Econostrum | Economic News in the Mediterranean

Zeineb Messaoud: "Tunisian start-ups need know-how and capital"

Written by Frédéric Dubessy on Friday, December 17th 2021 à 15:22 | Read 357 times

In an exclusive interview granted to during the Emerging Valley event (Marseille, 14 December 2021), Zeineb Messaoud, executive director of The Dot, a digital innovation hub in Tunis, talks about the recent history of start-up development in Tunisia and highlights the ambition of her newly created structure.

Zeineb Messaoud wants to help develop the innovation ecosystem and its start-ups in Tunisia (photo: F.Dubessy)
Zeineb Messaoud wants to help develop the innovation ecosystem and its start-ups in Tunisia (photo: F.Dubessy) Start-ups are a fairly recent phenomenon in Tunisia, but their number is constantly increasing. Where does this craze for entrepreneurship come from in your country?

Zeineb Messaoud: Tunisia is an extraordinary country. So is its youth. There is a lot of young talent, the people are educated and, after a while, they create! A first workspace was launched in Tunis eight or nine years ago and around this place its actors started to talk about innovation, about start-ups. Before, we used to talk about technology companies, it was more or less the same, but the word start-up became fashionable. A community of young people believed in this and wanted to improve things. For themselves, to better develop their start-up, and also so that future generations could find a regulatory framework to encourage them to undertake innovation.

Hence the Start-up Act?

: Yes, it was born out of a dialogue between the Ministry of Technology and Information and this community of young people. At the time, I was working for the Entreprendre network within an association that supports entrepreneurs, and the minister called on the entire ecosystem to come and discuss this issue. This resulted in a law: the Start-up Act. It is not revolutionary in itself. It just bypasses the other existing texts that are currently an obstacle to the development of agile structures.

Officially launched in 2019, the Start-up Act has created a start-up college that gives labels and facilities to new innovative companies. It offered a boost to launch, at the same time, the Start-up Tunisia strategy including a whole programme of support and financing at different stages of development as well as the financing of consulting and support structures. An Anava Fund of Funds with €200 million was launched in March 2021 to finance the financial needs necessary for the growth of start-ups.

So, a very nice dynamic has been set up in Tunisia and we are starting to reap the benefits today. We already have champions such as the Franco-Tunisian Expensya (editor's note: automated management of expense accounts) which has just raised €20 million or InstaDeep (editor's note: artificial intelligence). This is very inspiring for the younger ones.

"Fifteen start-ups hosted at The Dot"

How many start-ups are there in Tunisia?

Z.M.: More than 600 start-ups are labelled today, 70% of which are led by graduates with 5 years of higher education or more, 9% by doctoral students, 28% are mixed teams, i.e. co-founded by women and men, but only 4% of women have their own start-up.

How does The Dot contribute to the ecosystem? What are your ambitions?

Z.M.: The Dot is supported by the Ministry of Information and Communication Technologies and was co-founded and co-financed by the European Union via the Innov'i programme (Editor's note: Support for the strengthening of the innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystem in Tunisia) managed by Expertise France, the Fondation Tunisie pour le Développement and GIZ (Editor's note: German cooperation).

At The Dot we strongly believe that all great ecosystems are born around places. We are coming eight years after this first workspace was launched in Tunis to create a greater dynamic. Since June 2021 and its launch, The Dot is the meeting place for all the players located on 2,900 m² in the Berges du Lac, a business district in Tunis.

We have event facilities available free of charge to the entrepreneurial ecosystem and a public services corner for information and training. We also host, free of charge, for a period of one year, fifteen innovative start-ups following a call for projects. They form a community that benefits from tailor-made support. But also twenty support structures: pre-incubator, incubator, accelerator, start-up associations...

The Dot provides all entrepreneurs in Tunisia, not only those hosted, with legal, tax and financial experts, specialists in access to finance and next year we will develop technical expertise.


"Participating in the development of the digital transformation of public and private players

Zeineb Messaoud spoke at the fifth edition of Emerging Valley to present The Dot (photo: F.Dubessy)
Zeineb Messaoud spoke at the fifth edition of Emerging Valley to present The Dot (photo: F.Dubessy)
Is this a second wind after the Start-up Act?

Z.M.: Absolutely! The Dot continues this national strategy by offering a place where young people, the not so young, academics and the government can meet to co-construct programmes while having access to the same quality of information and services. It participates in the development of the digital transformation of public and private actors. We work together mainly on three axes: innovative entrepreneurship (start-ups); regional entrepreneurship based on the ELIFE programme conducted with the Fondation Tunisie pour le Développement, which aims to build ten technology centres in ten regions in the interior of the country; and a digital transformation axis, co-constructed with GIZ. 

The Dot is home to a digital transformation centre with the first artificial intelligence hub as well as a Digital Academy, an Industry 4.0 demonstrator and a soft-landing programme to support the installation of international companies wishing to study the Tunisian market or the region. Because we are open to Libya, Algeria and Morocco.

What voice do you want to carry at the EU-Africa Summit confirmed by Emmanuel Macron?  What do Tunisian start-ups need to develop better?

Z.M.: Know-how and capital! In Tunisia, we have difficulty financing research and incubators in the very early stages. The State does not have the means to finance nascent ideas. But behind us we have talent and promising young people. And that's just for Tunisia.

Then imagine the whole of Africa, which today has 1.5 billion people, with 60% of the population under the age of thirty. Africa is the future. It has natural resources and human resources. It is growing, it has launched a digital revolution and is creating champions. This continent now has eight unicorns (editor's note: start-up valued at more than $1 billion, not listed on the stock exchange and not a subsidiary of a large group), but only one is French-speaking.


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