During a Tunisian-Portuguese Economic Day organized recently at the headquarters of UTICA, as part of the promotion of economic cooperation with Portugal, Hichem Elloumi, Chairman of the Tunisian-Portuguese business council talked, in an interview with Africanmanager, about the expectations of concerned companies and difficulties they face.
How does one describe the Tunisian-Portuguese economic relations?
Economic relations between Tunisia and Portugal were characterized by an imbalanced level of trade. Tunisia exported for around 100 million dinars in 2011 and imported three times that volume, approximately 300 MTD. There is some imbalance in these exchanges as well as in that of investment. Portuguese investment in Tunisia is at about 800 MTD. Much of this investment is mobilized in the cement industry, dominated by two groups Secil and Cimpor which are strongly present in Tunisia. The remaining exchanges are dominated by textile and clothing, food, and electronics. These are the main areas where we have Portuguese investments in Tunisia.
What are the prospects for developing economic Tunisian-Portuguese economic relations?
We are currently working to develop the economic relations between the two countries, encourage partnerships and urge Portuguese investors to use Tunisia as an industrial platform to enter markets where we are well positioned.
First there is the Maghreb space with Algeria and Libya. It is not only the Tunisian market that can be interesting, but also the market of the entire Maghreb and also Arab and African countries where we are well positioned. Add to that the European market which is our main customer. Tunisia is a very competitive site for Portuguese companies. What’s interesting also is that Tunisia and Portugal have much in common. They are two similarly sized countries with population of about 11 million.
Tunisia and Portugal have experienced a very significant program of modernization.
Moreover, Tunisia had drawn inspiration from the Portuguese modernization program to achieve its upgrading program and this is something that is very important between the two countries which have moved towards more value added and more innovation and technology.
What are the main points discussed on this occasion with the Portuguese side?
We identified during this meeting, several areas that could be further developed and several others in which investment and trade could grow. Moreover, about 44 companies are already operating in Tunisia. According to information from our Portuguese friends, there were several Portuguese companies that have already expressed their interest to settle or invest in our country. It is within this context that we shall organize a business forum by next May in Tunis. This forum will target Portuguese companies. We already have the agreement of the Portuguese and the business council.
Moreover, an agreement between the Tunisian employers’ organization (UTICA) and its Portuguese counterpart was signed.
We have already identified areas where there is great potential, namely textiles, but also food industries, which represent a very promising sector not to mention the mechanical and electrical sectors, renewable energy and ICT. We also spoke about the pharmaceutical sector.
We are also discussing with our counterparts from Portugal ways to formalize all this and compile lists of companies that will settle and even contact them. This is a very important point on which I placed too much emphasis during our discussions. I also stressed the potential role of the Utica in collaboration with other agencies, such as FIPA and CEPEX.
Therefore, we must work together. The UTICA, for example, will offer valuable services, particularly at the social level, in terms of support of both Tunisian and foreign companies to solve the social aspects in companies, because investment requires a social aspect, security, good risk management and visibility about the future of the country.
We try to provide our support so that investment will resume and growth bounces back. We want to help create jobs.
What are the possible difficulties encountered by Portuguese companies in carrying out their activities in Tunisia?
Important questions were raised. They center on the logistics of the port of Rades which is a big problem that need to be solved quickly. This is a brake on exports and development of domestic and foreign firms. Our Portuguese friends raised this issue of the port of Rades.
We are already discussing with the government to see how to quickly solve this problem of the port of Rades. There were also questions about the export quota of the Tunisian olive oil in European markets. It is also a problem that should be addressed particularly with the Ministry of Agriculture. The social part was also raised and we have assured our Portuguese interlocutors that there is a Social Committee in the Utica after a rapprochement with the UGTT to solve business problems through dialogue and negotiation and the break with strikes, sit-ins and conflicts.
How have you helped the Portuguese companies operating in Tunisia to overcome problems arising from the Revolution?
We tried to support the established companies and solve their problems with the help of UTICA, CEPEX but also ministries and the Government. We need to further reassure these companies so they can continue to invest and convey that confidence to Portugal to contribute to attract other Portuguese companies to settle in our country. We have intervened through communication and organization of visits to certain companies.
Events like the one organized today or the one to be held in May could play an important role to reassure these companies to improve the level of trade between two countries whose relations are rather historical.
A credit line of 100 million has been made available to Tunisian public and private sector operators as well as the Tunisian Tunisian-Portuguese joint ventures since 2008, what is the future of this line.
There was a credit line of 100 million Euros that was made available to Tunisia by a large Portuguese bank, but that is not active. We could energize that line to strengthen exchanges and partnership between the two countries. This is a track in which we would engage in to ease the work of companies seeking to invest in Tunisia. The blocking of this line was done at the central bank because of administrative problems. I have no details, but it is a matter to be settled with the Central Bank.