Adnen Ben Hadj Yahia aka “Nino,” Cofounder of El Space

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I’ve wanted to learn more about the entrepreneurship ecosystem in North Africa, particularly in Tunisia, for a while now and I found the perfect tour guide in Adnen Ben Hadj Yahia. 

Adnen, known as Nino to his friends, graduated from Tunis Business School in the years following the Arab Spring’s most successful revolution and has worked at the forefront of the small mediterranean country’s social innovation sector since. In between founding two startups and furthering his studies in the U.S., Nino co founded El Space with his friends, Tunisia’s premier social innovation hub. 

Over the past five years, El Space has grown to occupy two physical locations, as well as the metaphorical heart of a growing community of Tunisian entrepreneurs using business to create positive change in their country. You can see a video tour of one of their spaces below.

*Important Side Note – Please support “Fabriket Lafkar,” a new cultural hub in one of Tunisia’s poorer areas. With no entertainment venues or learning activities, Sidi Amor Nadeul suffers from high dropout rates and teenage crime. “Fabriket Lafkar” aims to change this for local youth, and it was actually co-designed with them back in 2019 in partnership with El Space and Diaspora in Action. You can support their crowdfunding campaign here.*

Early in our discussion, Nino told me that “The MENA region needs more voices and platforms to show what’s happening here to the rest of the world.” By the end of the interview, he’d thoroughly convinced me that anyone interested in the very exciting things happening in the region must pass through Tunisia. There, despite the challenges, a young, educated, cosmopolitan population is in the process of building towards a brighter future. 

Can you start by introducing yourself and El Space?

My name is Adnen Ben Hadj Yahia, but my friends call me Nino. I started my first company in 2013, when I was 22. Since then, I’ve been involved with a couple more companies, nonprofits, and social enterprises. I’m very proud of El Space, which I co founded with two of my friends – Walid and Khoula – in 2015.

The idea for El Space started when we were entrepreneurs and needed to have a quieter space to work. We discovered coworking and we said, “let’s open a space for social entrepreneurs.” At the time, there were only one or two coworking spaces in Tunisia and they were more focused on corporates and startups. We chose to focus on the social impact side of things. That’s how we complemented each other, and we remain friendly with them to this day.

El Space started as just a coworking space for social entrepreneurs and activists, but has evolved into the first social innovation hub in Tunisia. We’re unique in terms of the services and our involvement in social change. For example, we work on economic empowerment, we build tech skills for youth, we empower entrepreneurs and social entrepreneurs, and we work on open democracy through our recent partnership with the Open Gov Hub in Washington D.C. We’re launching “Open Gov Hub” for Tunisia, which will basically be a coworking space specifically for transparent, democracy-related initiatives, social enterprises, and startups. 

For those of us who haven’t had the pleasure of visiting Tunisia (yet!), can you help us visualize the inside of El Space?

We have two locations in Tunis – one in downtown Tunis, and one in the Business District called Les Berges du Lac

The one in  Downtown is basically a small building with three levels. The first is coworking space, the second is a “fab lab” and incubation space. The third is a meeting room with a terrace, where we can enjoy a cup of tea while watching the hustle and bustle of the city streets.

The other office is more “fab-lab” focused, in collaboration with some partners, including the Orange Foundation. Our two fab labs – the one downtown and the one Lac – are designed to be complimentary. The one downtown is more geared towards allocation and skill-building, while the one in Lac is more for tech startups and corporations. In Lac, we can also host large scale events because there’s a bigger space there.

How many people are involved in the El Space community?

For our first two years, we just had a community, no office. We just gathered friends, entrepreneurs, and people with ideas, and started sharing resources. Once we built the physical space, many of them moved in and built their startups, social enterprises, and nonprofits from there. Some of them evolved, some of them failed – as is the natural course of startups – either way, we’re proud to act as a catalyst for creativity and innovation for the local ecosystem.

We have a core community of about a hundred people. We call them the “experteers” (experts + volunteers) and “co builders” (the students who help us build out El Space). 

Throughout the past four years, more than 3000 young people in Tunisia have benefited from our programs. While it doesn’t sound like a huge number in the nonprofit world, we’re not an international NGO, and we’re very selective in terms of funding. We only do the kinds of programs that we want to do, that we believe are good for the country, and for our people. That’s why our growth is slow, but steady. Hopefully in the next five years, we’ll have triple or quadruple the numbers.

How do you “keep the lights on” at El Space? Do you receive outside funding? Do you earn revenue?

We don’t rely on just a single source of funds. When we started, we weren’t well-known. We didn’t have the standard profile of “NGO workers” or post-revolution experts in democracy, we were just entrepreneurs, we wanted to do something, so we invested our own money in it. Nobody knew us, and nobody believed in the idea, so we dealt with rejection in the early days. We heard “this won’t work” from enough people that we just decided “let people say what they want to say. We believe this will work and we’ll make it work.” We dug into our own pockets to rent the building and decorate. Plus, we found deals and partnerships that enabled us to keep our financial expenses to a minimum. For example, we negotiated the first year of rent for free because we fixed some issues in the building. Once we established a presence, people could learn about us, and we could develop from there. 

Today, we have diverse revenue streams. We’re a social innovation hub and social entrepreneurship is core to how we operate. All the projects are sustainable, which means that they can keep running, even if there’s no longer funding for them. We do receive some private donations, but our paid services are what really keep us afloat. That’s the coworking space services, event management, room rentals, and fab lab services, to name a few. We also do research and consultancy work for international organizations, nonprofits, and companies. 

We also get more institutional funding. For example, the Orange Foundation helped us buy some of the machines in the Fab Lab. The U.S. Embassy in Tunisia helped us develop some programs about social innovation and entrepreneurship, and some Dutch NGOs helped us in terms of sustaining and launching our programs. It’s diversified, there’s donor money, there’s private donations, and there’s services.

Outside of El Space, you’re an entrepreneur yourself. Can you share more about your other experiences founding companies? 

Société Nino (Nino LLC in English) was my very first company. It was basically a retail shop selling house cleaning supplies and cosmetics, which could be delivered to customers via bike. We started to recognize that clients wanted to have just about anything delivered by bike, not only house cleaning supplies and cosmetics. We launched Pedalo based on that realization (and demand).

At Pedalo, we’re building a platform to facilitate bike delivery services in the city of Tunis. Eventually, we hope to develop in other cities as well. We help people avoid paying exorbitant amounts to delivery companies by being the very neighborhood-y, eco-friendly city wide bike delivery service. I’m no longer managing Pedalo, I’m more on the advisory board. The current CEO is Amany Hamdany.

I also co founded FreshTunisie in 2017. Do you know FreshDirect or AmazonFresh? FreshTunisie was supposed to be like those services, but for Tunisia. For a while after we launched, we had momentum and raised some investment. In the end, due to some small internal conflicts, we decided to shut it down. Still, FreshTunisie helped proliferate these kinds of services here in Tunisia. There are now about five companies in Tunisia doing the same kind of thing, and they’re doing with much better quality and at a cheaper price. You could say that FreshTunisie was a “martyr” for the cause of making fruits and veggies available online in Tunisia.

Finally, there’s Vakaris Consulting, which I started right before El Space and right before my graduation. We helped people start businesses. We provided incorporation services, evaluation and management consulting, and nonprofit registration with the Tunisian government. 

Did your studies in the U.S. impact your approach to projects in Tunisia?

100%! First of all, when I studied in Tunis Business School, the first public business school in Tunisia, we had the privilege of learning from some American professors and gaining exposure to the American educational system. That went a long way in understanding how the world works and led me to connect with further educational opportunities in the U.S.. 

In 2015, I did a summer program called the Global Business Institute at Indiana University, Kelley School of Business When I returned to Tunis, I leveraged many of the resources and contacts that I made in the U.S. to properly build El Space for long term success. 

For example, we attended the Indy Showcase in Indianapolis, an annual gathering of Indiana’s entrepreneurship ecosystem. I had the chance to network with startups, business enablers, venture capitalists, etc. I also connected with the founders and owners of coworking spaces on the East Coast and West Coast. I learned about their beginnings, listened to their advice, picked up their resources, and identified common problems. Even though geographies are different, people are different, this gave me a much clearer idea of what to expect when I started working on El Space.

Then, in 2017 I spent a year in Washington D.C. on the Atlas Corps Fellowship. The fellowship embeds social entrepreneurs in internships with nonprofits, NGOs or social enterprises in the U.S. At the same time, I had the opportunity to attend a course about leadership at Georgetown University, which I found really interesting. It felt like a great add-on to my own degree in Business Administration, with a major in Marketing and minors in IT and International Relations. That course at Georgetown on Leadership helped me understand and navigate different leadership models, both in the organizations I worked with or in as well as local politics and international affairs. 

What led you to get involved in the social entrepreneurship space? What continues to excite you about it? 

My mom is a former activist – she was involved in activism even before the revolution, since her days as a law student. She instilled a clear sense of right and wrong in me, as well as love for the environment. This background made it hard to completely buy into the “profit, profit profit”  mentality that they teach us at business school. 

I found that social entrepreneurship is basically the “best of both worlds” – have a positive impact on people and the planet, while making money. For me, that’s the brilliant formula. We cannot infinitely use infinitely the planet’s resources. It’s not sustainable. With social entrepreneurship, we try to figure out how to match innovation and impact, we look for ways to profit and preserve local lives and environments.  

Is there a widespread awareness in Tunisia of social entrepreneurship?

I’m very proud of Tunisia because the awareness here is growing exponentially. I’m honored to contribute to that growth, even if my contribution is less than 1%! However,  we still have a long way to go. For example, there’s still no Tunisian university that offers a Masters in Social Entrepreneurship. 

On the bright side, just this year, the Parliament approved a new law called the Social and Economic Solidarity Act that clearly defines social entreprises, how they should be managed, etc. Even though interest in the space is growing, there is still a huge funding difference between startups and social enterprises. Investors seem to think social entrepreneurship is basically like a nonprofit.

How would you describe the Tunisian government’s role in supporting startups in general? What role do you think it should play in fostering entrepreneurship in the country? 

The Startup Act was a major accomplishment for the ecosystem here, and hopefully it can be replicated in other countries in the region and world. It provides benefits to startups, which is perfect for me and other startuppers. There are things like Intelletual Property support and facilitation of customs (the current import/export system is corrupt and hard to navigate).

In general, when it comes to startups and government, I think it’s best if the government just lets early stage entrepreneurs be. Let them finish their pitch or prototypes, then we can talk about taxes, regulations, etc. 

Despite the Startup Act, I think the legal framework in Tunisia still isn’t totally conducive to entrepreneurship. In the U.S. legal system, for example, everything is OK unless the law says it isn’t. This is great for startups because they can do whatever they want and, if successful, things can be regulated. That’s like what happened with Uber, for example, and other ridesharing services. 

In Tunisia, everything is forbidden until the law says “yes.” That’s the French system. While it’s understandable how it was developed, when we talk about innovation, we can’t keep this kind of system. For that reason, El Space tries to provide a legal shield for innovators. Inside our doors, they can do whatever the hell they want and we protect them on the legal side. This gives them the flexibility to work in the “gray areas” on things that they want to do, but there may not be a legal framework for. Drone making is a prominent example of this kind of “gray area,” where no current regulation exists. We focus on supporting innovators and then, if things are successful, we help them out in terms of accessing government decision makers to make them understand what it is and how it functions. 

Government is very slow. I think all governments are like that, and that’s a good thing in my opinion. Governments are slow for a reason. They are designed to avoid the risk caused by sudden changes. Still, I do hope that Tunisia’s legal framework continues to evolve into something more like the U.S. when it comes to entrepreneurship.

Do you think that revolution catalyzed entrepreneurship and social enterprise? How did it impact people’s opinions towards startups? 

Yes, it definitely catalyzed the sector. Before the revolution, everyone was scared to innovate.  In general, it was best for you to work under the radar. If you got caught making significant money in something that the former dictator and his family weren’t already involved in, then they would basically will cut in on it and undermine you. In spite of the subsequent economic deterioration and political turmoil, I think the revolution provided a new spirit and hope for youth to innovate and create companies. In addition, the World Bank and IMF has pressured the Tunisian government to lower the tax burden on companies and to lower the procedural barriers to people to start businesses and contribute to the economy. 

Ater the revolution, the real numbers of unemployment started to surface. People became aware that working for the governmen was not the success route it had been made out to be. Starting your own company became more attractive – it’s a way to get free of things like bad work schedules, hierarchy and bureaucracy. 

That last part about the youth turning away from government jobs reminds me of my discussion with Patricia Letayf about startups in Iraq.

Tunisia is connected to many cultures inside and outside the Arab world. When Tunisian entrepreneurs look outwards, do they generally look towards other Arab countries, Africa, Europe, the U.S. or elsehwere?

Europe, is Tunisia’s largest trading partner, so our economy tends to face in that direction, particularly towards France and Italy. Not too much in the Arab region. The regulation and taxation is different from country to country. Historically, the Southern Mediterranean has not looked to each other to collaborate, but rather to the North (Europe). If majority looks at Europe, I would say about 30% entrepreneurs are looking U.S. and Sub-Saharan Africa. 

On a similar note, do you end up hosting most of your events in Arabic, French, English?

We do a combination of Arabic, French, and English. At El Space, 90% of our events in Tounsi (Tunisian Arabic), and when we have an international speaker it’s usually French or English. 

What future opportunities or trends excite you for Tunisian startups?

Two main sectors. One, IoT. I have a first-row seat to this show by being part of El Space’s fab labs. That’s where startups come and build their prototypes. Then, artificial intelligence and big data. These are two of the big trends that are happening in Tunisia and I’m very proud of that. 

Do people working in those sectors have global ambitions, or are they focused inside Tunisia?

There’s a general rule here – The Tunisian market is very limited. It’s very small. We only have 11 or 12 million people. That’s it. Even if you got one dollar from every person, you’re only making $12 million total. That’s very low.

Tunisia is the prototyping ground and then, for more customers, we turn to Europe and the U.S.

You have done so many things thus far – what’s next?

I don’t have an actual thing that I’m working on right now, but probably something related to food. The food system is very challenging and in need of change. Plus, it impacts both people and plants at the same time. If there’s anything I’ll work on soon, it will be related to the food value chain. 

*Reminder – Please support “Fabriket Lafkar,” a new cultural hub in one of Tunisia’s poorer areas. With no entertainment venues or learning activities, Sidi Amor Nadeul suffers from high dropout rates and teenage crime. “Fabriket Lafkar” aims to change this for local youth, and it was actually co-designed with them back in 2019 in partnership with El Space and Diaspora in Action. You can support their crowdfunding campaign here.*

*To get emailed every time I post a new interview, sign up here.*

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