Entrepreneurship between reality and perspectives, the Tunisian Solidarity Bank between the promotion and implementation of a new economy that meets the challenges of the current context: these are some of the main axes of the interview given to us by Mr. Lamine Hafsaoui, CEO of BTS.
How was the situation in matters of entrepreneurship before the Revolution?
We cannot say that entrepreneurship is enjoying a developed spirit and there is an absolute need that this emanates from a social culture that is entrenched among future entrepreneurs, mostly young people.
The entrepreneurial culture is not very developed, since, due to a historical process, the State has developed education and training, only to prepare managers to run the country. In this regard, we can say that everyone is studying to become employee in the public service.
From 1972 and with the development of the private sector, the goal became to provide employees to new promoters. Until that period, development of entrepreneurship was not one of the stated objectives of the country.
From the 80’s and with the spread of education, our universities have made efforts to provide more and more executives and we realized that development cannot be absorbed by a paid activity either in the public or private sectors and that there was a need to diversify the economy and improve the rate of growth while increasing businesses.
Achieving this goal requires the existence of entrepreneurs. From that moment, we began to introduce entrepreneurship in our country and there has been some work that was done and a new category of entrepreneurs has been created.
Their number was limited and this culture began to take shape. Although we cannot win this bet, we must continue to fight to ensure that this culture be rooted in our country.
There are objective limits to the development of entrepreneurship, namely the small size of our country and the smallness of our market. We cannot develop companies in an unlimited way, because the economic space is limited.
It is true that we are open to the outside, but this is not given to everyone, because this opening requires mechanisms and know-how in order to capture markets and especially means to be able to do it.
Before January 14, we can say that we started developing this culture but we have not rooted this attitude in our society.
What is the impact of the Revolution on entrepreneurship in Tunisia especially since the situation is unclear at the moment?
Three months after the Revolution, we cannot say that everything will change. It is true that we made the Revolution, but we cannot revolutionize a culture or spirits. I do not think there has been a big change except that people are in the process of searching, trying to find tracks. We are looking for the best way to find our future.
How to ensure that the entrepreneurial spirit that creates wealth and social justice become embedded in the new political agenda of the country?
It should be noted first that entrepreneurship is primarily a state of mind, this is not a technique, since techniques, are learnt in universities. This mindset needs improvement in an environment of freedom and criticism. This will help make the correct diagnosis of the situation and promote the future.
I am an optimist, and I think that the events our country has experienced will help open channels of economic and social advancement which would create a multiplier effect in our economic life. And this will lead us to increase businesses as sources of wealth.
This approach requires strengthening partnership either internally or externally. Increased partnerships could play a role in the growth of businesses that could be a locomotive for growth.
When things stabilize politically, our country is capable of doubling its growth rate which was for years at around 5% and speed up with a growth rate of at least 8 to 10%, thereby multiplying the number of businesses, reducing unemployment and propelling Tunisia to a higher level.
Now about the BTS, as a mechanism of support for young entrepreneurs, how do you assess the situation of BTS during this period?
The BTS is a very good mechanism that worked well and bore fruit. What I felt after the Revolution is that the BTS has become an essential mechanism. This is shown in the demand on this mechanism from all departments and especially from youth. We have seen a rush of demands submitted to the BTS.
This proves that the BTS is a useful mechanism. In this context, what needs change is that the BTS could play its role better if it is conceived as a mechanism built in a comprehensive development system, that is to say that the BTS cannot alone create development. There must be other interventions.
We need State intervention to establish the infrastructure which is an overarching framework necessary for development. There must have locomotives of development in the regions, that is to say large projects which will later lead to the creation of a fabric of SMEs.
Our intervention needs not to be managed, it must be an emancipation of a socio-economic necessity, and thereby the BTS could fully play its role since there is the possibility of developing hundreds and even thousands of micro-projects. If there is not a socio-economic necessity, these projects will be doomed to failure.
Therefore, development can be designed in a comprehensive manner only if mechanisms without complexities are established. We should simplify life and make the entire system available to people, especially promoters because there is always an obstacle course for them.
What is the priority of the BTS in this transitional phase?
The priority for BTS is to continue helping people with project ideas and viable projects and especially serious young entrepreneurs. In fact, the big problem already faced by BTS, is that most people who come to us do it by default and mainly because they did not find a paid job.
These are not the only category that we prefer.
What we prefer is to see developers who come voluntarily and this requires an adequate socio-economic environment because we must rely on the example of Sfax, which is the region where the BTS has funded the largest number of projects with 10,000 projects.
The success of the platform is the result of the willingness of youth and others in the region to start their own projects from an early age, especially as the family environment as well as the socio-economic environment in Sfax encourages this kind of initiative and boost the entrepreneurial culture that continues to grow in this region, much more than in other regions such as Sidi Bouzid or others…
However, we must not say that people in inland areas are not hard workers, on the contrary, we find skills and ambitious young people who are in search of wealth and development, but they do not have that entrepreneurial spirit because they have not received such education and lack the proper socio-economic environment which encourages them to become entrepreneurs and succeed. BTS is keen not to fund a project doomed to failure.
We have gained experience during ten years which allows us a certain expertise to help assess projects and developers to take the financing decision.
Having said that, under special conditions, it may take special measures, we try to be a bit more “cool” for not taking into account some gaps to help young people acquire the funding they seek and we accept the resulting rate of failure.
What role will you play in this stage of crisis, and how do you plan to cope with the current situation?
We are playing the role we have always had for years. We support any project funded without being rigid, despite the special conditions that we live through after the Revolution. It is not only the socio-economic and political context that will change; all changes that will result will help everyone find the right path and to move towards a better path.
Have you designed a specific strategy to facilitate the granting of loans and financing especially since many young people have suffered much of your procedures which are deemed rigid?
It is true that we have kept the same procedures that have been imposed on us administratively for years and which cause some slowness in the implementation phases of certain projects.
Several administrative procedures were removed after January 14 and now we will have a direct relationship with the client and If the developer of the project presented to the BTS is serious, we will provide full guarantees to grant the financing as soon as possible.
However, there are objective conditions that make that certain slowness is needed. For example, if the agreement is granted to a young developer who does not find self-financing, it is not the bank that will give him that share of funding because the rule for us is that each young promoter must bring his financial contribution and must be mobilized for the project, which will be his.
In this context, we should recall that the BTS has eased the conditions for granting loans and microcredits, but we cannot neglect the basics of financing, and if these principles are respected, there is no reason why the developer suffers from difficulties …
We would like to know more about the situation of young promoters receiving credits before January 14?
For us, the best indicator of the situation of our young promoters is the rate of recovery.
Before the revolution of January 14, that rate was between 85 and 90%, so it was respectable if not high compared to recovery rates recorded over the past three years which reached more than 80%.
It is true that the rate dropped during the first three months of 2011 to reach 40% in January. In February, we were at 50% before recovering to reach 60% in the month of March. I hope that in April, the rate will climb again to recover the rates reached previously.
I think it’s a temporary situation and the curve will recover its evolutionary rate in the coming months…