Bourguiba- which is the central thoroughfare of Tunis, and the historical political and economic heart of Tunisia. It bears the name of the first President of the Republic of Tunisia and the national leader of the Tunisian independence movement, and actually has his statue there too.
It is lined up with shops and cafes on both sides similar to the Champs-Élysées in Paris, and its extension, the Avenue de France, Place de l’Indépendance marking the central roundabout with Lake of Tunis at the eastern end. Many of the important monuments are located along this avenue, including Cathedral of St. Vincent de Paul, French Embassy in Tunisia and Théâtre municipal de Tunis. During the protests of 2011, many demonstrations calling for the downfall of President Ben Ali and that of the national unity government were held on the avenue.
Lunch off the Beaten Bath!
After a tour and discussion, the CEO, Nooman Fehri (who was ex-Minister of ICT after the revolution and credited with creating the Startup Act and driving the growth) who is widely known and respected in the ecosystem took me off the usual path to partake in some authentic local cuisine, deep into the Medina, at what is apparently a world-famous local restaurant- Khairi Restaurant- which has no signboards but surprisingly has an active Facebook page. He mentioned that this is one place where you can run into a cleaner and a bank owner at the same table. The food was out of this world and the owner excellent! #Khairi #Burghul #Couscous #Octopus
The Rest of the Ecosystem
That same afternoon I was privileged to also visit with several key actors in the local ecosystem including Khaled ben Jilani of AfricInvest who I had met last year at an E&Y venture capital event in Luxembourg. I also met with Zakaria Belkhoja , the astute CFO of Meninx Holdings, a family controlled investment company managing a diversified portfolio across various sectors and the brain behind the growing startup scene here through Le15, and also involved in revitalizing the downtown area. Meninx hosts Flat6Labs Tunis in its beautiful building located at the intersection of the tram, train, and bus terminals.
And that was the end of a very busy day. Well almost, except that around midnight I was feeling hungry and went into the streets to get some really delicious shawarma from the late night street vendors!
Friday was another busy day of meetings and visits, kicking off with the very young, but super-smart Haythem Mehouachi, CEO of Diva Sicar, the investment team managing the government’s Fund of Funds for startups. He is also a member of the Task Force in charge of the Startup Act, the bill recently passed in the Assembly, and of Startup Tunisia, the national initiative that “works to make Tunisia a nation of Startups at the crossroads of the southern shores of the Mediterranean, the MENA region and the Africa”.
I thereafter visited Flat6Labs Tunis for a tour and presentation by about ten of their startups . In addition to the Startup pitches from the demo-day, others included Chantier , a Home Remodeling platform, and WattNow, which I found quite similar to Nigeria’s Solstice Energy and Kenya’s Modularity Grid
Another interesting meeting was with Mahdi Njim of Intilaq ,Tunisia’s main VC, which is a partnership between Microsoft, Ooredoo, and Qatar Friendship Fund. Probably the the most active VC/accelerator in Tunisia (with over 26 investments in the last 4 years), it strictly focuses on B2B firms. I got pitched on five of their top startups ;Datavora, a web scale E-Commerce monitor for B2C actors, Symmetryk, a sales enablement platform for pharma laboratories, Roam Smart, a leading provider of innovative Roaming and Big Data Solutions to mobile operators, Ezzayra, focused on Agtech, AgRobotics, and Polysmart , a very hot gaming startup.
On the way home, I stopped by at another gaming startup, DigitalMania which has a new VR-based team building game , and at Go My Code, one of the exciting coding schools in the region founded by a 21 year old geek.
Its a good day that ends on a foodful note!
Well after my last meeting on Friday, I couldn’t wait for the weekend to come fast enough to explore some of the other sides of Tunis. So kicking off Friday night, I had Kyane take me to some other less fancy parts of town to eat .
Key Takeaways from the Tech Tourism
Before I jump to how I spent the weekend sightseeing, here are some key takeaways from my conversations with stakeholders in the ecosystem.
The focus here is largely on deep tech because they have a small population and B2C is tough, hence more companies do B2B. Also the talent is plenty, strong (good educational systems grounded in math and science) and cheap as there aren’t that many multinationals to soak up the talent or pay good salaries (the exchange rate is $1-3 TDNR, so in naira terms the salaries may still be high though). Also, most design and manufacture for their startups is done locally and quite cost-competitive even compared to China.
I got insights into why the amount of funding into the Tunisian ecosystem is low (only $20m last year as compared to $160m in Nigeria)- because some of the funding goes into Tunisian nationals who decide to establish in France (and hence get captured as France funding) and also because the local/surrounding market is small, so the entrepreneurs stretch the seed funds a long way (talent is cheap) and the goal is usually not to sell the company at high valuations as happens with B2C but really to sell the technology or be acquired by bigger companies in US and Europe as acqu-hires.
Apparently, Tunisia has the strongest mathematics-based functional public education system in Africa, and this is creating lots of developers and engineers. Learned Tunisia currently tops Africa in number of published research annually, and has over 70 functioning research institutes and 30 technology transfer offices.
Of 137 countries in 2018 ranked on the Global Entrepreneurship Index (GEI), which measures the “quality and dynamics of entrepreneurship ecosystems at a national and regional level” , Tunisia ranked 40th overall, sixth in the Middle East and North Africa region and first in Africa.
Here Comes the Weekend!
Saturday morning we went to the Lac area, where I ‘borrowed’ a bike to take a long ride along the beach, before heading to El Marsa, the old summer capital of pre-colonial Tunisia, which is where the upper class seem to live, and is today a popular vacation spot for many wealthy Tunisians. It is connected to Tunis by the railway and a nice road with good views.
And because tourism is never complete without good food, we went for a nice lunch at the Le Safsaf restaurant.
Who visits Tunisia without going to Sidi Bou Said?
Thereafter I visited ‘Sidi Bou Said’ which everyone had mentioned I needed to visit. Its really a small old French village painted mostly in blue and white on the shores of the ocean. Named for a religious figure who lived there, Abu Said al-Baji, it was previously called Jabal el-Menar.
Practiced some haggling and negotiation tactics at the tourist market cutting off almost 50% on the stated prices of my purchases.
Later that evening I met my first Nigerian in Tunis (who runs a thriving hair salon along with his wife) in the El-Aouina area (pronounced Lawina by the Africans I met) and he invited me to join their weekly Nigerians In Diaspora Organization (NIDO) football practice the next day.
Le Medina- the heart of Tunis
So Sunday came and I spent the morning doing a mini-tour of Habib Bourghuiba Ave and Le Medina again, especially the 7 famous mosques as seen from the roof of one of the tallest buildings.
Le Medina has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979 and is said to contain some hundreds of monuments, including palaces, mosques, mausoleums, madrasas and fountains dating from the Almohad and the Hafsid periods. Founded in 698 around the original core of the Zitouna Mosque, the Medina of Tunis developed throughout the Middle Ages.
Took a taxi to Danfaddal to join the soccer practice, and this is how I summarized the experience in pidgin!
As our people dey talk so golden fish no got hide. Na im naija embassy hear say ah dey town na so dem carry me follow play Sunday football with NIDO Tunisia. As I no fit tell dem say I no dey form after all di couscous I don consume dis week na im ah tell dem say I no carry kit come.
Dem say e no matter, make ah leave matter for Mathias and sabi for Sabinus make ah do goalkeeper.
As say when monkey sef see tree wey near tree, he go dey wan show himself, na im me too come dey jump up and down dey try catch ball.
Five minutes never pass sef before I dey see di kain shot the boys dey faya come realize say na professional boys wey get stuck for Tunisia on the way to Europe na im dem carry me come play, no be the small area boys wey Suraj dey follow play for him area.
Anyways as dem fire one ball bend ma hand na him one man wey see as my face strong kara Kara come realize say because agama lizard dey nod head no mean say everything dey OK, na him he con borrow me brain make ah no dey try catch all the balls o.
As per say na fly wey no get special adviser na im dey follow dead bodi enta grave, na im me too don come dey use Cava and bien take style dodge ball until game over. Shukran lillahi. Merci beacoup. Koku Baboni!”
Had my first spicy meal of grilled fish and plantain (dodo) at an Ivorien restaurant, and I was officially done.
Au revoir Tunis!
One other takeaway from my trip is that what resonated in discussions with ecosystem stakeholders was not even our slides (which I didn’t get a chance to present sometimes, and had to hurry through a few times) but our story.
Every time, everyone connected with our story as LoftyInc founders who returned home from living abroad to launch one of Nigeria’s first tech innovation hubs, Wennovation Hub. To sustain that financially, we leveraged local and diaspora talent to build a strong professional practice around innovation advisory and project implementation for corporates, international agencies and the public sector.
This also enabled WeHub to expand the hubs from one to four cities. We then leveraged diaspora networks to raise an angel fund, which has achieved 15x returns with success stories including Andela and Flutterwave, raising $220M from top follow-on investors, many from Silicon Valley. With support from our Silicon Valley-area based long time advisor, we are now launching a new, larger VC fund- The LoftyInc Afropreneurs Fund– to accommodate our robust deal flow from diaspora returning and from local entrepreneurs remaining home. Our Afropreneurs are passionate about solving big problems for vast populations by leveraging low-cost, scalable platforms.