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Tunisia: CEPEX urges banks to support exporting companies

Exports are performing well despite the difficult juncture, said Abdellatif Hmem, CEO of the Exports Promotion Centre (CEPEX) in an interview with African Manager. 
Interview: 

What is the current situation of exports, 4 months after the outbreak of the Revolution? 

I think the figures published by the National Statistics Institute clearly show that this sector continues to behave honorably. Exports values are up about 11% in the four consecutive months which is a sign of satisfaction for the exporting mechanism. 

If we look more closely, we find that this rise in exports is due mainly to increased exports of manufactured goods which account for nearly 80% of the exports of goods in Tunisia. Note that these exports rose by 12%. Offshore companies, whose products are meant for exports, continue to produce and trust Tunisia, posting a growth of 20%. 

So I think the exports sector has so far performed well despite some difficulties encountered. 

For this reason, an organization has been established since January 18, to be attentive to these companies and solve the difficulties of managing logistics that can arise at ports and airports. In CEPEX, we are constantly in touch with exporters. What is important to note is that no Tunisian company has cancelled participation in any trade fair.
Tunisian firms continue to show enthusiasm to be present at the international level to participate actively in trade fairs. Moreover, we have intensified our programs, especially since we have recorded a positive response from the Tunisian institutions. 

Overall, results show that the Tunisian economic fabric, which is export-oriented in particular, has found ways to manage this transitional period. 
It is currently showing an ability to continue to operate and there is a learning of crisis management and social negotiation.

In this uncertain and unstable situation, how do the Tunisian exporters perform? 

It must be stated that the flagship sector of industrial production today, which is that of mechanical and electronic industries, behaves perfectly. Companies continue to export. 
We register significant growth rates of over 30%. The order book of these firms is quite promising with regard to the sustainability of this momentum of exports from Tunisia. 

I think that the Tunisian companies have learned to organize themselves, showing a sense of militancy. The productive sector in general has not registered a great loss. Moreover, out of the 3,000 foreign businesses, only thirty have been hit by the events. It is 1%. Overall, the confidence was restored and exporting companies responded well, knowing that there is a momentum and capital sympathy for Tunisia and for Tunisian products. 

Moreover and during the Libyan crisis, Tunisian companies continue to export and supply the Libyan market, in consultation with the Libyan authorities and in coordination with the United Nations. 

What are the main exported products now

The first four months of this year makes no exception to the general trend, we export mainly manufactures products, electrical and mechanical products, textile, a sector that begins to recover and perform well. 
We recorded a strong increase in textile and clothing products in March.Food products have also posted significant growth especially in Gulf countries.In this connection, we can assert that the products of the season: fruits and vegetables are well appreciated and the information we have collected from air carriers show a considerable increase in Tunisian products on this market.

Is there a clear vision to rely on other products, so as to better conquer new markets such as the African market? 

Strategies, of course, are updated and renewed according to the new situation on the Arab, Middle Eastern and African scenes. We are working hard to search for distribution markets or Libyan market, which is an important market. 

We export 1,000 to 2,000 million dinars to Libya. Exchanges between Tunisia and Libya reach two billion dinars per year. There are Tunisian companies who produce almost exclusively for the Libyan market. Today, we try to meet the needs expressed by these companies to help them better position under more competitive conditions in the African market. Priority is for the market of West African States, an economic area of ​​8 countries and 80 million consumers, Francophone countries.

Our strategy is to help service businesses in the building, infrastructure, public utilities and hospital construction fields. In all these areas, we can say that Tunisia has gained an experience. We have already noted the trust that has been given to Tunisian companies to construct roads and highways in Côte d’Ivoire, Mauritania and Mali. 

These companies are very dynamic and much appreciated. Their value and expertise are recognized by donors such as the AfDB, the Islamic Development Bank, the European Investment Bank and the World Bank. 

 And I think we have a good reputation in Africa. Tunisia has an excellent image of a country that has capitalized on its appropriate and competitive know-how.Now it’s time to find ways of funding that allow Tunisian firms to make the most of these opportunities. The state has established incentive mechanisms to export this know-how. 

The companies, in turn, should organize. We are already working with these companies to help them fit into this market. 
We are confident that there are some difficulties with transportation costs, but we are in a dynamic partnership with Tunisiar and carriers, with all players of the African market, and we try to implement mechanisms of response to business needs and in the short term, a real strategy to help not only to sell on the African market but also invest in that market by establishing partnership with African companies for investment operations.
In general, there are opportunities and our country is serious about these 
opportunities. 

So, what are your recommendations for Tunisian companies to better withstand the period of the crisis and further contribute to economic recovery?

 The first advice is to further work together, share information and fit into “co-opetition”, that is to say competition and cooperation simultaneously. I think 
Tunisian enterprises are, overall, small and medium units. The international market needs a critical size. If you want to be more successful internationally, it is important to go deeper into concerted action. Companies can compete at the local market but when it comes to go to the regional market, it is important to pool energies and work together. 

It’s time to stop going into dispersed professional order. And here I take this opportunity to launch an invitation to Tunisian banks to invest more to assist companies to export. I think banks can no longer remain in their waiting position until companies come and see them. Today it is urgent that banks begin to identify, as part of interbank cooperation, mechanisms of support and financing of Tunisian exports.
The state can no longer do that, the financial system must invent and innovate to support Tunisian businesses interested in exporting. 

Let’s talk about young entrepreneurs, certainly, there are young entrepreneurs who want to invest and even create export companies. Have you thought about a strategy to assist and encourage them? 

It is clear that the activity of international trade and export is complex and
costly in terms of time, energy and investment. Our interest in young exporters is obvious for several reasons. 
First, it is important to renew the generation of exporters. Preparing for the future of export in Tunisia supposes today that we inject continuously in the system, young skilled people who are capable to meet tomorrow the challenge of export. On the other hand, it is essential to encourage exporting start-ups, especially as we want to encourage entrepreneurship. We do not want to functionalize youth. It is important for young people graduating from specialized schools like IHEC, ISG, ESC to have the opportunity to practice international trade by themselves and learn.
What the CEPEX proposes to bring is, first, additional training. 
We have several training programs with foreign centers, namely the Dutch centre, the Italians and Australians. We try to help them explore the external market.
In this context, we have a range of measures to go into exploration missions. Besides, we have a website oriented around the needs of export in so far as there is a calendar of export, opportunities for export and support to export.
We ask that entrepreneurs come to us and we are ready to help. 

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