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In Tunisia, blood ties no longer a minimum requirement to do business

In pre-revolution Tunisia, there was little room for entrepreneurs like Anis Aouini, who seeks to transform how Tunisians get energy, but lacked connections to the president.

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Young entrepreneurs Hassine Labaied (l.) and Anis Aouini (r.) at Mr. Aouini's desk at the Tunis office of their wind power start-up, Saphon Energy, August 21, 2013.

John Thorne

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Inspiration came with a gust of wind, surging off the sea and into a cafe near Tunis, where it swept a curtain weighted with a metal rod against the chair of an engineer named Anis Aouini. Clunk!

Mr. Aouini’s mind leapt to weights and surface areas. “How much energy just struck my chair?” he wondered.

Today Aouini and his business partner, Hassine Labaied, are trying to market Aouini’s latest invention, born that day at the cafe: new wind energy technology they say could revolutionize the industry.

Economists hope such ventures will help undo the legacy of former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who was toppled in 2011. His family and cronies had a stranglehold on the economy, leaving little room for young entrepreneurs like Aouini and Mr. Labaied. 

 

“The system under Ben Ali was a closed society, not just in terms of governance and lack of democracy, but also in terms of the economy,” says Antonio Nucifora, lead economist on Tunisia for the World Bank.

Corruption, restrictive laws, and thickets of red tape prevented all but a privileged few from succeeding big.

“Seemingly half of the Tunisian business community can claim a Ben Ali connection through marriage,” wrote Robert F. Godec, then the American ambassador to Tunisia, in a June 2008 diplomatic cable that was published by Wikileaks.

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Outsiders who managed to turn a profit could easily find their ventures wrested from them by members of “the family.”

A chance to prove himself

Aouini has always been an ideas man. In his office he keeps pencil drawings he made as a schoolboy of fighter planes of his own design, immaculately rendered, with components and armaments neatly labeled.

He studied engineering in college and worked in the oil sector. Then came the windy day at the cafe in 2010, and the flash of inspiration. Wind energy has traditionally relied on propellers, but what if one could harness the power of a sail?

Aouini designed a concave wind catcher that swivels about to turn a crankshaft via a multi-directional sprocket, and obtained an international patent from the United Nation’s World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). Labaied, a childhood friend, raised seed money in Dubai, where he was working in finance.

Last year Labaied returned to Tunis and the two men launched Saphon Energy, named for a Carthaginian deity of the winds.

Each man seems to fit his part: Aouini, with disheveled hair and a desk crowded with gadgetry and model airplanes; Labaied, clean-cut and bespectacled. They opened an office above Labaied’s parents’ house and built a giant fan on the roof to serve as a wind tunnel, used with computer modeling to test their device.

Now, they’re looking for an investor to buy their technology.

It’s a tough sell. The wind energy market is eager for new solutions, but also wary of them, says Jonathan Naughton, director of the Wind Energy Research Center at the University of Wyoming.

“Historically, there have been lots of optimistic claims about new technology that generally haven’t panned out,” he says.

Investors will be particularly skeptical of Saphon Energy’s claim that their technology’s degree of efficiency surpasses the Betz limit. Calculated by the German physicist Albert Betz and published in 1919, the limit describes the maximum kinetic energy that can be extracted from wind by turbines as 59.03 percent.

Aouini argues that while the Betz limit was developed for propeller systems, Saphon Energy’s technology works according to different principles. He may have a point in theory, says Mr. Naughton, but the company must make a strong case for it through hard science and, crucially, independent testing.

“That’s the burden on the entrepreneur and patent holder,” Naughton says. “To demonstrate not only a great concept, but one that’s at least as good – if not better – than existing technology.”

An economy slow to adapt

Independent testing is too costly for Saphon Energy to undertake alone, say Aouini and Labaied. They hope an investor can help shoulder the burden. That’s a tall order at the best of times, and even more so today.

Uncertainty over Tunisia’s future is deterring many investors, says Jacob Kolster, North Africa director for the African Development Bank. So are old laws that still remain on the books, such as the investment code, previously used by Ben Ali’s regime to monopolize the economy.

“It’s a huge document that contains endless sections on what’s not allowed,” Mr. Kolster says.

Saphon Energy is registered in the British Virgin Islands, not Tunisia, to escape the Tunisian investment code, says Labaied.

But for Tunisian entrepreneurs to truly flourish, the system at home must change, say Kolster and Mr. Nucifora. According to Aouini and Labaied, so too must the attitude of many young Tunisians.

“It’s frustrating to see Tunisians who are capable of innovating, but who have a psychological block,” says Labaied. He feels that too many have grown used to “the idea that we can only import things.”

Aouini cites a dearth of patent applications – his own a rare exception – as evidence of Tunisian apathy. According to figures from the World Intellectual Property Organization, Tunisians have filed just 42 applications so far since 2007 through the Patent Cooperation Treaty system, a primary framework for international patents.

That’s where Aouini and Labaied hope to make a difference. Whether Saphon Energy’s venture succeeds or fails, the men set an example of innovation and risk-taking.

“You find a path,” says Aouini. “And if you don’t find one, you create one.”

He cites as inspiration the legendary resourcefulness of the Carthaginian general Hannibal on his march over the Alps. The example is, perhaps, doubly apt: Hannibal ultimately failed to conquer Rome, yet is still admired over two millennia later for his daring and tenacity.

“We are entrepreneurs in innovation,” Labaied says. “If this innovation doesn’t work out, others will.”

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