JICA-Supported Tech Startups Are Showcasing Tunisia's Potential
August 23, 2022
Mr. Jihed Hannachi was working as a business consultant in the Netherlands when he got the idea for MajestEYE, a startup that helps companies to "go digital" by adopting data tools such as artificial intelligence. (AI)
There were plenty of opportunities for AI startups in Europe, but Mr. Hannachi and his partner, a data science researcher based in Cambridge, England, decided to go a different route. They based their new "deep tech" venture in Jendouba, a town in the northwestern part of Tunisia.
"We are in a region where there are not really tech jobs," says Mr. Hannachi, who is a native of the area. "We are the only company that offers jobs in deep tech."
Half a decade since its founding, MajestEYE has developed tools to identify disease-causing pathogens and potentially useful compounds in plants, among other technologies. It has 15 employees and a new branch office in Algeria, and has just closed a partnership with a European consultancy specializing in the pharmaceutical industry.
JICA as the First Supporter
One supporter of MajestEYE has been the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). Last year, JICA selected the company as one of 10 Grand Finalists for NINJA (Next Innovation with Japan) Business Plan Competition, a program to identify innovative startups in Africa and provide them with financial support.
Out of 2,713 applicants from across the continent, JICA chose 69 recipients, including the 10 Grand Finalists. Mr. Hannachi says the exposure and the rigorous selection process were as valuable to MajestEYE as JICA supports our PoC (Proof of Concept) .
"Now, when we get tough questions from venture capitalists or potential business partners, we have faced it before," he says. "In a sense, JICA is our first supporter."
Support startups to Drive Sustainable Growth
JICA has made supporting startups one of the pillars of its development work in Africa. The goal is to nurture competitive private-sector business that can become hubs for innovation and drive sustainable growth.
"Often, in Africa, the markets are yet to be discovered" says Mr. TSUJII Ryo, project team head at JICA's Tunisia office. "JICA can provide information on opportunities in African local markets and is seeking to provide risk capital when private investors aren't there to take the risks."
Mr. Tsujii said Tunisia was particularly fertile ground for startup-focused development partnerships.
"The education level is high, there are lots of talented people, and the economy isn't over-dependent on natural resources," he says. "What it needs are more job opportunities."
Another Tunisian NINJA recipient is SPIKE-X, an AI specialized startup based in the capital, Tunis. Founder Dr. Kirmene Marzouki started SPIKE-X in 2013 after he returned to Tunisia from Japan, where he received his PhD from the Kyushu Institute of Technology.
"There was absolutely no startup ecosystem in Tunisia back then," Dr. Marzouki recalls. "I realized there was a need to be fulfilled."
SPIKE-X has developed a web-based healthcare platform to identify cancers and other major diseases. Cancer is the leading cause of death in Tunisia, but Dr. Marzouki said there was a lack of resources and technical support for conventional detection methods such as screenings.
"We are proving that AI can solve social problems," Dr. Marzouki says.
In August, Tunisia will host the Eighth Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD). Mr. Tsujii says the event would be an "opportunity to showcase Tunisia's success stories" such as SPIKE-X and MajestEYE.
Both Dr. Marzouki and Mr. Hannachi acknowledge that basing their businesses in Tunisia has brought challenges. Legal protection for intellectual property is an ongoing issue, and securing financing can be difficult, especially when a startup is seeking to move from the proof-of-concept phase to commercialization and growth.
But they say the benefits have outweighed the downsides.
"I'm very proud to have started my business in Tunisia," Dr. Marzouki says, "because it's showing what we can do."
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