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

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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