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  • Jabulile Sonya Ngwenya

Tunisian Online Accelerator Deaf Square Unlocks Inclusive Digital Economy For Deaf

Africa’s smallest North African country, and its northernmost country, Tunisia is known for many things, for its vibrant culture, cuisine, intriguing history, exquisite seaside towns, and its bustling souks. When it comes to technology, there is no shortage of tech talent in Tunisia due to its strong IT sector and strategic geographic location that enables it to serve as a bridge between Europe and Africa. 

Thanks to a dynamic startup ecosystem that is nurturing talented entrepreneurs and innovators, Tunisia is becoming the leading deep tech hub on the African continent. Not bad for a country that spearheaded Africa’s first Startup Act in 2018 which catalyzed Africa’s wave of policy innovation, with several African countries following suit. 

It is said that necessity is the mother of invention. This saying is true for an innovative Tunisian startup called Deaf Square, whose founders recognized a need to create an inclusive digital economy for the country’s deaf population. Deaf Square’s founder, Sonia Kherigi Nasfi tells AfricArena’s Jabulile Sonya Ngwenya why it is important for her and her co-founders Nour El Imane Nasfi and Atef Boubakri to provide this service to over 60,000 deaf people in Tunisia to help them integrate into Africa’s rising digital economy with the help of an AI driven solution.  

“Deaf Square is an online career accelerator that bridges the gap between talented deaf people and employers,” Nasfi says. “We help deaf people access high-quality education in the tech field, and job opportunities in leading industries. We also help employers find talented people with disabilities. Our artificial intelligence based solution ensures adaptive learning to continuously improve our training, and to provide a sign language mastering virtual trainer.” 

Nasfi says she was inspired to start Deaf Square when her co-founder Nour El Imane Nasfi, who is also her daughter, started studying sign language in her first year at university and her eyes were opened to the numerous challenges deaf people encounter in their day to day lives. “Thanks to this, we found ourselves connected with the Tunisian deaf community and met our third co-founder Atef,” Nasfi tells AfricArena. The three co-founders united through their love for the deaf community, deaf culture, and a deep seated desire to help deaf people achieve their dreams. 

Nasfi pauses while recalling key moments that defined the trajectory of her startup’s journey and with a smile, she says, “While meeting deaf people we discovered how much intelligence and creativity they have, but they couldn't upskill or reskill themselves because there are no online training platforms adapted to them. Besides they couldn’t access job opportunities in leading industries due to stigma, discrimination, and communication barriers. From another side, we were aware of the increasing number of job opportunities in the tech fields. So the solution became evident to us.” 

She adds that what makes them unique as an accelerator is that they are able to enable access for deaf people to much needed information within the entrepreneurial and startup ecosystem as “it is very difficult for deaf people to become entrepreneurs. First of all, because of stigma, discrimination, and communication barriers. Second, it’s because of the lack of sign language interpreters in the administrations and also in the incubation programs. There are no adapted processes to help them create their own projects.”

Nasfi says, “At Deaf Square, we provide courses exclusively in sign language. Our team is a combination of deaf, hard-of-hearing, and hearing people. All our developments are based on user experiences. Most of the time companies have the obligation by law to recruit people with disabilities but they don’t know where to find these talents. Our job is to job-match Deaf talents and employers.”

According to the World Federation of the Deaf, it is estimated that globally, there are 72 million deaf people, with 80% living in developing countries and 41 countries have recognized sign language as one of their official languages. On the African continent, there are only four African countries who recognize sign language as an official language and they are Kenya, Zimbabwe, Uganda and recently, South Africa. These trailblazing sub-Saharan African countries are inspiring this Tunisian startup that is determined to make a difference to the Tunisian deaf community and larger North African deaf community, using the resources, skills, talents and networks they have at hand to make the economy more inclusive as Africa’s digital transformation surges forward into the next level, bringing with it unique solutions to challenging global issues. 

Touching on the fascinating world of sign language, Sonia says she and her team have learnt a great deal about sign language, deaf culture and working together. She shares one insight about sign language that continues to keep her in awe: “Most people think that there is a single sign language for all Deaf people around the world. Also according to studies made on hearing kids, the results showed that the ones who learned sign language became more creative.” There are over 300 distinctly different sign languages globally, with each country having its own native sign language, with different dialects. 

Deaf Square won two AfricArena awards in 2023, the Best Promising Entrepreneur Award at the AfricArena Tunis Summit and the Most Promising Entrepreneur Award at the AfricArena Grand Summit in Cape Town. 

What makes Deaf Square’s pitches stand out on any pitching stage is that their co-founder Atef Boubakri who is deaf, signs on stage along with the co-founders, and if he is not there, a professional sign language interpreter joins them on stage, so it is an intriguing, dynamic pitch that attracts investors’ interest. 

These two awards significantly raised Deaf Square’s profile, Nasfi says with a delighted smile. “Winning at AfricArena’s summits helped us with visibility in the African market and ecosystem, especially in South Africa, and also enlarged our network and connections with investors,” Nasfi shares. And she adds, “now, we also have an important amount of services with AWS Activate which is very useful for our startup.” 

Deaf Square is set to make heads turn this year as the team launches Deaf Square’s services in multiple African countries this year with the aim to reach millions of deaf people on the continent. 

Nasfi, who has an IT engineering background and is a qualified MCF neuro semantics practitioner says the list is very long when asked what a typical day in her life as Deaf Square CEO looks like. “I manage the IT team, look for new partnerships with professional organizations and HR associations, look for new job opportunities, participate in international fairs and participate in acceleration programs among many other things.” Her daughter Nour El Imane attends to all the startup’s marketing needs while Atef focuses on business development, sources and new partnerships with Deaf organizations and communicates with deaf students and deaf people applying for new work opportunities.  

Navigating the funding winter and startup landscape has not been without its challenges for this courageous startup determined to make a big impact. “The most challenging thing is the fact that it is difficult for an impact startup to convince in the beginning. It needs a lot of hard work. So since grants are very difficult to begin with, we have to look for a team that believes in our startup and who can work for free for a certain period.” 

The one thing Nasfi shares that has allowed Deaf Square to grow from humble beginnings to where it is today is the power of networking. Don’t stop networking, Nasfi says. “Never lose an opportunity to talk to someone.” Wise advice coming from someone with over 20 years of experience working for the Central Bank of Tunisia. 

Nasfi shares a nugget a mentor gave her: “Listening to mentors and advisors is very insightful and can improve many aspects of your startup, but never choose what is not aligned with your vision and values.” This is something that a lot of people can learn from. 

When asked what advice she has to give to founders who want to build a successful enterprise startup, she says three simple, powerful words: “Hard work, confidence, and agility.” These three words sum up the fortitude that entrepreneurs, innovators and investors need to have to navigate Africa’s fast-paced, rising tech and investment ecosystem. 

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