Obama pledges U.S. support for Tunisian entrepreneurs

U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker urges reforms to attract more investments in Tunisia

Asma Ajroudi

Published: Updated:

The United States has pledged more than $1 billion in investments, over the next three years, to help generate new entrepreneurs in Tunisia and around the world, President Barack Obama said in a video message on Thursday.

The message was broadcast at the opening of the Investment and Entrepreneurship Conference (IEC) in the Tunisian capital, Tunis.

“As Tunisia consolidates its democracy, the United States is proud to be your partner,” said Obama.

“Like you, we know democracy requires strong democratic institutions, but also economic growth and opportunity, so citizens see that democracy can deliver a better life.”

“When laws and regulations truly welcome foreign investors; when rule of law and transparency allow companies to play by the same rules - that’s when trade and investment flourish. That’s how new jobs are created. When a person can start and build their own business; when an entrepreneur has the freedom to pursue a new idea that’s how new prosperity is unleashed.”

The investments will target young people and women, Obama added.

‘Long, difficult path’

“Tunisia still faces a long and difficult path as it works to improve the lives of people. But Tunisia’s progress gives us hope,” he added. “You are showing that democracy is possible and necessary in North Africa and the Middle East and in contrast to violent extremists and terrorists who only know how to destroy.”

More than 300 American businessmen and North African private and public sectors leaders attended the conference to discuss ways to expand U.S.-Tunisian, as well as intra-Maghreb and U.S.-Maghreb, economic ties.

Investment climate

U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker said in her keynote speech: “Streamlining, simplifying, and clarifying the investment code will incentivize business formation; facilitate more private sector growth and competition; and send a signal to local and global investors that Tunisia is open for business.”

“This country needs a transparent, reliable, and modern tax and customs structure with equitable tax brackets that incorporate the informal economy into the broader market; with risk-based auditing, independent of politics or connections with efficient customs procedures, which will boost trade and exports; and with policies that prevent discretionary application of the rules.”

The banking system in Tunisia needs restructuring to include a bankruptcy law that “protects risk-takers and permits failure,” said the U.S. official. “These are cornerstones of any successful entrepreneurial ecosystem.”

Meanwhile David Hamod, President and CEO of the National U.S.-Arab Chamber of Commerce (NUSACC) told Al Arabiya News: “The potential in Tunisia is immense. You have all of the necessary ingredients for a fantastic success story.

“The most fantastic ingredient of all is the people. And the people of Tunisia maybe unrivaled throughout the Middle East and North Africa,” said Hamod.

Tunisians have a “very high level of education, strong knowledge of multiple languages, [and] recognition of different cultures,” which uniquely positions Tunisia as “a hub for the region.”

“From my perspective, the Tunisian people went right to edge, looked over the edge, they saw the chaos of other countries in the region and said ‘that’s not for the Tunisian people. We can do better than that’.”

Hamod said he has led more business delegations to Tunisia than any other country in the Arab world.

On Thursday the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), the U.S. government’s development institution, signed an agreement with leading Tunisian financial institutions that would guarantee up to $50 million credit.

“A robust lending environment in emerging markets, specifically for SMEs, creates enduring employment and is one of the cornerstones of stable, inclusive economic growth,” OPIC’s President and CEO Elizabeth Littlefield told press.

The partnership, named the “Tunisia Credit Guaranty Facility (TCGF), will support the Tunisian economy by accelerating lending to eligible Tunisian small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), particularly to those employing franchise business models.

“Our cooperation in this facility with established Tunisian institutions will not only boost growth in Tunisia’s franchise sector, but also builds on previous similar OPIC-supported projects that created or sustained thousands of jobs in the region and produced lasting economic growth.”

TCGF’s support fund is expected to impact 250 SMEs over 10 years. A similar OPIC-backed initiative in the Middle East has loaned over $132 million to SMEs in the region, supporting 10,000 local jobs.

The Middle East Investment Initiative (MEII), a non-profit organization that offers finance and technical assistance programs in the region, will manage the lending facility and will coordinate with local banks to ensure additional lending to Tunisian SMEs in local currency. Enclude, and advisory firm dedicated to building sustainable businesses, will also offer assistance to TCGF’s partner banks.

IEC was organized by the American Chamber of Commerce in Tunisia and Partners for a New Beginning: North Africa Partnership for Economic Opportunity (PNB-NAPEO) local chapter in Tunisia.