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Tunisia-textiles and clothing: ”Our foreign partners are still suspicious,”” says the President of Fenatex

The situation of the textile and clothing sector, its difficulties and its development prospects, are the central themes of an interview given by Belhassen Gherab, President of the National Federation of Textile (Fenatex) to AfricanManager, on the sidelines of an information workshop held recently to present the adjustments to the upgrading program for textile and clothing companies and funding mechanisms available to the sector’s industrialists. Interview:

What is the current situation of the textiles and clothing sector in Tunisia?

The textile and clothing in Tunisia is going through a very difficult time due to a precarious social and security situation. This has left our foreign partners still suspicious and reluctant.

Our foreign partners are struggling to initiate the usual orders with confidence. Add to this the crisis in Europe where our main customers are.

These factors have led to a decline in local and international demand of Tunisia. On export, this decline is estimated at between 7 and 8% following a drop in consumption and inflation.

Indeed, consumption of both domestic and international markets is a problem for the textile sector which always comes second after food, computer and entertainment. The textile has become a luxury and even comes in the last place. The sector is struggling to position itself in relation to consumer needs.

How can we explain this decline? This decrease is related to everything that had happened under the former regime marked by the disappearance of all the Tunisian Industrial fabric. Today, we are left with a country that is positioning itself as a leading supplier of Europe as a whole but a small supplier in the local market. Over 80% of goods are imported while we are a leading exporter.

Which solutions do you offer?

We must rebuild and ensure the recovery of the industrial base. Businesses that had shut down should also reopen. We have already begun discussions with the industry minister who promised to take the necessary steps to encourage industrialists to reinvest in the local market. However, even if these companies reopened again, there would be another problem. Indeed, today, a manufacturer cannot work if he does not find an environment that is conducive to business. We have the expertise, manpower and equipment, but we are still missing many other things. We miss, for example, manufacturers of buttons on the local market, so we have to import them. We will not have the right to purchase accessories, supplies such as yarn, buttons, heat-sealing materials and several other essential ingredients for the local industry to run. Indeed, with the closure of these companies, lots of traders and small traders are exposed to the same fate.

These people should resume their business, but this will take time. It is within this framework that we proposed to discuss with the ministers of trade and finance, in order to find mechanisms and means so that these local businesses can purchase from local market.

Is the enlargement of Tunisia’s partners for this sector a necessity or a choice?

Given the crisis in Europe, Tunisia today is called to expand its markets and diversify its partners in several markets such as Northern Europe and the United States. We also asked the government to accelerate the process of free trade between Tunisia and the United States.

To export to the U.S. market, Tunisian industrialists should pay a fee, while Turks and Moroccans are totally exempted. If we can have these free trade agreements, this will allow us to export without tax and earn an important market for Tunisia. This is one of the requests of Fenatex to public authorities.

Texmed, the trade fair which will be organized from October 3 to 5 will also be an opportunity to invite other countries than our regular customers.

How does Tunisia position itself compared to its competitors such as Morocco and Turkey?

It is better positioned compared to Moroccans. But, compared to Turkey, it is outclassed.

The Turks have a lot invested in commodities. The Turkish market is very open. This is a highly developed market in matters of raw materials, fabric and finishing. As for Tunisia, the market has not been able to do well because of a major handicap called raw material supply. The Textile Federation is currently considering a plan to revive this activity which should start with finishing and weaving and having the raw materials needed to develop the textile and clothing industry.

Nevertheless, the textile sector is highly developed. We have 2,000 companies in Tunisia providing approximately 200,000 jobs. This is the largest sector in Tunisia. What we can do today is to prepare a fertile ground for these companies to grow more. Today we lack quality stylists and quality design training, enabling companies to be innovative and creative in order to export finished products. This is a crucial factor for the development of the textile industry.

What are the factors of competitiveness of the Tunisian textile and clothing?

We have just elected an executive committee formed by a young team that will contribute to the sector’s development. We are working with the government and the various branches and divisions in Tunisia to try to understand and analyze the current situation and present, therefore, projects. Moreover, following a meeting with the Minister of Industry, we decided to set up a recovery cell, in collaboration with the CETTEX and CEPEX. We will work on analyzing the situation of the textile industry and propose to government actors concrete proposals in the short to medium term.

What are the challenges that would be faced by Tunisia?

The major challenge of Tunisia is to move from subcontracting to finished products. The time has come for companies to be challenging especially in the area of confection.

Collaboration may be needed with Turks or Europeans who are seeking to create structures and industries to supply raw materials to fabricators in Tunisia. Sub-contracting is no longer valid. Garment industrialists have to set up organizations and structures needed to pass to finished products. Thus, we must improve the activity of fashion design and modeling through the leveraging of skills that go hand in hand with them. It is within this context that the Federation has partnered with the Ministry of Vocational Training in order to mobilize the necessary tools to train young graduates and provide them skills to allow them to be ready to meet such challenges.

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