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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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

Tunisia Final Thoughts

Writing from New York, one week after returning from Tunisia, we have had some time to reflect on our whirlwind experience of meeting some of the country’s top business and political leadership.

Tunisia is a country in transition.  It is a country whose constituents were never allowed to have an opinion until January 2011 and who are now asking questions of national and individual identity:  What does it mean to be Tunisian?  What does it mean to be the spark that ignited the Arab Spring?  How do we fit into the broader context of North Africa?  Of the Arab world?  Of the area south of Southern Europe?  What has democracy changed?  What changes must we still demand?

The world watches Tunisia, awaiting these answers with proverbial baited breath.  These answers will determine how the world “does business in North Africa,” how North Africa interacts with the West, and how this next potential market will emerge.

We had an unparalleled opportunity to visit Tunisia at this moment in time and to bear witness to a country and a region as it forges its future.

CBS outside the Presidential Palace
CBS outside the Presidential Palace

Here are a few final thoughts from the CBSers:

“Going to Tunisia was one of the most interesting academic and cultural experiences I’ve ever had.  We had opportunities to meet with leaders in business and politics, but also interact with locals.  My favorite company visit was to COFAT, maker of electric wires for the automobile industry.  The conversation with the CEO was really enlightening, but the real highlight was taking a tour of their facilities and viewing the all-female assembly lines.  I loved walking around and making small connections with the women.  This trip far surpassed my expectations and I definitely plan on visiting again!” –Shardee Cesar ‘13

“In listening to the CEO of Tunisiana, a telecommunications company, I was very surprised to learn that the media company was leading mobile banking – in the US it has been the banks. Customers are using devices to send money or transfer calling credit between accounts. I can definitely see the opportunities for mobile banking in the future in Tunisia.” –Tara Kurian ‘13

“Our group project focused on creating a solution for mobile banking in Tunisia that will drive adoption of mobile solution for a largely unbanked population.  While in Tunis, we had the opportunity to meet with Mobiflouss, a start-up inside Tunisiana dedicated to creating a mobile payment solution.  Prior to the meeting, we knew that a black market of mobile payment existed but were surprised to learn how pervasive the use of airtime (P2P tranfers of airtime as payment) were for the Tunisian mobile consumer.  Following our experience on the ground, we are developing a business plan which will try to improve on current mobile solutions and create an ecosystem to drive higher adoption of both Mobiflouss and mobile payments on other carriers.” –Randall Rainosek ’13

We want to express our tremendous gratitude to: Professor Jedidi for organizing the class and for showing us his home country, Jennifer Tromba and the entire Chazen staff for making the logistics possible, and to all of the companies and individuals with whom we had the opportunity to meet.  It was truly a trip to remember.

Many thanks,

Yael Silverstein ’13 (follow my travels at http://abroadabroadtravel.com)

Hello Mr. (Tunisian) President!

“North Africa’s most relaxed and hospitable country just might turn out to be its most interesting,” describes the Lonely Planet’s Tunisia guidebook.

That depiction rings true for many of us, having pieced together a mosaic of understanding of today’s Tunisia through a host of visits with Tunisian professionals and companies the past few days .

Here are some of the highlights in my classmates’ words:

On Meeting Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki:

“Perhaps the highlight of the trip was our visit to the presidential palace. There, we had the honor of meeting the president. We were warmly greeted with water and lemonade by his staff and he candidly answered our questions about his views/ plans for the country. We were struck by how honest he was about the challenges facing his country and the difficulties they face. Afterward, we were interviewed by TV, radio and print media as we posed for pictures. Many of the Tunisian staff assisting with the trip took the opportunities to get their own pictures as well.”  -Andrew Weber, ‘13

(See us in the Tunisian News here, here, and here [French])

Front Page of the Tunisian News!
Front Page of the Tunisian News!
Q&A with President Moncef Marzouki
Q&A with President Moncef Marzouki
"Doing Business in Tunisia" Global Immersion Class with  President Marzouki
“Doing Business in Tunisia” Global Immersion Class with President Marzouki

On having lunch with the Chairman of Poulina Group Holding:

“Today’s lunch meeting with Poulina provided a unique opportunity to learn about a successful Tunisian holding group with a well diversified offering of companies. The meeting with the Chairman was not only informative on its businesses and the economic climate within the region, but also gave us the opportunity to eat produce and meats sold by the company. Overall, I was extremely impressed with today’s visit and will be keeping my eye out for Poulina brands throughout the duration of our trip.” -Evan Tyner ‘13

On our visit to Enda Inter-Arabe Microfinance:

“The group was honored to go to Enda on Wednesday night to meet with the founders, employees and three inspiring women who have received aid from the NGO. The highlight was hearing how the three women’s lives were impacted through the loans, and their optimism to continue striving for a better life by setting higher goals. All aspects of the visit demonstrated the founders’ belief in empowering people. Specifically, employees gave presentations to inform and practice their English and the reception was catered by another women who is a micro loan recipient. It was amazing to see the gratitude and happiness radiating from the room.” -Krupa Tailor, ‘13

CBSers with the founders, staff, and 3 clients of Enda Inter-Arabe microfinance
CBSers with the founders, staff, and 3 clients of Enda Inter-Arabe microfinance

On meeting with the Regional Director of the African Development Bank:

“The meeting was able to highlight a number of factors that can propel business in North Africa:

1) The region is the least integrated of all regional blocs in the world; better collaboration can lead to North Africans getting better negotiated trade agreements with the rest of the world.

2) Collaboration can be achieved by taking advantage of the cultural and historical similarities between Libyans, Algerians and Tunisians to open up each other’s borders to provide products and services that will benefit the region.

3) The region could reduce unemployment by moving skilled-but-jobless people between the countries’ borders to where they are needed most, and by leveraging their natural resources available by moving up the value chain.” – Nkazimulo  Sokhulu, ‘13

The temporary HQ of the African Development Bank
The temporary HQ of the African Development Bank

On the COFAT Factory Tour:

“We had the opportunity to visit COFAT, a company of the Elloumi Group and to speak to the CEO Faouzi Elloumi. For me, it was one of the more interesting company visits given the multi-national nature of the business and the plant tour we were given after the presentation. Understanding COFAT’s core wire and distribution business and then seeing the fabrication of these products in a plant were a fantastic way to start our early morning. (Professor Singh would have been proud!)” –Stephanie Cheng, ‘13

Professor Jedidi and students at the COFAT factory
Professor Jedidi and students at the COFAT factory
Automotive Parts at the COFAT factory
Automotive Parts at the COFAT factory

Until next time,

Yael Silverstein ’13

First few days in Tunisia: Ancient Carthage, Resort Towns, Foreign Investment & Media

Salam and Bonjour from Tunis!  We arrived in Tunisia yesterday, with the 22 CBS students flying in from destinations near and far from prior winter break travels.  For those of us who arrived earlier in the day, Chazen organized a tour to the visit the ruins of Ancient Carthage, just a few miles north of the modern city of Tunis.

The Empire of Carthage, founded as a Phoenician city-State in 814 BC, was significant both politically and as a trade hub amongst the ancient empires.  It is notorious for warring with the Greeks and the Roman Republic, which culminated with the Punic wars, which were led by Hannibal, immortalized by Vergil’s Aeneid, and ultimately ended with the destruction of Carthage.

Carthage, Atlas Mountains, Mediterranean
Carthage, Atlas Mountains, Mediterranean
Corinthian Column
Corinthian Column
Remains of Carthage with Latin Inscriptions
Remains of Carthage with Latin Inscriptions
CBS at Carthage
CBS at Carthage

Following the tour of Ancient Carthage, we traveled to the summer vacation town of Sidi Bou Said, a 12 miles outside the city, for a welcome dinner.  The town is known for uniform white buildings punctuated by azure doors and windows.  Tunisia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, currently embroiled in a nationwide scandal, was a fellow diner at the seaside Dar Zarrouk restaurant.

Blue door in Sidi Bou Said
Blue door in Sidi Bou Said

Yesterday marked the 2nd anniversary of the Revolution.  The country decided a few weeks ago to officially recognize January 14th as a holiday, and as such, most businesses closed in recognition.  In order to avoid the demonstrations in the streets, populated by Tunisians off from work, our group enjoyed the morning meandering through Hammamet, a, popular resort town outside Tunis, whose population quadruples in the summer months.  We explored the town’s medina (old city), browsing the souq (marketplace) for Tunisian handicrafts, and stopped for some mint tea, a traditional beverage, ubiquitous throughout the region, at a salon de the (café).

Salon de The
Salon de The
Hammamet
Hammamet
Coastline in Hammamet
Coastline in Hammamet
Mediterranean in Hammamet
Mediterranean in Hammamet
The CBS Group
The CBS Group

In the afternoon, the Mediterranean School of Business hosted us to meet with several individuals about the current state of Tunisia and foreign investment.  We met with Cyril Grislain Karray, former Managing Director at McKinsey and current political activist in Tunisia (interview about his new book & his 2011 TEDx speech in French); Dr. Salah Hannchi CBS ’80, former Tunisian Ambassador to Australia and Japan;  Neziha Berzouga, Offshoring Promotion Department Head at the Foreign Investment Promotion Agency; and Elias Bouricha the Tunisian country director for Predictix, an Atlanta-based software company.  Our discussions started with high-level overviews of the foreign investment climate and surplus of highly educated human capital in Tunisia and culminated with Elias presenting the specific case study of his experience as a country director for the domestic offices of an American company.

At the Mediterranean School of Business
At the Mediterranean School of Business

On Tuesday, we began the day with a Media Panel which included Kamel Labidi Head of the National Independent Authority for Information and Communication (current English recommendations report); Chawki Chahed a Communications Officer with the African Development Bank; Zied Mhirsi, founder of the first English newspaper: Tunisia Live; Hasse Zargouni, the Founder and CEO of Sigma Conseil, a media marketing research firm, and Moncef Dhambri, a university professor, newspaper editor and freelance journalist.  The panel touched upon the topics of Tunisia’s history of media censorship, current freedom of press and anti-censorship efforts, and media advertising and investment.

To sum up the historical (and arguably current) history of the country’s censorship, one of the panelists told us the following famous Tunisian joke:  A newspaper decided to interview Americans (developed country), Ethiopians (less developed country) and Tunisians (somewhere in the middle) about their opinions on the shortage of meat.  When the journalist asked the Americans about their opinions on the shortage of meat, the Americans responded “shortage…what do you mean ‘shortage’?” When the journalist asked the Ethiopians about their opinions on the shortage of meat, the Ethiopians responded “meat…what do you mean ‘meat’?” And when the journalist asked the Tunisians about their opinions on the shortage of meat, the Tunisians responded “opinions…what do you mean’opinions’?”

Until the next (freedom of press protected) post,

Yael Silverstein ‘13

Tunisia on the Eve of the Revolution’s 2nd Anniversary

On Sunday, 21 Columbia Business School students will arrive in the Mediterranean coastal city of Tunis, the capital of the Republic of Tunisia, trading in the NYC winter chill of the NYC the balmy 60-degree weather of the gulf city.  Our trip is part of a course called “Doing Business in North Africa,” which is a Chazen Institute Global Immersion Program.  Approximately the size of the state of Georgia, Tunisia is the smallest country in North Africa – a swath of land wedged between Algeria and Libya, just 140 miles south of Italy, separated by the sea.  Bordered by the Atlas Mountains in the north and the Sahara desert in the south, Tunisia has been the linchpin of empires: the Phoenicians (Carthage), Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Ottomans, and the French, from whom Tunisia obtained independence in 1956.

Tunisia Map Picture

Despite its modest population of 11 million people (2 million of which are in the capital), the 2010-2011 uprisings in Tunisia are credited as the spark that ignited the widespread Arab Spring and ousted the authoritarian government of President Ben Ali domestically.  We will be in Tunis on January 14, 2013, which marks the 2nd anniversary of the Revolution and highlights the junction at which the country sits two years after exiling Ben Ali.

“Tunisia today is at a crossroads,” said Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki on November 30th.  And with the new constitution still unwritten, postponed elections, a resurgence of riots, and simmering economic discontent due to rising unemployment numbers, the world certainly is waiting and watching to see in which direction the country will go. (Read more in the Dec. 1, 2012 New York Times article “Economic Frustration Simmers Again in Tunisia“)

As MBAs learning about emerging markets, our visit to Tunisia will be well timed. The World Bank recently approved a $500M loan for economic reform and job creation, which comes after a major investment from Qatar as well as EU and US aid.  However, foreign investors are currently scared off by the political unrest, a dangerous catch-22, as the political unrest is fueled by rising unemployment due, partially, to the lack of investment.  Studying industries such as financial service, healthcare, education, NGOs, and media, we will be meeting with an number of firms and institutions including: AfricInvest-TunInvest, the African Development Bank, the American Cooperative School in Tunis, Carrefour, COFAT/Groupe Elloumi, Ende inter-Arabe, Poulina Group Holding, Tunisiana, and the Tunisian American Chamber of Commerce in order to learn about, as the title of our course suggests, “Doing Business in North Africa.”

– Yael Silverstein ’13 (Follow my travels on twitter.com/YaelSNYC)  [blogging from cold, grey, NYC, USA]

Map picture from (http://www.operationworld.org/tuni)