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

The Other Middle Eastern Oil Export: Discovering Tunisian Olive Oil

Moulins Mahjoub 1.jpgEarly in the fall, my study group for Global Immersion: Doing Business in North Africa made the somewhat serendipitous decision to study the Tunisian olive oil industry for our term project. We made this choice with little information — other than that olive oil is Tunisia’s largest export and that the industry is the country’s largest employer — but I couldn’t be happier that we got to spend the trip taking a deeper look at olive oil.

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On Wednesday, we spent the day at Les Moulins Mahjoub, a 70-year-old, family-owned olive oil producer about an hour outside of Tunis. Despite being a relatively small producer of 200,000 liters per year with no intention of increasing its outputs, there’s a good chance you’ve tried Les Moulins Mahjoub’s products, available in the U.S. at Whole Foods and as the house brand at Le Pain Quotidien. Now in its third generation, the business is co-owned by three brothers and seven sisters. One of the brothers, Abdel-Majid Mahjoub, who serves as the general manager, gave us a tour of the production press, explaining to us the cold press process, which still very closely resembles the ancient process.

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Les Moulins Mahjoub has no intention of increasing its production because it is happy with its position as an upscale, boutique producer.  It has no intention of competing with Bertolli, or of providing unbranded liters to European producers who will blend it with Spanish or Italian oil. Roughly 90 percent of Les Moulins Mahjoub’s oil is sold under its own brand, although the remaining 10 percent is sold under the brand (or in the case of Le Pain Quotidien, co-brand) of select partners. The company also sells Tunisia condiments, including its top product by volume, Harissa, which has recently exploded in global popularity.

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The highlight of the visit, which served as a microcosm for the industry overall, was eating lunch prepared by the family in their tasting room. We enjoyed olives and spreads, as well as numerous Tunisian dishes ranging from the familiar, shakshuka and cous cous, to the unfamiliar, breadcrumbs mixed with preserved lemons, garlic, harissa, and chickpeas prepared in broth. The third-story tasting room provided aerial views of the olive groves and farmland, which stretched into mountains in the horizon, a surprisingly beautiful setting reminiscent of Californian wine country.

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Despite its premium product, Tunisian olive oil faces two challenges in its luxury positioning: first, there’s a lot of olive oil labeled as extra virgin that isn’t in fact extra virgin; second, Tunisian olive oil lacks the brand recognition of olive oil from countries like Italy and Spain. Tunisia was featured at New York’s Fancy Food Show this year, suggesting the beginning of its improved global recognition, but there’s still a ways to go. After sampling numerous brands of Tunisian oil and spending a day at Les Moulins Mahjoub, Tunisian olive oil gained another 30 brand ambassadors in our class.

-Zoe Fox ’17

Global Immersion: Doing Business in North Africa

Tunisia’s Female Entrepreneurs

 

dar ben gacem.jpgOne of my first questions about visiting Tunisia was whether the women’s rights awarded at independence in the 1950s had an impact on society. A couple days into Global Immersion: Doing Business in North Africa and I already sense that the answer is a resounding yes.

Our first night in Tunis, before the program officially kicked off we visited Dar Ben Gacem (pictured above), a stunning seven-room guesthouse in the historic medina, city center, which is a restored 17th century home adorned at every corner by works of local artisans. But the house is only half of the story. Dar Ben Gacem’s founder, Leila Ben-Gacem, is a biomedical engineer turned social entrepreneur, who is simultaneously running a hospitality business as she works to untap the potential of Tunisia’s medina. She got her start in 2006 running training programs for local artisans, ensuring they could continue to practice their crafts as sustainable livelihoods so that the country wouldn’t lose that aspect of its heritage. Put simply, she was an incredibly inspiring woman to meet on our first night in Tunisia, making a strong case for that the country’s women are distinctly empowered.

The first official company visit was to Lilas, a paper products company, the first of its sort in North Africa. In a region lacking forests, Lilas imports pulp from Brazil and Scandinavia and produces a host of paper products that it exports across throughout North Africa and to 18 total countries on the continent. We toured its modern factories and saw just as many women working on the floors as men. But what’s more impressive is that Lilas was founded in 1994 by Mounir El Jaiez and Jalila Mezni, a husband and wife team. She, not he, serves as CEO. Though we didn’t meet Mezni, her company’s steady growth over the past two decades makes a good case for her success as a CEO in Tunisia.

It’s more than these two cases. Our tour guide told us that 62% of the country’s university students are women. The economist who presented to us at the African Development Bank was female. What feels like a majority of a group of student entrepreneurs that we met were been female. We met two successful female entrepreneurs, one who co-founded Tunisia’s first co-working space and the other who founded a sustainable agri-business, during a social enterprise panel this afternoon. The country may have its challenges, but its women are ready and able to tackle them.

-Zoe Fox ‘17

5 Questions I Have Before Arriving in Tunisia

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It’s hard to believe that it’s finally time to visit the country we began studying the first week of the fall semester. The anticipation has mounted over the past four months, as we’ve listened to lectures on the country’s history and business opportunities, and worked on projects examining different industries.

Writing from the Istanbul Airport, about to board my final flight leg to Tunis, there are a handful of questions on my mind. I wanted to share the five most burning questions I have heading into the week.

1.  How different is Tunisia from its regional neighbors?

One of the first things Professor Jededi told us about his home country was that it was the most “European” of Middle Eastern and North African nations. Women had far more rights, it now has a liberal constitution following the Arab Spring, and education has long been a national priority. I’m curious if this is a difference that will be palpable to me, having visited a handful of Tunisia’s neighbors.

2. How has the Arab Spring changed the country?

As the birthplace of the Arab Spring, the revolutionary movement that spread across the Middle East six years ago, Tunisia saw unique success. The movement — at least as has been reported in the media — brought real changes to the country, such as the peaceful transition of power away from the long-time dictator Ben Ali, democratic elections, and the passing of a liberal constitution. I’d like to ask this question of Tunisians, to gain a deeper understanding of how the average person’s life is different now than before December 2010.

3. Is there truly a significant business opportunity in Tunisia for foreign investors?

The focus of our course is doing business in North Africa, and I’m eager to access whether Tunisia’s relative political advantage over its neighbors is enough to make it a competitive threat. Tunisia is much smaller in size and population than Egypt, Morocco, and Algeria. What is its government doing to ensure that good jobs for educated young people — the issue which sparked the Arab Spring — will come to the country now?

4. What industries present the greatest opportunities for economic growth?

After grasping the extent to which there’s a competitive opportunity in Tunisia, I’d next like to understand which industries the country is best poised to compete. The country’s long-time reliance on tourism has proven to be an unsustainable driver of growth, as terrorism has prevented the country’s image from complete repair post-Arab Spring. Student teams in our class are looking at opportunities in agricultural exports, olive oil and wine, venture capital, and real estate. But have we missed something? Is there an entrepreneurial scene budding in Tunis?

5. What North African business trends will be most relevant to my classmates after we leave?

Finally, the goal of this class is for us as MBA students to gain a better understanding of the global business climate. Which trends in North Africa will prove the most relevant to our future careers, assuming many of us will not have careers directly focused on the region? Are general themes of emerging economies most relevant? Or will they be those related to global security uncertainty?

-Zoe Fox ’17

Helen Wey’16 – Tunisia

Top 5 Moments of the Trip

  1. Lunch at farm Dar Salima- We had delicious grilled meat in a rural cottage that functioned as a B&B. The home overlooked olive trees, vineyards and mountains. I would definitely consider making a trip back to this place- they even had a honeymoon suite (which we all visited as an awkward group of 30).

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  1. Land’or cheese factory tour- As a cheese lover, and consumer of similar products made by the Laughing Cow, I was particularly fond of the factory visit at Land’or. We visited the pasteurization process, the incorporation of bacteria, and the molding and aging process. It was also eye opening to learn how many additives there were in the cheese triangles that I have eaten my whole life. The greatest part though was probably seeing how silly we looked in all our outfits.

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  1. Celebrating Maria’s Birthday- Never in my life had I done a group rendition of “Happy Birthday” in the middle of a corporate presentation. While at Carrefour, one of our classmates let out that another classmate was celebrating her birthday that day. We continued the celebration later that night by surprising Maria with a birthday cake and bottle of champagne at dinner.

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  1. A night at Le Boeuf sur le Toit- Our TA, Olivier wanted a fun night for us since we were going to have a later start the next morning, and made a reservation at an entertainment-included restaurant. While we were going there for dinner, it was more of a nightclub. They had boisterous live music and the way to clap along or participate was to dance and use your flatware to clang on the metal tables and lampshades.

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  1. Curfew goodbye- For our last night in Tunisia, we had planned to have a grand bash. We made reservations for dinner and late-night belly dancing. Unfortunately, all those plans came to a halt when the government imposed a nationwide curfew from 8PM-5AM. There had been some civil unrest in other parts of Tunisia, but it reached Tunis on Friday. The hotel arranged a room for us to have dinner and we played board games long into the night.

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The best part of this trip was building bonds with my classmates. Even though everyone was a fall-term second-year, I did not most of them. We had countless meaningful conversations during our bus rides and sit-down meals. Many jokes were told. Many, many shenanigans occurred. We had an amazing time. Shukraan, Tunisia!

Helen Wey ’16-Tunisia

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DSC_0133A big focus of the second half of the trip has been on alternative financing of businesses. From the American Chamber of Commerce meeting, we were told that a lot of goals had been set in order to make Tunisia more attractive as a destination for foreign investments. The government institutions and entrepreneurs did not agree on much at the meeting, but they did reach consensus on a lack of capital.

We had meetings with a number of organizations outside of traditional banking that finance local businesses. The African Development Bank focuses on investing in projects in businesses that are intended to further development in Tunisia. Its financing is backed by its member countries and development finance institutions (DFIs). The Abraaj group, a private equity firm with $9B AUM, was the most traditional financial institution we met. Its LPs are focused on a single bottom line. The firm made its first wholly owned investment- a private hospital- in Tunisia in 2014. We had the opportunity to visit the clinic, and it was clear that along with changing management, they were drastically modernizing their labs and rooms. AfricInvest is one of the most experienced private equity firms, but nearly 85% of its funding comes from DFIs. The International Finance Corporation has a triple bottom line with only 0.3% of its total portfolio in Tunisia. IFC’s role in Tunisia is to source and aid investment to make it easier for investments to happen. The organization has connections through all industries and knows the major players. It also funds enda-inter-arabe, the largest microfinance institution in Tunisia. It provides financing to 270,000 businesses. When the local business owners were asked why they preferred enda-inter-arabe for funding as opposed to a traditional bank, their response was that enda provided a lot of advice in starting their businesses as well as emotional support.

The government does not have the capacity to stimulate all economic growth, and has relied on the help of these financial institutions to support entrepreneurs.

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Helen Wey ’16 – Tunisia

 

Brrr… it was a cold first couple of days in Tunis. Most of us were underprepared for the climate. Thankfully with each passing day, it has become a degree (Celsius!) warmer.

 

After kicking things off at a beautiful restaurant the night before, we had an early start to visit SAH Lilas, a diaper and sanitary napkin manufacturing company. We saw the napkin/toilet paper/paper towel production process from raw materials to finished product, as if it were a live operations class. We sat for a formal presentation, where we learned about the start of the business. The founder is a woman, which is something the firm is particularly proud of since she is a self-made CEO of a publicly traded company. The pride of feminine liberalism is a continuing theme throughout our company visits and conversations with locals. During numerous meetings people have made a point to stress Tunisia’s support for women’s rights, especially in comparison to its neighboring countries and other Muslim nations. There is plenty of action to back up these words- every meeting we have attended thus far has had a female presenter or CEO.
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While at Lilas, a classmate raised the question of how the company functions in other parts of the world with regards to the Tunisian Dinar. Tunisia has an unusual practice with its currency that prohibits its existence outside of Tunisia. Tourists need to exchange dinars back to their native currency prior to leaving the country. Companies that purchase equipment abroad need to make transactions through the central bank and the central bank pays the foreign company. Tunisia-based multinational companies have reserves held at the central bank, but do not partake in the practice of currency hedging. I imagine this only adds to the more apparent hurdles international firms consider when investing in Tunisia.

 

We have had great conversations with the other organizations we have met thus far, and are looking forward to learning more. And a lot more dancing
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