Jean-Patrice Gros, Maghreb countries manager of Lectra (left), talking to the Tunisian Industry Minister A Rassaa

Jean-Patrice Gros, Maghreb countries manager of Lectra (left), talking to the Tunisian Industry Minister A Rassaa

Unlike other North African and Middle Eastern countries involved in the Arab uprisings earlier this year, Tunisia managed to keep its revolution short and peaceful. But while garment exports continue to rise, Jozef De Coster finds industry optimism tinged with some uncertainty about the future.

Indeed, the so-called 'Jasmine Revolution' seems to have little or no impact on the performance of the country's textile industry - with Tunisian garment exports increasing by 10% the first five months of 2011 to around EUR1bn (US$1.45bn).  

Although the growth in exports to its biggest markets, France and Italy, was modest, impressive gains were seen in the UK (+27%), Germany (+26%) and the Netherlands (+21%) as some European customers shifted orders from Egypt to Tunisia.

The political changes have already extracted a promise from G8-leaders to support the transition to democracy with EUR14bn for Tunisia and Egypt over a two-year period, but there is also optimism that the country will receive more foreign direct investment.

Dalila Ben Yahia, general director of the Textile and Clothing Department of the Tunisian Ministry of Industry, points out that after the January uprising the interim government swiftly adapted its industry strategy and is now trying to attract more textile and garment investments in the western regions of the country.

The package of assistance to enterprises will also be widened to cover social matters, human resources and education.

Tunisian garment exporters are also hopeful that the US will be persuaded to allow them, under certain conditions, to ship duty-free to the American market as is already the case for Jordan, Egypt and Morocco, the three other members of the Agadir Agreement.

Not quite business as usual
But some industry executives believe it is still not quite business as usual.

At the TexMed fair in Tunis last month, Jean-Patrice Gros, the Maghreb countries manager for Lectra, said Tunisian CAD-CAM orders have fluctuated this year.

And Belgian entrepreneur Johnny De Meirsman, founder and CEO of the Tunisia-based group Demco, which has 4,000 workers making jeans and knitwear, observed that many European customers see Turkey as a more stable production location than the revolution-ridden Arab countries.

According to a Tunisian exhibitor at TexMed, many Tunisian exporters traditionally receive the bulk of their CMT orders in September - so it remains to be seen how European customers will react this year.

In the balance
Even in normal times, Tunisia is in the balance with other countries. Among its main strengths are its proximity to Europe, short lead times and low labour costs.

According to Weis Consulting in Aschaffenburg, labour costs per minute (without transport) in the Tunisian garment industry amount to EUR0.09 - 0.10. This may be less than in Istanbul (EUR0.15) but several East European and especially Asian countries are still a lot cheaper than Tunisia.

The main weakness of the Tunisian textile/clothing industry is its lack of spinning, weaving, knitting and processing capacities.

Nabila Ben Romdhane, marketing consultant at the technical textile centre Cettex, explains that the Tunisian jeans industry - the most important sub-sector, exporting 44m pieces in 2010 - is less handicapped than the other sub-sectors thanks to a number of specialised, well equipped processing and washing units.

Tunisia's leading denim producer, the vertically integrated company Sitex/Swift, has a production capacity of 22m linear metres. And, thanks to an agreement signed with Turkey in 2006, Tunisian jeans made from Turkish denim enter the EU market duty-free.

As a result, Tunisia is able to export 'premium' jeans. The French consultant Jean-François Limantour (TEXAAS) has calculated the average price of Tunisian jeans exported to the EU in 2010 was EUR15.9, higher than Turkey (EUR12.5), Pakistan (EUR5.6), China (EUR5.2) and Bangladesh (EUR4.5).

Other strong sub-sectors of the Tunisian clothing industry are city pants, female lingerie and workwear.

The textile/clothing sector consists of 2,036 enterprises employing 199,500 workers, of whom 181,600 are in the apparel segment.

In 2010, Tunisian clothing exports to the EU amounted to EUR2.3bn, making Tunisia the fifth largest clothing supplier to the EU after China, Turkey, Bangladesh and India.

Strong export growth
Private investors are confident in the future of the Tunisian textile/clothing sector.

In March, the French children's wear manufacturer Roger Zannier pledged to employ 1,050 more people in Tunisia, in an EUR8m project in El Hamma. And the Dutch group Marathon is constructing a new jeans plant with 100 employees.

Launatex, the CMT-manufacturer of jeans with 300 workers, has invested in design, commercial staff and stock with the intention if establishing itself as a supplier of finished products. The French consultant Antoine Faucheur, who works with La Redoute and other large French buyers, is coaching Launatex.

By Jozef De Coster.