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Getting out of the comfort zone (with an appropriate strategy) – the case of Tunisia

To make a real difference, it is often necessary for an organisation, public or private, to challenge itself by getting out of its comfort zone and being strategic in its approach to new markets. Just one example of where OCO has recently been doing just that is by promoting Tunisian exports to the UK.

To achieve this, OCO has been working in Tunisia for the past 6 months, delivering technical assistance to the centre for export promotion (CEPEX), the Tunisian-British Chamber of Commerce (TBCC) and directly to Tunisian exporters.

To give some context, Tunisia is the second smallest of the five North African economies (just before Libya), with a GDP of nearly USD 40 billion growing at 2.9% (2018), and a population of 11.5 million people. It is also where the Arab Spring started in 2011, and since then, the country has been trying to consolidate its new democracy. To thrive, Tunisia’s economy is relying on an increasingly buoyant entrepreneurship fuelled by young graduates – it has 65,000 new graduates per year, of which 30% are in engineering, sciences and multimedia. The country also ranks first in North Africa in the Global Entrepreneurship Index[1] and first in the region in the Competitive Industrial Performance Index[2].

2017 Share in Tunisia’s exports (%) Rank
France 30.6 1st
Italy 16.5 2nd
Germany 11.6 3rd
Spain 3.8 4th
Algeria 3.3 5th
Libya 2.8 6th
United Kingdom 2.3 7th

Tunisia has what it takes to be successful internationally – particularly in agri-food. However, what is striking is the very high proportion of Tunisian exports toward France, which accounts for 30.6% of Tunisia’s total. On the other hand, the UK ranks just seventh with a mere 2.6% of the country’s exports.

So why are Tunisian exports skewed so much when France and the UK have a comparable market size, and both are relatively close to Tunisia[3] Cultural and linguistic factors, such as a common language are key, and enable French and Tunisians to easily trade together compared with other non-French speaking countries. This makes France, and to a lesser extent Italy, “traditional/easy markets”.

The main challenge for the OCO team was therefore to instill a new way of thinking to Tunisian companies and CEPEX when approaching new markets, to become more strategic and commit to the long term.

To do that, OCO provided training to CEPEX staff on how to develop market intelligence reports and export guides, and how to organise and evaluate events and B2B meetings. The goal here was to empower and equip the agency with the tools and techniques that will enable them to better support their companies in the future. OCO also provided substantial direct support to companies, by organising seminars on UK market opportunities for key sectors, trade shows and B2B meetings. In just 6 months of OCO support, Tunisia secured 4 export deals with the UK, with a further 10 in the pipeline.

All in all, Tunisia is an example of country with huge potential, but has lacked the building blocks necessary – both institutionally and within companies themselves to penetrate beyond the traditional markets. This requires strategy, planning, resource, and persistence in overcoming cultural barriers. Our intervention in Tunisia is making a tangible difference in the ability for companies to be successful and employ more Tunisians in quality jobs.

[1] The Global Entrepreneurship and Development Institute (GEDI), 2018
[2] Bloomberg Innovation Index 2017
[3] Market size and distance are the main predictors of bilateral trade flows – Gravity model of international trade