Discusses distribution network from how products enter to final destination, including reliability of distribution systems, distribution centers, ports, etc.
Tunisian law does not allow wholesale or retail marketing by foreign businesses. The GOT restricts domestic market distribution to Tunisian nationals. Every joint venture with a foreign investor is considered an exception subject to a license dependent on the benefits of the project to the Tunisian economy. For example, licenses were necessary for the opening of foreign-branded hyper/supermarkets established under joint ventures, such as Carrefour, Géant, and Monoprix. In June 2021, the GOT announced the elimination of government authorization requirements for ventures such as the opening of shopping malls and supermarkets.
Although the traditional distribution network, based on over 250,000 neighborhood grocery shops scattered throughout the country, continues to dominate the Tunisian market, modern distribution channels are growing rapidly. Hypermarkets now represent 22% of the Tunisian retail sector, and the GOT’s stated goal is to increase the level to 50% in the coming years. Currently, there are more than 750 modern food retail outlets: five hypermarkets; 560 supermarkets; and 185 ‘superettes’ (self-service food outlets of less than 500 square meters). Fresh fruits and vegetables as well as seafood products are also sold in local outdoor markets.
Merchandise distribution in Tunisia is well organized. Ninety percent of Tunisia’s foreign commercial trade is conducted by sea. Most incoming and outbound trade passes through Rades Port, the country’s principal container facility, which handled 53% of the country’s container (twenty-foot equivalent unit (TEU)) traffic in 2021. The port of Sfax, Tunisia’s second-largest city and a large commercial center, also handles a limited amount of container traffic. Other active ports are Sousse, Gabes, Skhira, Bizerte, and Zarzis. The port of Skhira specializes in petroleum transport. The ports of Bizerte and Zarzis have associated free-trade zones. The state-owned enterprise Compagnie Tunisienne de Navigation is the principal shipping company in Tunisia. The Tunisian Port Authority (OMMP) oversees the management of ports.
The major freight center at Tunis-Carthage Airport handles 97% of the country’s air freight. Tunisia enjoys a fairly advanced network of roads and railways to facilitate transportation and distribution to all parts of the country.
Using an Agent or Distributor
The utilization of well-informed and connected local agents/distributors is crucial for successful introduction of products into Tunisia. Their knowledge of the local market and players can make the difference between commercial success and failure. To assist U.S. firms in finding potential partners, U.S. Embassy Tunis, a U.S. Foreign Commercial Service Partner Post, provides services such as International Company Profiles (ICP), International Partner Searches (IPS), and Gold Key Matching Services (GKS).
Many Tunisian businesses are family-owned or -controlled. While some might welcome foreign investment in distribution or marketing ventures, they may be resistant to ceding control to foreigners. Distribution or marketing contracts should be very specific about financial obligations and performance measurements. U.S. firms should also consider establishing contracts to cover a probationary period for any prospective partner.
Tunisian commercial legislation contains provisions designed to protect minority shareholder interests. With few exceptions, exclusive distribution contracts in Tunisia are forbidden by law.
Establishing an Office
The GOT’s Agency for the Promotion of Industry and Innovation (APII) offers a “one-stop shop” service to investors seeking to register a business in the country. Generally, it takes about two weeks to complete the process. Some procedures can be completed online. Investors, however, have complained of delays, lack of transparency regarding rules and fees, and other bureaucratic complications. Companies should obtain the advice of a local lawyer before starting the process. The U.S. Embassy maintains a list of English-speaking attorneys.
Establishing a company is only the initial step toward commencing operations in the Tunisian market. Firms may need to complete a wide range of regulatory, licensing, and logistical procedures before introducing their products or services on the market. This can be a long process, but the active involvement of APII (http://www.tunisieindustrie.nat.tn/en/home.asp) the Foreign Investment Promotion Agency (FIPA) at http://www.investintunisia.tn/En/home_46_33, and the Tunisian Investment Authority (TIA) can accelerate procedures considerably.
For more information about establishing a local office, please visit the U.S. Department of State Investment Climate Statements website, which includes information on investment and business environments in foreign economies, including Tunisia.
FIPA’s simplified procedures are not applicable to all commercial activities. Ministerial decree #417 of May 2018 gives details of activities requiring government authorization. The list includes activities in natural resources, construction materials, transportation by land, sea, and air, banking, finance, insurance, hazardous and polluting industries, health, education, and telecommunications. In June 2021, the government announced the elimination of government authorization requirements for 27 business activities in various sectors. The change allows foreign and local investors to open businesses under conditions detailed in books of specifications without waiting for a government license. For example, government authorizations are no longer required for ventures such as the opening of shopping malls and supermarkets, operation of certain aircrafts for tourism and leisure activities, management of financial portfolios by non-resident companies, organization of sporting events, cement manufacturing, self-production of electricity from renewable energies under one megawatt, import and marketing of films, sale and distribution of tobacco and alcohol, and import of used clothes.
Most retailers of foreign brands operate solely as product distributors. The Tunisian private sector generally has little understanding of the franchising concept. However, increasing numbers of Tunisians are showing interest in franchising and participate in international franchise shows.
With the assistance of the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Commercial Law Development Program (CLDP), legislation passed in 2009 to improve the legal framework for franchising. The GOT views the establishment of a franchise-friendly environment as a priority for spurring economic growth among Tunisia’s small and medium enterprises. In serving the Tunisian market, franchises may now operate like any other foreign business. Tunisia is poised to see significant growth in this sector.
The Tunisian Ministry of Commerce has responsibility for franchise-related contracts. The Ministry maintains a “positive list” that includes retail, distribution operations, hotels, tourism, training, teaching, vehicle servicing, and beauty salons. Franchises on this list can operate in Tunisia without prior authorization. Three key sectors, however, are not on the list: food and beverage; real estate; and advertising. To operate a franchise in these three sectors, one must apply and receive Ministry of Commerce approval on a case-by-case basis. To the Embassy’s knowledge, no application from a Tunisian franchisee for a U.S. franchise in these three sectors has ever been denied. When adjudicating an application, the Ministry weighs factors such as local competition, job creation, and value added to the national economy.
As of mid-2022, the GOT had confirmed authorization for 29 foreign franchises not on the pre-approved list, of which 14 were American. These include real estate brokers Re/Max and Century 21, advertising company Sign-A-Rama, and the food companies Burger King, KFC, Pizza Hut, Fatburger, Chili’s, and Papa John’s.
Created in 2010, the Tunisian Franchise Association (TFA) is the sector’s principal lobbying entity. The Tunis Chamber of Commerce and Industry (CCIT) works with the TFA and CLDP to organize an annual franchise conference in Tunisia.
Business in Tunisia remains largely dependent upon personal relationships. Although direct marketing is increasing, customers increasingly expect access to after-sales services and are sometimes reluctant to purchase new products, technologies, or brand names in the absence of a local representative.
When selecting a local partner, U.S. companies should be rigorous in conducting due diligence. There are several examples of successful U.S./Tunisian joint ventures. The Embassy recommends, however, that U.S. firms retain management control of any joint venture company. Joint venture agreements should also clearly establish a binding dispute settlement procedure (such as referring cases to the International Court of Arbitration) acceptable to both parties. Licensing agreements have also worked well but may require periodic visits to ensure adherence to quality control and other standards.
Reliable courier services are available in Tunisia through both international and local express delivery services. Express service points are found in several locations around the country. Average delivery time from Tunisia to most parts of the U.S. is about four days.
Customs monitors all parcels. The de minimis value for Tunisia below which no duty or tax is collected is 50 Tunisian dinars (approximately $16).
Market research firms and certified public accountants affiliated with major international companies are present in Tunisia. These companies can supply limited credit information on a selective basis. However, it may be difficult to perform due diligence on Tunisian banks, agents, and customers. Banks will not provide information on business clients without explicit permission from the clients themselves, and then may only provide limited details. Credit checks and reports are neither standardized nor readily available.
U.S. companies that require due diligence investigations are encouraged to contact the U.S. Embassy in Tunis and inquire about its International Company Profile (ICP) service. The ICP service can provide extensive background information about a Tunisian company, including its capital, principals, foreign clients, and market share, but the financial details provided by the company’s bank are usually vague.