“We want to allow people in wheelchairs to be more independent”, 🇹🇳 Khadija Jallouli, CEO of HawKar

Khadija Jallouli and her co-founder

This interview is presented by GrowHome, a platform connecting diasporas to start-ups in their home country. If you are either a MENA diaspora, or a start-up based in MENA, feel free to join our early adopters at www.growhome.app

When did you create Hawkar?

I created HawKar about 5 years ago with my co-founder and CTO Seiffedine Aissa. Our goal is to create adapted and custom vehicles for disabled people.

Do you have any experience in this sector?

Not at all; my studies were related to the food industry, so absolutely nothing to do with the automobile. What really led me to start this project was a personal need. I’ve been in a wheelchair my whole life and have always needed to move around every day. Public transport is not accessible for people in wheelchairs, so I decided to find a solution to this problem. My co-founder on the other hand already had experience in the automotive industry when we started. So in a way, my personal experience and his technical abilities were the magic sauce to starting HawKar.

How did you develop your first prototype?

As I indicated, my co-founder has experience in the automotive industry. He’s been building and manufacturing electric vehicles ever since he’s been in university, either for competitions or just for fun. As for the prototype, we really built everything ‘from scratch’, the idea really being to make a vehicle tailored for people in wheelchairs.

What are the three essential elements for building a car for people with disabilities?

First, the car must be accessible from a wheelchair. The idea is to allow the person to go directly from their wheelchair to the driver’s seat. Second, the car is electric. This is not only relevant to our times, but it also requires a lot less maintenance. Lastly, the vehicle must have a small speed limit. We decided to create vehicles with a small speed threshold of 45km/h. This allows the driver to be able to drive our car without a driver’s license. Getting a driver’s license as a disabled person is extremely difficult, and by creating cars that can be used for short, everyday trips, you get around that rule, in a way.

Where in HawKar today?

We don’t sell our cars yet, but we are already working on our second prototype, which we improve daily. We are fortunate to have the support of organizations that give us the financial help we need to really create a product that is useful to the people we are trying to help.

Who are your competitors and what is your market?

We have some competitors in Europe and the USA. There are also competitors who have disappeared due to new regulations passed by the EU in 2014. We differentiate ourselves by making our car adaptable to different types of physical disabilities. Our other key differentiator is the fact that we are trying to develop a car through which people with disabilities can be truly autonomous; in other words, a car through which our clients can operate without any exterior help.

In terms of the market, we started by thinking of the MENA / Africa region, but we quickly had requests from other markets in Europe, the USA and even Saudi Arabia. Our launch strategy is to launch into Tunisia, Morocco and France, and see where demand takes us.

Why haven’t the big car manufacturers developed a solution for people with disabilities?

In my opinion, I think the market is too small for the big auto manufacturers. They certainly don’t see the point in reducing their turnover to serve a small market like ours.

Once the car is ready, where can people buy it?

Our main distribution axes will be online sales as well as contracts with car dealers, who will play the role of resellers. We also have the opportunity to reach a fairly large market due to the fact that our cars are modular (kind of like Ikea furniture, but for a car) and can be assembled in an hour, which makes international transport much easier.

The Tunisian start-up ecosystem quickly became a benchmark in the region with the implementation of the famous “Start-Up Act” in 2018. How has the Tunisian ecosystem developed since the creation of HawKar?

When HawKar was created, the Start-Up Act did not exist, but we have reaped the benefit from it since its implementation in 2018. We have witnessed a real metamorphosis of the Tunisian start-up ecosystem. We now have numerous opportunities for financing and support as an entrepreneur, but the ecosystem has also “consolidated” in a way, by encouraging cooperation between all actors in the ecosystem. Another big change to note is the facilitation of the process of creating a start-up, which allows for greater start-up activity at the national level. There is still a lot to be done, but I think changes will come with time and experience.

How do you raise funds for such a “time and capital intensive” start-up?

It’s definitely hard, especially since investors must be prepared to invest in a real R&D effort. There is also a whole regulation part that requires a lot of time and money, a constraint that is less present in the software sector, for example.

Today, HawKar is financially supported by Actia, a French multinational. We do not have an investor yet because Tunisian investors still see us in the prototype stage. So it’s very hard to convince them to invest in a project that will see the light of day in a few years. For the moment, we mainly rely on subsidies and grants, at least until the time the vehicle has been approved.

How many of you are on the HawKar team?

There is me, the CEO, my CTO, two mechanical engineers, an electrical engineer and a product designer. We also have interns who work intermittently. We run a small team but we do a good job. Today more than 60% of the vehicle is made in Tunisia, out of pragmatism, it’s close and cheaper, but also out of patriotism :)
An important thing to not is the fact that many large car manufacturers subcontract their R&D to Tunisia, employing Tunisian engineers, which gives us the opportunity to find great local talent.

Where do you see HawKar in a year?

You know better than I that there is nothing more vague than the future of a start-up! More seriously, our goal in a year would be to have our second prototype completed, which will then allow us to start collecting pre-orders. All of this will also allow us to obtain homologation, which remains an extremely key point.

Visit the HawKar site: http://hawkar.tn/
Follow HawKar on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/company/hawkar-tn/
Contact Khadija: khadija.jallouli@hawkar.tn

This interview is presented by GrowHome, a platform connecting diasporas to start-ups in their home country. If you are either a MENA diaspora, or a start-up based in MENA, feel free to join our early adopters at www.growhome.app

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