Tunisia: Reflecting on a Transformative Visit

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Exploring the temple in the ancient Roman town of Uthina

As our farewell dinner came to an end, each student on the Tunisia Global Immersion Program shared their main lesson learned from a week spent learning about the business environment in North Africa. A few common themes surfaced throughout our discussion of Tunisian history, culture, and business, including:

  • Entrepreneurship: many of our students were impressed by the dedication that Tunisians show towards fostering a welcoming environment to aspiring entrepreneurs. Established businesses like BIAT go beyond paying lip service to the importance of entrepreneurship, which they’ve proved through the creation of both an incubator and accelerator program in Tunis.
  • Tunisian Pride: Tunisians are true patriots! From meeting with aspiring political leaders to dining in our teammates homes, each of our experiences underlined how proud Tunisians are of their country’s diversity and rich history.
  • Optimism: While economic conditions have been challenging following the revolution, Tunisians remain optimistic about the future. Upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections in 2019 represent an important inflection point in Tunisia’s history. Over 200 political parties have formed since 2011 and underline the enthusiasm with which Tunisians approach political participation. No political system is perfect, but the growth of civic participation and support for small and medium-sized enterprises shows that the country is moving towards a strong foundation for the future.
  • Growth Potential across Africa: While Tunisia’s economy has historically focused on Europe, almost all of our speakers emphasized the enormous potential for growth across Africa. Technology solutions that transcend physical borders have the opportunity to reach huge populations of individuals who had been previously separated from the latest innovations. Many Tunisian businesses are aware of Africa’s previously untapped potential as a consumer market and intend to take advantage of their geographic location to serve this market in the future.
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Enjoying the views in Mornag!

Katie Tsantes (’19) is an MBA Candidate at Columbia Business School

Tunisia: Wrapping Up Company Visits & Open Startup Tunisia Results!

We finished our week with the conclusion of Open Start Up Tunisia. Throughout the week we learned more about our Tunisian counterparts and had the opportunity to have a traditional Tunisian dinner in their homes. Friday’s pitch competition allowed each team to showcase the work they’ve done over the past months, building out their business model, honing presentation skills, and obtaining sales to initial customers. Each venture impressed the judges with their commitment to social and economic goals, as well as demonstrations of their ventures’ prototypes.

With this 3rd generation of Open Startup Tunisia competition, key partners ranging from the Columbia Global Center in Tunis to the U.S. Embassy have enabled the organization to connect aspiring entrepreneurs with the right resources to launch their venture. Congratulations to team Tun Up, who won the competition with their venture to create the next generation of essential oil from harissa pepper seeds. While these seeds are typically wasted during the production of harissa, the oil they can create surpassed the beneficial properties of argan oil in lab tests.

Our company visits from the past few days have provided a window into the wide array of sectors and individuals working towards Tunisia’s future. Our class had the opportunity to visit Instadeep’s offices in downtown Tunis, where we learned about applications for artificial intelligence in Tunisian businesses. Instadeep provides a range of services through reinforcement learning and deep learning algorithms to enable companies to maximize the value of their own data.  By working hand in hand with local businesses, Instadeep provides holistic services for its clients, from data cleansing to advanced AI models. Instadeep actively seeks to reduce the Brain Drain of young Tunisian students to Europe and Canada through their recruiting strategy in Tunis. While they have offices in the United Kingdom and France, they remain committed to growing their business inside of Tunisia.

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After a discussion of Tunisian politics with Olfa Terras-Rambourg

We also were fortunate enough to meet with Olfa Terras-Rambourg of the Rambourg Foundation. Mrs. Terras-Rambourg’s team has conducted an unprecedented survey of over 11,000 Tunisians to determine top priority issues for the country leading into 2019 elections. As a potential presidential hopeful, Mrs. Terras-Rambourg has learned firsthand from Tunisians about their concerns, most notably:

  • Inflation: the Tunisian economy has struggled following the departure of Ben Ali and inflation currently stands between 7-8%, making the cost of living unsustainable for most Tunisians
  • Corruption: endemic within the Tunisian system is corruption that has become so prevalent some citizens refer to it as “another tax required to do business in Tunisia”
  • Security: with uncertainty across the border in both Libya and Algeria, many Tunisians remain concerned about their own safety and security. Terrorist incidents following the revolution have limited tourism and foreign investment, which will be top priority to resolve for any incoming administration
  • Health Care: many of Tunisia’s best medical professionals have left the country following the revolution. Students must be encouraged to remain in North Africa in order to build a sustainable health care system in the future

While these challenges may seem daunting, Mrs. Terras-Rambourg remains hopeful about the future. She seeks to create a grassroots movement that will create a better future for all Tunisians, where citizens can achieve peace and economic prosperity.

Katie Tsantes (’19) is an MBA Candidate at Columbia Business School

Tunisia: Discovering Tunisian Agriculture & the Roman City of Uthina

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Modern oil manufacturing equipment at Al Jazira

Today our class visited two agricultural businesses located south of Tunis. Al Jazira Olive Oil led us through a tour of their manufacturing facility and taught us about the production and distribution process of olive oil both within and outside of Tunisia. 1 ton of olives typically yields 200 liters of oil and Al Jazira creates mostly extra virgin olive oil varieties. They utilize Chaibi olives and maximize their production during the growing season, which lasts from October to January, by utilizing a modern processing facility. The company participates in many international tasting competitions and trade shows each year as part of its strategy to continue to identify international distributors.

 

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Sun Antipasti production line

Next we visited the factory of Sun Antipasti, an agri-food company that produces and distributes tomato paste, harissa, and thin pastry sheets.  These pastry sheets, called bricks, are becoming increasingly popular around the world and we were treated to samples of the final products following our visit. Sun Antipasti exports its products to international markets – check out their website to find their products near you! Both Al Jazira olive oil and Sun Antipasti have immense potential for international expansion and are taking advantage of favorable export regulations to grow their presence.

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With the Sun Antipasti team following our visit

We then visited ruins of the ancient Roman city of Uthina, which was only recently discovered and 80% of which is believed to still be underground. Throughout the tour we enjoyed scenic views of the ancient town, including the old aqueduct, underground hammams, and a stunning amphitheater. The Amphitheater once seated 16,000 spectators for views of Many of the town’s original mosaics are now displayed in the Bardo museum in Tunis.  While much of the original structures across Uthina have been restored, nothing new has been added to the town and much of the original beauty remains.

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Roman ampitheater at Uthina

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Katie Tsantes (’19) is an MBA Candidate at Columbia Business School

Tunisia: Exploring Entrepreneurship in Emerging Markets

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Downtown Tunis

Tunisia has often graced headlines in the past few years for its foundational role in the Arab Spring and subsequent path towards political and economic stability. Beyond the headlines, what makes the business environment in Tunisia unique? Our course so far has focused on learning about the nuances of entrepreneurship in Tunisia. We’ve had the opportunity to learn about the unique conditions facing new ventures in emerging markets from guest speakers including Columbia University Professor Safwan Masri and Columbia Business School Professor Marco Viola.

We also had the opportunity to work with Tunisian graduate students who are participating in Open Startup Tunisia, a startup competition in partnership with Columbia Engineering and Business School that supports Tunisian youth eager to open up to the world. Six finalist teams in this competition have been paired with teams of Columbia Business School students to further build out their proposed business models. In working together to develop financial models and refine our Business Model Canvas, our class has received a window into market opportunities and consumer demands in North Africa.

This class has pushed us to challenge what we think we know about entrepreneurship and apply our knowledge to an ever-evolving business landscape in an emerging market. While we’ve learned to build financial models and fine-tune our Business Model Canvas in other courses, what happens when a key part of your device hardware is held up at customs? What about when an innovative idea may have social implications that could be controversial with local populations? How can these proposed ventures think about building a business model that can scale both within and beyond Tunisian borders?

The finalist teams are listed below – check out the YouTube links to hear more about their ventures. Our time in Tunisia will be spent both continuing our work with these Tunisian entrepreneurs, as well as site visits to expand our understanding of doing business in the region. The trip promises to teach us more about topics ranging from artificial intelligence to consumer goods and introduce us to CBS alumni along the way!

Stay tuned for updates from our trip and from the Open Startup Tunisia pitch on Friday, January 18th!

Open Startup Tunisia Ventures

  • Athena-io: mixed reality for corporate training
  • Farcha: shoe insole generating heat from recyclable materials
  • Co-health: device to detect early stage cavities
  • Hapi: device to save and control water flow
  • Bechawet: application facilitating recycling
  • Tun-up: extraction of pepper seed to produce oil

 

Katie Tsantes is an MBA Candidate at Columbia Business School (’19).

Looking back on it – WHY CBS!

 

tunis4Reflecting on the week we spent in Tunisia I think I speak for all of the CBS students who participated when I say how lucky we were and how amazing the experience was to help our local Tunisian students with their final pitch in the Open-Start-Up Competition finals. This was the first year CBS students got to engage in this activity and the amount we learned from working, chatting and dining with our teammates added a very personal and extremely enjoyable dimension to the trip. We left feeling we had made an impact on our local teammates and more importantly had made friends that we have continued to stay in touch with. It was so interesting to hear the next generations views on the Arab Spring and the Tunisian revolution. We left feeling both extremely optimistic about the changes that had taken place in the country as well as empathetic of the harsh reality the next generation faces. When we asked the students what their dream job would be – a question most of us were asked as kids most of them answered “work in government” and when we asked why that they responded, “that’s the best job you can get here”. While working in government is a great job we were disheartened to hear this seemed like the only option.

Throughout my conversations with locals I did not hear mention at all of the 2015 terror attacks and felt that the Country had moved past them with recent media coverage (Bloomberg) of the country being mostly positive and suggesting that Tunisia will be a top tourist destination in the coming years (https://africanmanager.com/site_eng/tunisia-features-among-bloombergs-22-flagship-tourist-destinations-in-2018/?v=947d7d61cd9a). Reading the blog post summarizing last years trip (2017) I could not help but to feel the country had significantly changed or at least we were given a very different perspective given our close interaction with younger locals.

Major themes touched on by investors and private equity firms were the challenges that continue to arise with currency fluctuations, political uncertainty, and focusing on investing in companies that hedge risk by having a higher percentage of sales as exports. We were extremely impressed when hearing the Tunisian ministry of education and US Ambassador in Tunisia speak about their extremely optimistic views on the education system and the progress Tunisia had made in recent years.

A huge thank you to Professor Jedidi and our TA Fuad Yaghnam for making this entire trip a seamless operation and making sure we were getting 110% out of every experience.

-Sarah Spear ‘18

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Tunisia Open-Start-Up Grand Finale

T5Today was the much-anticipated final pitch competition for the startup pitch competition that we had been collaborating with the Tunisian students with over the last two months. From skype and facebook meetings to virtually meet each other, to building the products, and watching our Tunisian students rehearse  ten times we were all feeling extremely exciting and nervous for the finals. SIX teams total had made the finals and startup ideas ranged from room sensors that would let you know if an elderly person had fallen, relaxing and stress reliving steering wheels for drivers to prevent accidents to a device that turns fire into energy that would allow rural areas in Africa to have access to electricity. Each team was composted of four CBS students and 4-6 Tunisian students. In attendance for the finals was the Tunisian ministry of education, AfricInvest, the US ambassador in Tunisia and Columbia Business School representatives from both the business school and engineering school. The prize for winning this competition was flights and hotel paid for to New York City for the Tunisian team to pitch their business idea at the final pitch competition at CBS in April. For most of the students winning this competition would mean their first opportunity ever to be on a plane and leave Tunisia.

There was nothing more inspiring and nerve racking then watching the judges announce the winners and all of the Tunisian students sitting on the edge of there chairs. My team ended up winning the competition with the idea of turning fire into electricity with thermal engines and there was nothing more rewarding than seeing their hard work over pay off and the smiles on there faces. We asked our teammates what they wanted to do in NYC the responses we got were: go to Walmart, go to the coffee shop with “the girl” (Starbucks) and go to a basketball game – we all had a good laugh and will make sure these Tunisian NYC dreams come true! The opportunity to help the local teams and collaborate in the competition for the first year ever was an extremely rewarding experience that was the peak of the trip! I am excited to see what continues to come out of this collaboration and we can’t wait for our Tunisian friends to land in NYC in April!

-Sarah Spear ‘18

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Tunisia – An Olive Oil Heaven!

Fun fact: Tunisia is in the top 5 largest olive oil producing counties in the world next to Spain, Greece, Italy and Turkey! Today we visited les Moulins Mahjoub an olive oil press run by the Tunisian Mahjoub family in their olive grove. When we arrived at the processing plant we were all surprised at how incredibly manual the entire process of producing extra virgin olive oil was and few of us had any idea of the scale of the operation. Les Moulins Mahjoub is an extremely unique producer as it combines local and timeless craftmanship and the modernity of production standards to create an extremely high quality and high-end product that I must say tasted phenomenal! The olive oil is sold both domestically and across counties in the Middle East, Europe and in the US – we were all surprised and excited to hear that they distribute at a few of our local NYC spots – Dean & Deluca, Whole Foods and have a special relationship with Le Pain Quotidien. We got to tour the processing plant, the olive fields, as well as the packaging plant and then enjoy an amazing lunch made with all the ingredients fresh from the farm. The tour started with the processing plan where we saw the olives being crushed, sorted, and squeezed into baskets to press the olive oil out. After that we wondered out into the olive tree field where groups of 4-5 women were singing and climbing ladders to pick the olives off the trees and have them fall into a net where they were collected and then placed into baskets. We were extremely lucky this year as the weather was 20 degrees celsius and sunny and we were wearing t-shirts and shorts as Professor Jedidi said that in previous years it had been raining and they were unable to visit the fields. The women picking the olives were extremely warm and welcoming and we learned shortly after work on the farm all year even though the picking is only seasonal from October – January.

We were extremely surprised to hear that the majority of Tunisian olive oil is sent to Europe for anonymous blending and to be rebranded. Although last year marked a decline in olive oil production (https://www.oliveoiltimes.com/olive-oil-business/tunisian-olive-oil-production-55-percent/54746) the Mahjoub family seemed optimistic about 2018 production.

CBS students are now educated consumers of olive oil as we know that while many olive oil producers make “extra virgin olive oil” only a few actually don’t mix the oil with water, use manual presses and pick by hand which makes all the difference in taste!

Tonight, we are off to Professor Jedidi favorite dinner and drinks spot that we have been hearing about for the six weeks leading up to the trip! We are looking forward to a live band, Magon (the best Tunisian red wine) and of course an amazing meal after our olive oil filled day.

-Sarah Spear ‘18

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First few days in Tunis!

tunis3Our first few days in Tunis have been action packed and the perfect mix of discovering the city by foot and beginning to understand the political and financial landscape through our meetings with AfricInvest, IACE, African Development Bank and our local Tunisian teammates.

We arrived at the hotel on Sunday and had the opportunity to visit the Tunis city center also known as the ancient city of Carthage (meaning “new city”) on the Eastern side of Lake Tunis. The city was first developed from a Phoneician colony during the first millennium BC and was later destroyed by the Roman Republic in the Third Punic War in 14 BC and again redeveloped by the Roman Carthage which became the “Royal Empire” in Africa. Excavations on the lost city were performed mostly by French archaeologists in the 1920’s and attracted quite a bit of attention because of the evidence that was found of child sacrifice. Our tour guide (who will be with us for the week!) explained that many of the statue heads were missing because people had stolen them, and it was later discovered that many of them were actually found in the houses of royalty.

After our tour of the ancient city we headed to Sidi Bou Said – which could be mistaken for Mykonos  or Santorini in most of the pictures we took. The city was absolutely beautiful and is known for being a town of artists that is all blue and white! The town is a labyrinth of winding streets, beautiful blue doors and hidden gardens with a background of the beautiful Mediterranean sun.

On day two we spent the morning with one of the biggest private equity firms in Africa called AfricInvest which has over $1.1Bn USD of capital deployed over 16 funds in Africa. We got to hear first from FIVE the fund that the PE firm is currently investing out of, the Venture Fund, and the Innovation Fund, as well as from three entrepreneurs who explained their journeys and challenges of starting new businesses in Africa. They explained the importance of having an open-ended fund which focuses on long tenured investments so that the businesses they were investing in felt continually supported. We were all quite proud to hear that AfricInvest had just hired a CBS student full time and that this would be there 5th CBS hire!

That evening we met up with our local Tunisian team members to finalize our pitch presentations and help them to prepare for the final presentations on Friday. For most of our Tunisian teammates winning this competition would mean it would be there first trip EVER out of Tunisia and to the United States which is the prize for winning! After a few hours of preparing for the pitch our team members welcomed us in their homes for a local Tunisian dinner with their families. Professor Jedidi had told us that we would really get to experience the warmth of the Tunisian culture and indeed we could not have felt more welcomed after an amazing meal and the families wanting to take many pictures with us as well as giving us gifts.

See attached for quite a few photos of our first few days on the ground in Tunis!

-Sarah Spear ‘18

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Ready, Set, Tunisia here we come!

 

tunisThere is no better way to kick off 2018 than with the opportunity to travel with 28 of my classmates to TUNISIA! Over the past two and half months spent in the classroom learning about Tunisia, Professor Jedidi has provided us with a thorough overview of the history, culture, economy, language, a few prominent companies and case studies so we are well versed on Tunisia coming into the trip. For the first year ever, the trips focus has shifted more to learning about startup methodology in Tunisia and specifically we have been given the exciting opportunity to work with the six finalist university teams that were selected out of sixteen teams in the National Open Startup competition. Our project over the seven days spent in Tunisia will be to partner with our team members and help them develop and pitch their startup ideas to present their ideas once again at the final round of the competition on January 19th!

I am writing this blog post from Marrakech as a few of us lucky CBS students have spent a few days enjoying Morocco before the Tunisia trip starts. As we are about to spend 7 days immersed in the country it is important to take a quick look at a few of the highlights that made the news from Tunisia 2017!

Tunisia in the news in 2017:

  • The number of tourists boasted a record figure of 7,051,813 in 2017, a 2% rise in comparison with 2016! The UK, the Netherlands, Poland and Belgium lifted their advisory against travel to Tunisia in the aftermath of June 2015 terrorist
  • December 2017 marked seven years since a wave of protests erupted across the Middle East and North Africa in what came to be known as the Arab Spring. Tunisia, the country where the uprisings began, has been saluted as the revolution’s success story for managing a relatively peaceful transition from an authoritarian regime to a functioning democracy!  This article provides a great overview of both the successes and challenges that remain in Tunisia post Arab Spring: https://www.thecipherbrief.com/arab-spring-anniversary-tunisia-really-success-story
  • Tunisia’s external debt jumped to about 46.8 trillion dinars (18.72 trillion U.S. dollars) as of November 2017, accounting for 48.35 percent of the GDP
  • Tunisia announced the second increase in fuel prices in six months, raising the price of petrol by 2.85 percent as the government tries to rein in the budget deficit.
  • Export volume accounted for one third of Tunisia’s GDP in 2017, which achieved growth of 4.1%.
  • Tunisia was featured among Bloomberg’s 22 flagship tourist destinations in 2018, published Tuesday, January 2nd.
  • In 2018 on May 6th, Tunisia will hold long-delayed municipal elections, the first such vote since the 2011 uprising unseated autocrat Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali. Activists hope the elections will give a new push for the North African country’s democratic transition by giving more power to local councils.

Over the next seven days we will have an action-packed itinerary with tours through Medina and Moulins Mahjoub (70-year-old family owned olive oil producer) visits with the African Development Bank, ENDA Inter Arab, Vermeg, IACE and working with our Tunisian team members before the startup competition finals.

I look forward to sharing every part of the TUNISIA 2018 trip with you!

-Sarah Spear ‘18

Taking Tunisia Home

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It’s been a week since we returned from Tunisia and I’ve had some time to ruminate over what we saw during our time in country. If I were to distill what I observed over the week into one sentiment it would be empathy for the country, which has so much potential to be a regional leader yet is very much haunted by three terror attacks in 2015.

I was truly convinced during our visit that Tunisia has the potential and is well positioned to be a regional leader — it has a booming entrepreneurial scene in Tunis; quality exports shipped across the region, to Europe, and to the U.S.; and tremendous natural and cultural beauty that should attract tourists. Yet the country’s reputation has been severely damaged, which understandably detracts tourists and investors alike. Exporting crops (like olive oil) and manufactured products (like paper goods) are the only industries that we observed that are not hurt by the recent wave of terror in the country.

What will it take for the country to recover from the three attacks — two of which explicitly targeted tourists? Perhaps it will just take time, or perhaps the country’s tech entrepreneurs or quality produce (often sold around the globe under the label Italian) will begin to rewrite the country’s story in a more favorable light.

An U.S. embassy official told us that when he brings potential investors to visit the country it has just one shot to appear ripe for investment — they won’t come back for a second time if they don’t like what they see on their first visit. I found this to be disheartening, and am hopeful that as a professional I will strive to see more of a market and its story than these fly-in, fly-out investors. AfricInvest, a private equity group which hosted us for a significant portion of our business told us that their key to success is that most of their investment team lives locally. If I take away nothing else from the trip, it will be that in order to be successful working in a market like Tunisia, a superficial quick trip will not show me the real potential of a country. I’ll need to invest time and dig deeper.

-Zoe Fox ’17

Global Immersion Tunisia