Free Online Courses Change the Lives of Tunisian and Nigerian Entrepreneurs

In North Africa, HP LIFE jump-starts new business leaders with digital training and one-on-one local support.
Mar 1, 2018 8:25 AM ET

Zina Ouled Si Ali didn’t set out to be an entrepreneur. But given Tunisia’s 40 percent youth unemployment rate, starting a business is something many young Tunisians consider since it’s often the best way for them to control their fate. So after building her digital design skills at communications and graphic-design firms, Zina decided to take the plunge.

Her idea: She would apply her technical and design skills to making custom furniture and home decorations using large wood-cutting machines that are controlled by computers. Zina did recognize, though, that while she was long on energy, she was short on business experience.

Then she learned through a local business center about a program that teaches tech and business skills, so she signed up for its online courses and one-on-one coaching.

That program is Mashrou3i, launched in 2013 as a partnership between HP, USAID, the Italian Development Cooperation and the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO). Mashrou3i combines online business courses developed by the HP Foundation, called HP LIFE, with hands-on training, business planning and coaching.  

Students choose from a total of 28 courses — including inventory management, basics of finance, hiring staff and business communications — that are offered in seven languages. Then they attend workshops where the tools they practiced in the HP LIFE courses are applied to the challenges of starting or running their own business.

Expanding around the region and beyond

The goal is to ignite entrepreneurship and job creation in countries where unemployment is high and good jobs are scarce. In Tunisia, the program has already helped create more than 1,500 jobs — with the goal of adding 6,000 more by 2021. Graduates have started a paper-packaging company, a cloud-computing provider, a waste-management service and a 3D-printing business.  

Mashrou3i is such a success, in fact, that it’s on the move. Last summer, the program launched in Nigeria, where nearly 2,500 people have already been trained. UNIDO is currently negotiating with South Africa’s government to roll it out there, while other countries in Africa and the Middle East have asked to implement Mashrou3i, too.   

Focused coaching for specific dreams

The program’s remarkable effectiveness has made Mashrou3i a key part of UNIDO's efforts to promote much-needed entrepreneurship in economically challenged regions, says UNIDO Industrial Development expert Petra Wenitzky. “We’re now taking the Tunisia experience and adapting this learning to local needs,” she says. “We can see the positive impact of this South-South cooperation.” In Nigeria, the program has already built up a network of more than 140 trainers. 

Zina’s experience is a classic Mashrou3i success story.

After taking the HP LIFE online courses and completing four days of entrepreneurial training in 2014 and 2015 to help her hone her business plan, Zina was able to get loans to buy the machines she needed to launch her company, Arjouan. That training, she says, helped her better define what products she wanted to offer, who her target customers were and how to set prices. Last year, she got further one-on-one business coaching.

“HP LIFE and Mashrou3i helped me a lot,” says Zina, who now has three employees. She hopes to take her business national, hire more staff and buy three new machines. Mashrou3i helped her learn to take everything step by step.

“HP LIFE is an important part of the puzzle,” says HP LIFE Partnership Manager Debbie Ledbetter. “Together with local content, local knowledge, hands-on coaching and face-to-face interaction, it’s helping to create new jobs and entrepreneurs.”

Emphasizing both universal business know-how and local human guidance, Mashrou3i aims to lift would-be entrepreneurs in economically depressed regions throughout the world. Given the program's success so far, it’s well on its way.

To learn more about how HP LIFE is helping would-be entrepreneurs, follow the program on Twitter at @HPLIFE_program.