How to Adapt Electronic Commerce to the Needs of a Developing Country: The Tunisian Case

Hassoumi ZITOUN
Ministry of Communications

Tunisian Internet Agency


I. Introduction

In the era of globalization and the digital economy, it is imperative that developed and developing countries formulate a clear strategy to integrate electronic commerce as a vector for economic development to enhance their competitiveness. The development of electronic commerce in a country depends closely on its economic, technological, and social development. Tunisia is one of the few Arab and North African countries that took the problem in hand. In November 1997, a national commission chaired by the Ministry of Communications and the Ministry of Commerce was charged to study all the aspects of electronic commerce to set up a strategy. Today, electronic commerce is a reality in Tunisia, with pilot projects selling Tunisian products in all countries of the world and a bill for electronic exchanges and commerce that was presented recently (December 1999) to the Chamber of Deputies. The objective for the year 2000 is to generalize the use of this new mode of commerce in Tunisia and create public and private online services allowing Tunisian citizens to take full advantage of electronic commerce.

II. Tunisia strategy for electronic commerce

1. The National Commission for Electronic Commerce and EDI

The Tunisian government has paid special attention to electronic commerce, and a National Commission for Electronic Commerce and EDI was created in November 1997. This commission is chaired by the Ministry of Communications and the Ministry of Commerce and gathers representatives from all the public and private organizations implied in this field. This commission has constituted several working groups to study the various aspects of electronic commerce (e.g., legal, commercial, financial, tax, security). In March 1998, a two-day meeting was held and experts from other countries presented their approaches and their experience in this field. One result of this commission was the presentation of a report to the Tunisian government in March 1999. The report was the object of a cabinet meeting held in May 1999 in which many important decisions were announced in order to establish a legal, regulatory, and technical environment for electronic commerce development. These decisions include:

Table 1. Evolution of Electronic Commerce in Tunisia
Date Actions
November 1997 Creation of a National Commission for Electronic Commerce and EDI, chaired by the Ministry of Communications and the Ministry of Commerce
March 1998 Study days on electronic commerce
March 1999 Submission of a report to the government
May 1999
  • Cabinet meeting about electronic commerce chaired by the President of the Republic
  • Launching of pilot projects:
September 1999 "Internet Caravans": awareness campaign about Internet and electronic commerce
November 1999 "Internet week"
December 1999 Electronic exchanges and electronic commerce bill submitted to the Chamber of Deputies
Mars 2000 Launching of the single batch project
First quarter of 2000 Application texts for the electronic exchanges and electronic commerce bill:
  • Government decree for the creation of a national certification agency
  • Schedule of conditions for certification service providers (certification authorities)

2. Telecommunication infrastructure

The development of the infrastructures of communication in Tunisia is considered, at the highest political level, to be a priority enabling the country to meet the challenges of an ever-changing technology and ensuring best supports for national economic growth and competitiveness. Thus, the growth of the sector of telecommunications knew a significant evolution during the last decade -- 10 percent in 1997, 17 percent in 2000.  There were investments of 1500 million dinars (1 dinar ~ 1 dollar) during the period 1997-2001 against 850 MD in 1992-1996 and 400 MD in 1987-1991. After the generalization of the telephone in all the areas of Tunisia, the objective today is to generalize Internet access throughout the country.

Generalization of Internet access

A vast action plan started in 1997 to gradually generalize Internet connections to university institutions and research centers, colleges and preparatory schools. In addition, the launching of public Internet centers (Publinets) in October 1998, with the profit of young promoters among the graduates of higher education, ensures a great penetration of Internet services in all regions of Tunisia and all the Tunisian social layers.

In December 1999, there were about 30,000 Internet subscribers in Tunisia's population of 9 million inhabitants. The objective is to reach 100,000 subscribers by the end of the year 2001. This will provide an Internet community for electronic commerce projects and services in Tunisia of about 400,000 users (it is assumed that an Internet subscription is shared by four users).

Internet infrastructure

Electronic commerce requires a reliable telecommunication infrastructure that makes possible a high quality of service. Internet connectivity in Tunisia has improved significantly, since the national connection evolved from 19.2 Kbps in 1991 to 10 Mbps in 1999. This bandwidth is extended at a rate of 2 Mbps each quarter. In addition, a national Backbone network offers seven points of presence (POP) and gives access to Internet by technologies: ATM, Frame Relay, STN, Leased line, X.25 and ISDN.


Thanks to a tariff policy aiming at the development and the generalization of Internet access, the number of subscribers increased in an exponential way. The expenses of Internet subscription and the expenses of communication fell significantly (50 percent in May 1998 and 30 percent in March 1999). In addition, the opening of public Internet centers, called "Publinets," allowed a better penetration of Internet services and culture in rural areas. By December 1999, more than 50 Publinets, distributed in all parts of Tunisia, were available. A first evaluation study of these Publinets projects showed their essential role in the popularization of the Internet services. In addition, these Publinets can be considered a promotion tool of electronic commerce in Tunisia, since they are frequently visited by executives and entrepreneurs who use their services to seek businesses information or to communicate with partners throughout the world.

3. Legal issue

Before the rise of electronic commerce, in Tunisia as well as in other countries, the legal framework took into account only documentary evidence.  In electronic commerce, the various contracting entities must be identified by electronic means and the contract and the signature are established by electronic means. The role of the governments is thus to adapt the texts of laws to the new requirements of electronic commerce. In Tunisia, the national commission of electronic commerce studied this challenging issue and it acts progressively by:

The bill for electronic exchanges and electronic commerce integrates texts defining:

Before setting up this bill, the national commission examined several texts of laws from various countries and international organizations such as the uniform law proposed by the UNCITRAL.

4. Financial and tax issues

The working group on the financial and tax aspect is made up primarily of representatives from the Ministry of Finances and local banks. It is chaired by the central bank of Tunisia. This group examined the following questions:

Concerning the tax, the Tunisian approach consists of examining the decisions of the international authorities on this subject (OECD, WTO, etc.), and then establishing a national decision.

 In Tunisia, there exist two connections with the network VISANET, of which one is used for the validation of the transactions for the pilot projects of electronic trade.

After studying the various payment systems used for electronic commerce, the working group concluded that payment by credit card is currently the best adapted to the Tunisian context. However, a system of payment per credit transfer is under study in order to allow generalization of the services of electronic commerce in Tunisia. Secure Socket Layer (SSL) protocol is currently used to ensure the security of transactions. A Secure Electronic Transaction (SET) pilot should allow the Tunisian banks to test this new protocol and to prepare its implementation when it is deployed on a large international scale. However, the significant investment for this pilot represents a barrier, since it is difficult to convince the local banks of the return on such an investment, especially when the largely used SSL protocol seems to be sufficient. In addition, the electronic exchanges and electronic commerce bill will make it possible to launch a Tunisian certification authority after approval by the Chamber of Deputies in 2000.

III. Achievements

1. Pilot projects

In parallel with the legal framework texts, the national commission studied the installation of pilot projects and test beds to identify possible problems and obstacles. In order to carry out these projects, a request for qualification was launched to all the Tunisian companies wishing to integrate this operation and to set up an electronic commerce web server. About 15 companies answered this call to present and sell on the Internet a large variety of Tunisian products, including crafts, foodstuffs (dates, olive oil, etc.), tourist services, stamps, and hotel reservations.

Several work meetings allowed these companies, as with the other businesses involved  in the electronic commercial operation (banks, Rapid Post), to determine all the stages of the electronic commerce operation between the customer's order on the commercial Web site and delivery of the goods. In addition, the companies were sensitized to the fact that they must change their internal organization to respond efficiently to this new mode of transactions. In the same way, the products were selected so that they are easily marketable and sold on Internet. In addition, Rapid Post (the Tunisian carrier for express postage) reduced the tariffs of transport for products sold through Internet in order to promote this new type of service. Those pilot projects were put in operation in May 1999.

Today, these electronic commerce web sites record sales from various countries of the world, including the United States, Germany, France, Switzerland, Lebanon, Hong Kong, and Holland; and the goods are delivered within the deadlines. This has encouraged several other companies to launch their electronic commerce Web site within the framework of this pilot operation while waiting for the finishing of the regulatory framework during the year 2000. With regard to the technical platform, the transactions are secured by using the SSL protocol and digital certificates brought from Verisign (USA) while waiting for the installation of a Tunisian certification authority. In addition, the validation of credit card numbers is securely established by a national bank connected to VISANET network. The costs of these projects were entirely taken in charge by the national commission of electronic commerce in order to encourage the Tunisian companies to integrate this pilot operation and to use this new mode of commerce.

2. The single batch project (Tradenet)

EDI projects are being studied in various sectors such as banking, textiles and telecommunications. One of the EDI main projects is the "Single Batch" project aimed at facilitating foreign trade procedure by setting up a national EDI server center to allow various agents (trade organizations, customs, banks, forwarders, etc.) to exchange foreign commerce operations documents. Moreover, a WebEDI server will permit importers, exporters and forwarders to carry foreign commerce operations via the Internet network. This project is directed by the Ministry of Commerce and should be operational by March 2000.

3. Bill for electronic exchanges and electronic commerce

The bill for electronic exchanges and electronic commerce prepared by the national commission was presented in December 1999 to the Chamber of Deputies. Once approved, this project will make it possible to set up a national certification agency which will mandate Tunisian private and public certification service providers to deliver digital certificates, to use the digital signature and digital contracts. This project covers the various aspects relating to:

4. Awareness building

In addition to the development of telecommunication infrastructure and the establishment of the legal and regulatory framework, it is essential to build awareness about electronic commerce benefits among decision makers. To promote electronic commerce on a national scale, an awareness campaign about the benefits of Internet services and electronic commerce was carried out during September 1999. This action, entitled "Internet Caravans", consisted of several buses equipped with computers which traversed all the gouvernorates of Tunisia. With each gouvernorate visited, one day of sensitizing on the advantages of Internet and electronic commerce was organized. This day, intended for the regional executive officers and heads of companies, consisted of seminars and a workshop for demonstration. It was estimated that there were about 200 participants in each gouvernorate.

This operation "Internet Caravans" resulted in an immediate increase in the number of Internet subscribers, as well as sensitizing to electronic commerce advantages, because several participating companies were interested in this subject and expressed their desire to join the pilot projects.

In addition, this action was followed by the first " Internet Week " in Tunisia, which consisted primarily of:

IV. Future prospects

The objectives of Tunisia for year 2000 are the following:

V. Conclusion

This document describes the Tunisian strategy for the development of electronic commerce and shows the key role played by the government to found the technical and legal infrastructure and the regulation necessary for this type of commerce. In addition, an awareness building campaign must be organized in collaboration with the private sector, a major actor in this type of commerce, in order to ensure the success of this strategy. The challenges of electronic commerce are important and Tunisia took the opportunity to benefit from new technologies of information and communications to increase its economic competitiveness.