Finance & Banking

AN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH DR. NABIL GHALLEB FOUNDING CEO ZITOUNA TAMKEEN

You are the founding CEO of Zitouna Tamkeen, the first and
sole Islamic microfinance institution in Tunisia. Can you
give a brief overview of Zitouna Tamkeen — the mission and
goals of the organization?

The idea to establish Zitouna Tamkeen was the product of
the successful experiences of the Islamic Development
Bank (IsDB) in the Economic Empowerment (EE) field. These
experiences influenced me and made me determined to
draw upon the already developed programmes to model
the idea in an institutional framework with accumulated
expertise to become a reference point that can be developed
and replicated in other IsDB member countries. It was also
intended to be a strong tool in the multilateral’s repertoire to
get people employed, fight poverty and achieve sustainable
development.

Zitouna Tamkeen was founded, therefore, with the goal of
promoting the financial and economic inclusion of Tunisia’s
youth and disadvantaged populations. Through an innovative
approach we are committed to offer financial and non-financial
services to promote the development of projects offering major
socio-economic impact, especially in the marginalized regions of
Tunisia. Our EE approach is focused on value chain financing.
The objective is to scan for high potential value chains in
terms of job creation and to calibrate the intervention points
to reach the greatest number of beneficiaries via the financing
of EE projects. Since the beginning, Zitouna Tamkeen has set
ambitious targets for EE projects, which include sustainable
development, progressive coverage of regions through fixed
and mobile branches, interventions in promising sectors, and
entrepreneurship capacity building programmes.

Zitouna Tamkeen’s mission is to be a partner in the economic
integration of deprived populations through Islamic
microfinance, promoting private initiative sand supporting selfoperating projects. The ambitious vision of Zitouna Tamkeen is to become a major player in the Islamic microfinance sector
at both national and international levels.

Besides the IsDB, which is the main sponsor of the idea; the
founders of Zitouna Tamkeen are Zitouna Bank (the largest
Islamic bank in Tunisia), Zitouna Takaful, Poulina Group Holding
and Delice Group Holding (both ranked among the top 5
largest business groups in Tunisia), the Tunisian Sovereign
Wealth Fund, and Moroccan Jaida Fund (owned by the
Moroccan Sovereign Fund, the French Sovereign Fund, the
French Development Agency AFD, the German Development
Agency KFW and the Moroccan Postal Bank).

Zitouna Tamkeen has taken giant strides and quickly positioned
itself in the microfinance sector in Tunisia, gaining national
and international acclaim despite its young age. Just one year
after commencing its activities, the institution has ventured to
double the objectives it announced at inception in terms of
the volume of financing, number of branches and the number
of beneficiaries, given the huge demand for its products and
services. Today, a little more than two years after operations
began, the institution has succeeded in financing more than
12,000 income-generating projects. These have led to the
provision or sustainability of more than 35,000 direct and
indirect jobs through a network of 19 branches where most of
them are in the hinterland and least developed regions, three
regional master branches and two mobile ones. The mobile
branches provide access to the outlying and difficult regions.

It is noteworthy that the institution attaches considerable
attention to women empowerment. This has been translated
into 40% of the its financing going to women, a proportion
that will increase to more than half by the year 2021. The
institutions interventions cover all productive sectors
without exception and places marked emphasis on the
farming sector, agro-allied industries and services, various
commercial activities and small industries. This blends with
the comparative advantages of the Tunisian economy and the
map of the country’s economic fabric.

The institution has offered a package of products that
have been designed in accordance with the needs of the
beneficiaries and/or the target regions. Zitouna Tamkeen also entered into partnerships with hundreds of suppliers from various fields and negotiated with them in the context of
framework contracts to give preferential prices to customers
that could reach up to 20% of what is on offer in the market.
This is what gives the institution significant competitive
advantage over its competitors.

This effort is a part of an overall institutional strategy aiming to
build up a network of 40 branches, five mobile ones and five
regional master branches in order to economically empower
more than 80,000 beneficiaries to create and/or sustain more
than 300,000 jobs. The overall financing portfolio is expected
to be around 600 million dinars over the next five years to
secure a market share varying between 15% and 20%.

Zitouna Tamkeen is widely known as an Economic
Empowerment institution rather than a microfinance
institution. What is Economic Empowerment and to what
extend is it different from Microfinance?

‘Empowerment’ is a term that has been embraced by a
diverse range of institutions, from the World Bank to Oxfam
to many more radical NGOs, but few of these share common
definitions. According to the World Bank, empowerment is
the expansion of assets and capabilities of poor people to
participate in, negotiate with, influence, control and hold
accountable institutions that affect their lives. Another
definition states that economic empowerment (EE) is the
process through which those who are currently disadvantaged
achieve equal rights, resources and power. Most definitions
suggest, therefore, that empowerment is the acquisition of
authority or power in decision-making process and the use
of resources.

As per EE, it is an innovative idea to maximise developmental
impact. EE is the movement from a relief, humanitarian and
aid approach to support as well as development approach,
seeing the targeted people as key partners in development
who have latent capacities that should be discovered
while working to change their mentalities so that they can become confident in their capacities and potentials. The
EE methodology enables the vulnerable categories and the
unemployed youth the opportunity to participate effectively
in value-added economic projects and to obtain the resources
and infrastructure necessary to move, produce, market, and
obtain the necessary financial resources.

EE is support and accompaniment until independence in
management becomes possible and appropriate economic
decisions can be taken. It also covers access to the minimum
necessary social services. In another aspect, EE is reliance
on self – employment and private initiatives, just as it is
the realisation of this difficult balance between social and
economic performance. EE is all of the foregoing or at least
some of them.

It is important to note that the financing portfolio of Zitouna
Tamkeen is divided into two parts: individual financing portfolio
such as the one known in the sector and the portfolio for
financing EE projects which, according to the five-year plan,
is expected to grow to represent the bulk of the institution’s
overall portfolio. In terms of services, Zitouna Tamkeen offers
a package of financial and non-financial services, single
handedly or with the assistance of its partners. The Institution
mostly proposes the project idea since it is the only active
institution in the sector which has a specialised department
in project engineering (the only one of its kind compared with
conventional competitors), out of belief in the importance of
regeneration of project ideas.

It brings together the beneficiaries in sustainable structured
projects and offers the necessary financing alongside
accompanying services and support, not only through a group
of business officers but also seeking assistance from a group
of experts and technicians that are engaged depending on the
need and nature of the project. The department of project
engineering defends the beneficiaries’ interest in almost
everything. It finds investment opportunities; develops the
opportunity in the form of business plans; builds important
smart partnerships for the success of the project; negotiates with the suppliers and opens the market, whether local or
international; designs new forms of guarantees, and proceeds
to offer the beneficiaries real investment opportunities. These
projects normally begin with pilot phase and would later develop gradually.

Does youth economic empowerment help in strengthening
democratic transitions? Give an example or talk about
the projects you are undertaking in Tunisia.

The Tunisian’s revolution and the so-called Arab Spring are an
important reminder of why unemployment, more importantly,
youth unemployment should be at the forefront of Arab
world’s growth agenda over the next decade and even longer.
We have seen how in several countries the weight of the crisis
has fallen disproportionately on the young people, leaving a
legacy of failed hopes, anger and ultimately mistrust in the
values of our society. With a large proportion of young people
not having any defined role in society, there is a high risk of
social cohesion and of mistrust in public institutions being undermined.

Youth unemployment could be not just a threat to authoritarian
regimes but also to democracies. In fact, youth unemployment
is associated with political violence and armed conflict in
developing countries. GDP growth, inequality and inflation
are determinants of political instability and unemployment.
There is a positive effect of inequality on political violence.
Tensions among youth because of inequalities can lead to the
outbreak of conflict. In general, countries with good economic
outcomes have a lower risk of armed conflict outbreak. The
effect of democratic institutions is weak, democracy does not
necessarily imply stability.

To avoid instability and violence, the focus should be on
monitoring economic opportunities for young people,
and particularly on providing employment or educational
opportunities for youth in periods of economic decline.

I’m the President of a young NGO called Tamkeen for
Development. Two years ago, our NGO launched a United
Nations Democracy Fund – funded project in Tunisia. The
project skillfully links EE and political participation for youthat-risk in poverty-prone areas of the country. In fact, the
project aims to integrate youth in the country’s social fabric
and democratic transition by equipping them to participate
in their regions’ economic and political life. A group of young
men and women are empowered through the project’s
economic inclusion scheme, with the underlying principle that
once youth are given the opportunity to become economically
independent, they will gradually gain the confidence to
proactively engage in civil and political life.

The project selected 1,200 youths living in one of the least
developed zones of Tunisia for training in soft skills, project
management, participative democracy, and entrepreneurship.
Of these, 200 youths received additional technical training
in cattle breeding, after which they were given financial
support and market opportunities to launch their own income
generating activity. In another innovative approach, the
project is managed through a youth-led steering committee,
allowing them to exercise leadership and launch public initiatives where they can put into practice the foundations of
democracy. So far, the main achievements of our project are:
(i) spontaneous creation of 13 Civil Society Entities managed
100% by our youth population including 8 NGOs and 3
GDAs (Agricultural Development Groups); (ii) Involvement
of a group of young people in Municipal elections held in
2018 as independent observers and/or candidates; (iii) 60%
of our sample participated in the municipal elections against
a participation rate of 30% on national level; (iv) More than
40% of our sample has exercised their voting rights for the
first time in their lives. This is an illustration of how EE helps in
strenghtening democratic transitions.

Any plan to duplicate your experience at an international level?

Early performance indicators of our approach are very
promising, and the model is attracting the interest of local
and international partners. This is why we are establishing the
International Center for Economic Empowerment (ICEE),which
is a consulting services company offering advisory services to
build and develop the EE business projects and institutions
worldwide. It will contribute to equip NGOs; banks and
microfinance institutions with EE business methodologies
and strengthen their corporate and human capital capacities.
The focus will be on producing customized development
programme proposals for global clients interested in achieving
sustainable development goals. Leading technical assistance,
training and advisory services will be at the forefront of the
offer. So far, we have started transferring our knowledge and
technical know how to three African countries in collaboration
with international donors and local partners.

As a thought leader in microfinance, what do you perceive is
the future of Islamic microfinance and what will it look like
say 5 or 10 years from now?

Islamic microfinance represents the confluence of two rapidly
growing industries: microfinance and Islamic finance. It has
the potential to not only respond to unmet demand, but
also to address some weaknesses of conventional system in
alleviating poverty and achieving positive economic impact. It
is true that Islamic microfinance is still in its infancy and has
yet to reach scale as Islamic microfinance industry accounts for
less than 1% of the global microfinance outreach. However, I
expect it will continue to grow at double digit figures to finally
emerge from a market niche to a rapidly growing industry
worldwide within 5 to 10 years due to the following reasons:

• Microfinance in general and Islamic microfinance in
particular remain important tools in tackling poverty,
reducing financial exclusion and promoting social
inclusion. The key role of microfinance in these areas
was first recognised in the United Nations Millennium
Development Goals (MDGs) then confirmed in the
United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Since Islamic microfinance is said to emphasise more
on ethical, moral and social factors to promote equality
and fairness for the prosperity of the society; one can
view it as offering a better financing tool compared to
the conventional microfinance system and therefore it is
more in line with SDGs.

• The current state of many Muslim countries provides
Islamic microfinance institution (IMFIs) without a choice
but to continue their best to fight poverty and serve the
poor. IMFIs are not only working in an economically or
politically demanding environment, i.e. high poverty or
unemployment rate, but also providing services in hostile
environment caused by prolong armed conflicts or
recurring natural disasters. In fact, with an estimated 650
million Muslims living on less than US$2 a day, 89 million
Muslims need urgent humanitarian relief. With 36 armed
conflicts out of 50 are happening in Muslim countries,
60% of refugees in the world are concentrated in Muslim
world, 20% to 40% of poor population cite religious
reasons for not seeking conventional microfinance; the
need to bring together faith and finance is clear and
obvious. Islamic microfinance fits into the asset-based
economic paradigm and equity objective of Islamic moral
economy as well as fulfilling all other social expectations.

• At the country level the role of Islamic microfinance is
gradually gaining momentum, especially in countries
where microfinance sector is near maturity such as
Bangladesh, Indonesia and Sudan. Here, IMFIs are seen
to improve lives and income level of the poor, and at the
same time contribute positively to employment creation
in the country.

• Severe criticisms have been addressed to Islamic banks
and other prominent Islamic financial institutions for
their ‘failure’ to serve the 650 million poor in the Muslim
countries. Therefore, it is expected that Islamic banks will
invest more in the Islamic microfinance sector as it is often
held up by industry practitioners and policymakers as the
shining example of the social and participatory nature of
Islamic finance. It is also said to be at the heart of Islamic
finance as it addresses one of the fundamental roles of
financial intermediaries demanded by Shari’a – income
growth, functional distribution of income and promoting equal opportunities for all members of society as positive
measures to improve the life of the poor. Moreover,
Islamic microfinance has the potential to increase the
overall market share of Islamic banking and finance by
bringing untapped populations into the formal financial services sector.

However, fundamental challenges need to be considered
before Islamic microfinance sector could continue its rapid
growth and impactfully embark on a journey of participating
in achieving SDGs, namely: (i) Modern, attractive, flexible and
easily adaptable regulation for the various types of microfinance
investment vehicles along with a friendly tax regime; (ii)
More aggressive involvement from development donors and
Islamic financial institutions particularly banks in the Islamic
microfinance sector; (iii) Extensive use of technology and
innovation; (iv) Innovation in terms of products delivery and
business models; (v) Wider outreach; (vi) Better organisational
efficiency; (vii) Better governance and increased stakeholder
responsibility; (viii) Market data collection and standardisation;
(ix) Increase diversity of the sector’s funding sources; and (x)
Investment in human capital and talent development.

Sustainability has gone mainstream now. In part,
the pressure to embrace sustainability has been
catalysed by the desire for a sustainable future. What
does sustainability mean to you as a leader? Why is
sustainability becoming an important component of
strategic thinking for leaders of today?

For me, sustainability is the development that meets the
needs of the present without compromising the ability of
future generations to meet their own needs. We must simply
consider the future when it comes to making our decisions
about the present. Sustainability is also the ‘’duty of care’’
regarding how we operate. Companies should always consider
the three Ps of the triple bottom line while attempting to lead
a successful and sustainable business: People, Planet and
Profit. Seen from another angel, sustainability is about freeing
people from the fear of uncertainty.

As a CEO of an EE institution, sustainability could be also
translated into the 17 SDGs adopted by the United Nations,
which include amongst other things:

• The end of poverty and hunger
• Better standards of education and healthcare
• To achieve gender equality
• Sustainable economic growth while promoting jobs and stronger economies
• All of the above and more while tackling the effects of climate change, pollution and other environmental factors that can harm and do harm people’s health, livelihoods and lives.
• Sustainability to include health of the land, air and sea

Sustainability is important because after all our businesses
can only be as strong and healthy as the communities that
we proudly serve. In a free enterprise, the community is not
just another stakeholder in the business but in fact the very
purpose of its existence.

What is the key to sustainability for Islamic microfinance
institutions the likes of Zitouna Tamkeen?

Islamic microfinance institutions likewise Zitouna Tamkeen
are usually small and relatively young corporations where
the sustainability concept is not so deeply embedded in their
corporate DNA.Therefore, I believe that the CEO’s role is most
important in ensuring corporate sustainability. Corporate
sustainability can be achieved by implementing the concept
of triple bottom line, i.e. people, planet and profit. CEOs play
a pivotal role in clarifying and motivating their teams to adopt
it as a strategic concept. A CEO is also the person to impress
upon the top management team the importance of social,
environmental and ethical aspect of corporate governance.

According to a survey conducted by Accenture and UN Global
Compact, 93% of CEOs view sustainability as critical to their
company’s success. And yet, there is scant evidence that it has
been implemented extensively at most companies. I believe
this gap exists because most CEOs do not recognise the
leadership role they personally need to play to embed it deep
and wide in their organisations. Why is that? By and large, it’s
because for most employees, the issue is still not considered
relevant to the business, and they do not make a connection
between sustainability and the company’s mission, or to
their own day-to-day jobs. So, unless employees – at every
level – see CEO leadership, they are not going to engage and
drive change. But that does not mean that if the CEO doesn’t
provide active and visible leadership, nothing can get done. It
just doesn’t get as far or far enough.

As CEO, how do you balance the need to challenge staff
but not overwhelm them?

As a CEO, I have to ensure that my employees feel challenged
with their jobs, but not overwhelmed. To achieve this goal;
creating a clean, well-maintained, and organised working
environment where they can do their work and feel
comfortable is a must. Practically speaking, the following
leadership keys are essential:

Delegate wisely – I have learned to effectively delegate
both the responsibility for completing assignments and the
authority required to get things done. Controlling every little
thing that employees do is a big mistake. When I delegate work
to employees, I multiply the amount of work I can accomplish
while I develop my employees’ confidence, leadership and
work skills.

Set goals – Every employee needs goals to strive for. Goals
ensure that they are working towards the overall organisational
goals. I set specific and measurable goals with my employees,
then regularly monitor their progress toward achieving them.

Communicate – I make every effort to get employees the
information they need to do their jobs quickly and efficiently.

Make time for employees – Above all, leadership is a people
job. When an employee needs to talk with me – whatever the
reason may be – I make sure that I set aside the time to do so
and focus on the person standing in front of me.

Don’t take it all too seriously – Without a doubt, running a company
is a serious business. However, I don’t miss any opportunity to
make Zitouna Tamkeen a fun place to work in, because of which
we end up with a more loyal and energised workforce.

How do you empower your people to bring their ideas
forward?

Our slogan at Zitouna Tamkeen is Part of building an empowering environment is dependent on
the leader’s ability to run interference on behalf of the team.
The leader needs to make sure people are safe doing their jobs
and bringing their ideas forward. To make sure this happens
in Zitouna Tamkeen; ongoing discussions of the needs,
opportunities, tasks, obstacles, projects, what is working and
what is not working are absolutely critical to the development
and maintenance of a “safe” working environment. As a CEO,
I have to also make sure that my people are empowered to
make decisions, share information and try new things.

Based on my experience, there are five things successful
leaders do to build environments that empower people. First
is to give power to those who have demonstrated the capacity
to handle the responsibility. Second is to create a favourable
environment in which people are encouraged to grow their
knowledge, skills and expertise. Third is not to second-guess
others’ decisions and ideas unless it’s absolutely necessary.
This only undermines their confidence and keeps them
from sharing future ideas with you. Fourth is to give people
discretion and autonomy over their tasks and resources. Lastly
is to recognize, reward and encourage employees often and
openly when they put in extra efforts.

If you could rewind the clock to when you first took on a
leadership role, what advice would you give yourself about
being an effective leader?

My advice is be mindful about the individual leader or
manager you choose to work for. Based on my experience,
and hearing from leaders I’ve worked with, the person you
choose to work for is a critical leadership decision. While you
may possess strong leadership attributes yourself, they will
either be amplified by a great leader, or suppressed by a weak
or mediocre leader.

Great leaders will unleash your potential. They will actively
look for ways to give you exposure to other senior leaders
in the company. They will coach you, give you the tough
feedback when you need it, and they will always be in your corner. These are the things you need to be looking for in the leaders you choose to work with. If you aren’t convinced that a prospective manager or leader will do these things for you, then my advice is to run, and run fast

What habits have you included in your daily routine to strengthen your leadership skills?

Being an effective, inspiring, and well-respected leader for
your company is not easy. Therefore, leaders should on a
daily basis work hard to strengthen their leadership skills.
For myself, I try to include some habits in my daily routine to
improve my leadership skills and style.

As a leader I need to show, not just tell. I must set the tone and my employees will follow it.

Communicate effectively. Effective communication is
imperative, both in the office and in life. I make sure I am heard
and understood, but I also know the importance of listening.

Be a mentor to others. Establishing myself as a leader means
I’m willing to help other people become leaders too.

Make tough decisions. Leaders are often the ones that can
move forward with making tough decisions that others are
afraid to make. Making tough decisions is one of the most
important things I can do.

Make integrity a cornerstone. Integrity is the quality of being
whole or undivided. Integrity for me is always doing the right
thing, even when no one is looking. Integrity is when my
actions are congruent with my values.

Share your enthusiasm. I don’t miss any opportunity to share
my enthusiasm with the staff. People want to be associated
with enthusiastic people because enthusiasm truly is
contagious. It creates an energy and excitement that dissolves
adversity and brightens up life.

Lead Courageously. Being a leader is about doing. It’s about
getting things done. Courage (contrary to popular belief) is not
‘not being afraid.’ Courage is being afraid and doing it anyway.
A lack of courage allows fear to stop all action, all doing, all getting things done. Leaders who do not have courage, are
not leaders at all.

At the end, what is one piece of advice you would give to an
aspiring leader?

If I have one piece of advice to give to an aspiring leader,
I would say listen to your inner voice no matter how loud
external noises are. Let your fear know your strengths and try
to find your superpower that will allow you to do something
you’re really proud of, that you can point to as your greatest
accomplishment.

Be passionate about what you do, which means you have to
care about succeeding. You need the courage to initiate, the
commitment to do the hard-yards, and the tenacity to see
things through in the face of obstacles.

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