Tunisia's Emerging Tech Sector Hampered By Old Policies : All Tech Considered When Tunisia's young people protested in 2011, they had one key demand: jobs. Now, despite new political leadership, that demand remains unmet — even in tech, the sector that offers the most promise.
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Tunisia's Emerging Tech Sector Hampered By Old Policies

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Tunisia's Emerging Tech Sector Hampered By Old Policies

Tunisia's Emerging Tech Sector Hampered By Old Policies

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

We turn now to All Tech Considered. We're going to hear about the tech icon of me in a budding democracy. Tunisia is the country that gave birth to the so-called Arab Spring.

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UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Crosstalk in foreign language).

CORNISH: That's the wave of political protests in 2010 and '11 that sparked hopes for a new era of representative government. Next Sunday, those hopes will be in evidence as the country votes to elect a new parliament.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Much has been made of the internet in Tunisia's rapid, political change. Social media powered the wide distribution of cell phone videos, showing a crackdown against the demonstrators and that in turn fueled more protests, toppling the country's dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali. As NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reported from the Tunisian capital at the time.

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ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Tunisians say they're proud that the world's eyes are upon them and for being the first country to tweet out a tyrant.

CORNISH: After that, people expressed big aspirations for a technology sector that would bring investment and deliver jobs. They're still waiting. Which tech fueled a fast political revolution, it seems it will take much longer to revolutionize the economy. NPR tech reporter Aarti Shahani traveled to North Africa.

AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: Tunis feels like a capital city that's on the move.

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SHAHANI: I'm in a yellow taxi cab swerving through packed streets en route to a Microsoft office to meet the shy son of a subsistence farmer.

MOEZ ROJBI: (Foreign language spoken).

SHAHANI: 25-year-old Moez Rojbi taught himself how to make tractors and industrial refrigerators smart, connected to the Internet and data-driven. And he did it from a tiny plot of land in the south of the country with just a computer. Now, with backing from America's tech sector, Rojbi wants to make money and create jobs.

ROJBI: (Through translator) Here, to be surrounded by experienced people - and actually, it's the elite of Tunisia in this field - will enable me to find my way in this business.

SHAHANI: Is it different from where you started your business?

ROJBI: (Laughter) Very different. It's very different.

SHAHANI: Looking out at the water front, he has ambition in his eye. But Moez Rojbi also faces a big problem - one that existed in the days of the dictator and that persists. Tunisia's currency, the dinar, is effectively trapped inside the country. The central bank has to approve every international transaction for software, for hardware - for basic business essentials. Rojbi explains...

ROJBI: (Through translator) Let's say we are buying a machine which measures temperature during summer for a product. You will get your machine after the summer, and the clients in general lose trust in us.

SHAHANI: Across the political spectrum, Tunisia's new leaders say technology will create jobs for the youth. Internet businesses are cheap - the perfect fit for a country with lots of human capital and very little cash. Yet today, in 2014, you still can't make an online payment on Amazon or Apple. Tunisians can't receive foreign payments through PayPal, and investors with euros and dollars who want to support Tunisian startups can't come in.

TUFFEK JELASI: I refer you to the 23 years of our recent history. It was 23 years of full control of everything over everything.

SHAHANI: Tuffek Jelasi is the government's minister in charge of information communication and technologies.

JELASI: Many decision makers grew up in that context - worked in that context - are still today in key positions that were used to that full control mechanism behavior.

SHAHANI: Jelasi says just because the revolution changed the leadership doesn't mean it changed the guarded culture. The currency issue is just one symptom of a bigger problem.

JELASI: Now to lose that control or ease up that control - it's not something that comes in that easily.

SHAHANI: The young people in this country feel hope and abject fear. I hop over to Esprit, a private university that's under construction. It's expanding. Samsung and Blackberry are building an incubator for students to do tech projects. As workers hammer away at the concrete, I ask student Dura Monsuiri the obvious question for an American watching Tunisia. How's the job situation?

DURA MONSUIRI: (Through translator) Actually, nothing really changed. It's the same, but the problem - that you can find a job, but it's not really what you want to do, and you find yourself doing other things that aren't what you studied for.

SHAHANI: She picked up the subject cloud computing because she hears that will get her work, but she's graduating this year and still isn't sure what will happen. Her favorite smartphone app helps her cope with the uncertainty.

MONSUIRI: Candy Crush. (Laughing). When I have stress, I play with Candy Crush.

SHAHANI: Some things are global.

There is a generation of young Tunisians who thrive on the stress - expatriates who flooded back to the country after the dictator left to see what they could build for themselves.

ELYES JEREBI: I am Elyes Jerebi. I am cofounder of two startups, LinkAO and CodusCloud. Before that, I worked for McKinsey in France - McKinsey and Company consulting company. And I worked for one year with the Tunisian government in 2011 just after the revolution.

SHAHANI: Elyes Jerebi has lived in Paris and the U.S. He drinks his coffee with three sugars like the locals do, but he's familiar enough with my hometown, San Francisco, to make fun of how I take my latte.

JEREBI: Low-fat milk, no sugar. (Laughter).

SHAHANI: And every line of this 32-year-old's resume tells a different part of Tunisia's revolutionary story. In 2011 when Ben Ali was still in power, Jerebi was part of the McKinsey team that proposed a 10-year technology plan.

JEREBI: Transforming Tunisia to India for French-speaking countries. It's actually an off-shoring strategy project.

SHAHANI: To make Tunis like Bangalore?

JEREBI: Exactly, and for French because we cannot compete with Bangalore in English (Laughter).

SHAHANI: While some Tunisian technophiles want to replicate Silicon Valley, Jerebi doesn't think that's realistic. He's now trying to build out his technology vision on a much smaller scale, making mobile apps for French chocolatiers and Swiss retailers. He says the dinar currency stranglehold is hurting his business, too.

JEREBI: Basically what we are doing because we are afraid of having $1 million go abroad, we are missing hundred of million dollars going inside the country. And this is a very bad calculation the government is doing.

SHAHANI: Jerebi says he plans to stay in Tunisia at least for a while and try to help his country get the math right. Aarti Shahani, NPR News.

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