This recent trip to Tunis was particularly exciting for me because I was returning to a country that I previously worked with for 15 years. However, this was my first time since the revolution, so it was a very moving and joyful experience. I was interested in meeting the young generation of entrepreneurs who lived through these massive changes and experienced a great deal of disappointment, but took the opportunity to make a difference for their country.
In the startup mentoring programme, the two projects I work with are Hawkar, an environmentally-friendly car for people with handicaps, and Association la Voix de l’Enfant Rural, an NGO that aims to boost women empowerment and local development.
Hawkar was founded by Khadija, an amazing young woman who has a disability and uses a wheelchair. Disabilities are difficult anywhere in the world, but in Tunisia this is exacerbated because there is no accessibility to transportation, buildings, crosswalks, etc. Every movement needs to be negotiated. For example, Khadija wanted to attend university, but she could not access transportation to make the commute. Because she had a legal right to an education, she negotiated an alternative with the university president to gain access. Khadija learned about an American car model that open from the roof allowing drivers to enter with their wheelchair, and she had become so fed up that she decided to buy the car.
Initially, she didn’t have the money but she managed to scrape enough together, but then found out she couldn’t have the car delivered to Tunisia. So what did she do? Khadija decided to build a car herself, choosing not just to replicate the American version, but improve it. She wanted to build a car that would seat everyone, was electric, and was suited to every disability. She raised a team of three engineers, and they began making the design and secured the support of an engineering company called Ardia. They have almost finished the design, and she already has an incredible amount of support because she is addressing the needs of a group of people that is often unaccounted for in product development.
around 10% of the population has some kind of disability. in my opinion, this is not a niche; it’s a market!
During my first day of meeting with her team, Khadija and I had a holistic and personal one-on-one mentoring session that focused on reaching a level of trust and confidence, rather than being business focused. She presented her team and talked about what they were working on, what they were struggling with and how I could be of help. One thing I noticed was missing was proper organization; it seemed Khadija was overloaded and there was very little structure to disperse the workload.
When I met them again the following day, Khadija was unable to open the door to the meeting room and I had a very brief window into her everyday experience.
I could see how frustrated Khadija was that she did not have a prototype yet. She had recently been blocked from pitching at an event in Tunisia due to her lack of a prototype. I encouraged her to put her focus on marketing, pitching, sharing her story and to give herself two years. With these priorities, she could start getting people interested and build a community, use this growing interest to get funding, and THEN build a prototype. It would be insane to build a prototype without first receiving money to build it right. I also suggested that Khadija get different opinions.
a mentor is not there to tell their fellows what to do, but simply give their best advice and opinions.
Khadija had a one-on-one session with another enpact Mentor, Frank Neumann; he was of special interest to her because of his background in automotive engineering. Since the Mentor Visit, Khadija has won 4,000 DT with the Social Impact Award and went to Belgrade from October 31st to November 7th for the SIA Summit 2017.
The other fellow I work with is Anis. Anis was born and raised in Medenine, close to the Libyan border. Unfortunately, this region is often cast in the shadow of the beautiful beaches an hour away, and it seems the government forgets that this area has many people in need. Anis, who is a Science teacher, once posed a question to the schoolchildren after the revolution: “What is your dream?” The kids wrote simple responses, such as “I want to go to Tunis,” “I want a playstation,” “I want to go to the beaches.” Simple wishes. Anis wanted to see if they could make these wishes reality, so he wrote a letter to the government but never got a response. Anis badly wanted to do something for the children to support their future, so he created his NGO, Le Voix de l’Enfant Rural, meaning “the voice of the rural children.” He did this on top on his full-time job, first through organising artistic and intercultural events, including dances, as it enables people to communicate across languages. This year, Anis created the second edition of Festival Label’zik Sud Est, which included prizes. However, he felt this still wasn’t enough; for these children to have their dreams fulfilled, he would have to support their parents too. They decided to raise awareness among the women that, although the region may appear forgotten, it is full of gold such as olives, figs, honey and a huge variety of plants which can be used as medicine or cosmetics. Anis set up three cooperatives with over a hundred local women working across all three.
The first cooperative is a beehive that employs almost 25 women making honey. Second is a cooperative in the south of Medenine, where women collect thyme and rosemary in the mountains and dry it to make essential oils. In the final cooperative, the women make soaps, with the first one coming out in November. For the second cooperative, they have reached a roadblock. Not many people in the mountains buy oils, so after the women have done so much work, the bottles just sit there. I worked with Anis to help him realise that his top priority should be to motivate the women to sell. If the women go to work every morning and don’t sell the products they will lose motivation. As Anis already has a B2B customer in the ministry for soap, we realized that might be able to sell the essential oils to this company as well.
Anis started, implemented and fundraised for all these initiatives. He applied at enpact because he had another great idea: other people like him could use a platform to sell and exchange information, somewhere buyers and sellers can be connected, and where people who want to run a cooperative can be taught how to create a business and how to fundraise. He is currently developing an online platform to do just that and reach the people who are willing to pay a bit more for traditional, local products in order to support the local economy.
It’s been amazing to work with these startups. They are all incredibly qualified and have ideas that can change lives. While they are doing great work, learning to embrace change has helped them – and me – go even further.