Joint interview : Pitchworthy and Lab’ess
Successor to the SafirLab, the Safir project will, over 4 years, deploy a development programme to support projects having social, cultural and environmental impact in 9 counties in the Middle East and Northern Africa region (ANMO). To support the 1,000 project leaders and also help the 7 selected incubators to set up, Pitchworthy (Lebanon) and Lab'ess (Tunisia) are part of the consortium led by the Institut Français. Carol Awad and Yousri Helal, members of these two incubators discuss the entrepreneurial dynamic of their region and the role of the Safir programme.
How are Pitchworthy and Lab'ess positioned within their respective ecosystems?
Carol Awad: Pitchworthy operates in the economic and educational capacity building of various projects having sustainable development goals. At the same time, we have a role as a stimulator of the local entrepreneurial community. In this way, for the last two years we have been developing an on-line acceleration programme that allows us to reach young entrepreneurs living outside the major cities and who do not always have the possibility to come to us. While we have an appetite for social entrepreneurship, we address projects in many areas, such as on-line services or tech.
Yousri Helal: Lab'ess was created in the wake of the Tunisian revolution. At that time, the rules and regulations were relaxed and there was a real boom in associative structures. Initially we began by supporting this movement in order to structure emerging associations. While maintaining this activity, we evolved quite quickly towards social entrepreneurship, with projects meeting the urgent issues facing Tunisia: the development of local production, sustainable agriculture and the environment.
What are the needs of the young entrepreneurs who contact you?
Carol Awad: apart from the usual needs of a start-up in terms of support for a business model, young people’s desires have changed considerably, particularly since the start of the health crisis. We place a lot of emphasis on the development of unique personality traits and universal skills. These are aspects that are neglected in schoolsand higher education and young entrepreneurs are sometimes poorly equipped when it comes to the so-called "soft skills” – communication, motivation or teamwork. We also strive to help them develop their sense of belonging to a community. Being able to rely on a network offering rewarding interactions is essential.
Yousri Helal: in Tunisia, there is first of all a lack of entrepreneurial culture. It is something that is rarely discussed, even at school, and it takes time to convince young people to go into business on their own. This is all the more important because the labour market is saturated in certain sectors such as the civil service. Moreover, the Tunisian ecosystem lacks resources, mainly due to the lack of support from the public authorities. However, our work as an incubator only makes sense if there are financial means to ensure the projects are durable. The Safir programme partly responds to these issues.
Indeed, so what made you want to become a partner in this programme?
Yousri Helal: Lab'ess was already a participant in the SafirLab, an innovation programme that preceded Safir. Integrating this new level was a means to capitalise on this success. SafirLab enabled us to identify some excellent projects while also developing expertise in the field. We felt it was natural to share this acquired knowledge with other incubators that are in the same position that we were a few years ago.
Carol Awad: I also believe that our mission and the aims of Safir are really compatible. Pitchworthy has been working now for two years in improving the impact of its on-line programme. And Safir provides us with a fantastic opportunity to expand our horizons beyond the borders of Lebanon and share our expertise with budding incubators and, why not, discover some gems from the ANMO region.
This idea of cooperation between the countries of the Mediterranean Basin is at the core of Safir. In your opinion, what can such an exchange of views bring about?
Carol Awad: we live in a region where there are not many exchanges, where each country is somewhat self-sufficient. To be able to share and realise that there are similar, but also very rich, ecosystems is a priceless opportunity.
Yousri Helal: I agree totally with Carol: far too often we tend to seek inspiration from what is happening in Europe or the United States without paying much attention to success stories at home, in contexts that are far more similar. Sharing best practices generates ideas. It also opens up new horizons. A Tunisian entrepreneur who develops a solution for the home market will find it much easier to duplicate it in similar areas, in Morocco or Algeria, rather than tackling Europe.
The other major standpoint concerns sustainable development. What place does this concern have in the Mediterranean arc?
Carol Awad: for us sustainable development is far more than a theme or a United Nations goal: it is a necessity. The public authorities have no solutions. This is why our work is to help young entrepreneurs identify paths to sustainable development for the region.
Yousri Helal: what the different entrepreneurs that we support have in common is an acute awareness of the social and environmental issues of their country. However, they do not always have the theoretical tools or the global vision of the problem. Safir will enable us to reinforce the acquired knowledge and ensure that project leaders assume ownership of these goals in order to become actors of change at their own level.
What are the challenges that tomorrow's young entrepreneurs will face?
Carol Awad: the questions of recycling, waste separation and food security are significant in Lebanon, but job opportunities remain a central issue. I believe that if you want to unite you need sound roots. This is why we are very involved in creating on-line tools since, ultimately, they are a good way to establish the network and enable it to self-manage itself.
Yousri Helal: in Tunisia, sustainable agriculture generates a lot of interest, as does ecology which is at the centre of numerous projects received by Lab'ess. Over and beyond these issues, most of all our action must be made durable. Behind Safir, the players in the field must be able to reproduce our models, because successful projects will create a dynamic. I remain convinced that a handful of change makers can have positive effects and become the standard-bearer for social entrepreneurship in the region.
The Institut français leads the Safir project, the implementation of which is based on a consortium made up of the Agence Universitaire de la Francophonie (Francophone University Association, AUF), the CFI, Tunisian and Lebanese incubators Lab’ess and Pitchworthy, and the Arab NGO Network for Development (ANND).
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