North African Artisans Breathe New Life into the Local Economy
Can betting on ancient local artisan traditions in Tunisia help solve one of the country’s biggest heritage conundrums?
by Tara Roberts
In her native Tunisia, Leila Ben-Gacem fights for local artisans. Sometimes, she holds their hands, sometimes she promotes their work, but most often and most importantly, she builds their capacity as independent, community-sustained micro-entrepreneurs.
You see, Leila, founder of the social enterprise Blue Fish, believes micro-entrepreneurs, particularly artisans in Tunisia, are the soul of a community. Not only do they understand how local government and legal systems operate and speak up and out when necessary, but they also hire family, friends and other locals, contributing to the health and prosperity of the local economy. And these artisan/entrepreneurs perform a crucial but generally overlooked task of preserving cultural heritage — and in Tunisia’s case, specifically, a legacy of 4,000-years-old craftsmanship.
Ashoka sat down with Leila recently to better understand the relevance of the art forms she is helping to bring back to Tunisia and why fashion sustainability experts should take note of the innovative micro-entrepreneurial-ecosystem-building model that Blue Fish has perfected.
Let’s talk about this micro-entrepreneurial ecosystem-building model a bit more. What exactly is it?
“When I started Blue Fish, it was because I knew artisans couldn’t do it by themselves. It’s very hard for them to develop a business. Most artisans like to produce products, not write emails or do invoices. They need others to complete the work in the supply chain and to help them reach international markets. So first, we make sure the business is sustainable, then we help an artisan find others in her community — daughters, cousins, nieces — to become partners in the business and take care of other aspects along the supply chain. Most of our entrepreneurs are very small businesses — they are not selling to Walmart. They are custom-making small collections and selling to small shops abroad. The key to their success is sustaining the flow of orders — once the entrepreneurs get the ecosystem right, then they can do this on their own and create more opportunities.”
How does Blue Fish work?
“When an artisan starts working with Blue Fish, we focus first on very basic stuff. We make sure the product pricing is right and that the artisan understands things like raw material sourcing, capacity and pricing. Often, artisans have market-based pricing, but do not take into account production, material costs and time. When a woman is making carpets between caring for kids and her husband and keeping the house, it’s extremely difficult to analyze and properly estimate her production capacity. But she must master this, along with her cash flow. These are very important lessons, especially for artisans who are often semi-literate and who learn from doing rather than reading instructions.”
Can you walk us through an example of the ecosystem-building process?
“We worked with a wood artisan who was doing everything on his own. After we analyzed his business and trained him on key business elements, we told him he needed to do invoices, but he wasn’t so interested in doing them. We encouraged him to think of others in the community that could fulfill that role, and he suddenly remembered his wife. So, we talked to his wife and helped her develop a system on the computer at home, and now, she does the invoices for the business. For packaging and deliveries, his brother decided he wanted to do this, and so we explained and trained him on customs. The business has become something members of the family are a part of, which makes it more sustainable — and fun. They now have a modest Facebook page and are getting repeat orders. An example of a small success.”
You’ve mentioned international markets a few times. Why is it important for Tunisian artisans to sell abroad?
We are a small country, but we have an army of artisans. It’s very hard to sustain our craft heritage if we don’t approach the international markets. Export is an amazing opportunity for us.”
Heritage is such a key focus of yours. Why do you focus so much on preserving heritage?
“I’ll give you a good example of why it’s crucial for us to be empathetic to heritage. In Tunisian history, each of the seven southern states was known for a certain type of carpet weave done by Bedouin women weavers. It was all beautiful and very different, telling stories of the various tribes. In the 70s, the government decided to create a new market for these ladies, but to only promote one type of weaving. They delivered looms to homes in all seven states and made one type of weave dominant, effectively killing all the other patterns. They created a lot of income, but they destroyed the heritages of six other states. Now, many weavers think, ‘No, we can’t do that anymore. No one will buy it.’ It’s very hard to get heritage back once you lose it.”
You are not a typical social enterprise in the fashion industry. What makes you different from your peers?
“I think most social innovators try to build a brand. They might have a factory and hire 50 carpet weavers and focus on mastering production. I am not saying there is anything bad or wrong about this. But it’s a very different business model from ours. We work by crafting a network of small business owners rather than a cooperative of artisans. The latter is quicker and more sustainable. Our model takes a much longer time and requires a lot of coaching — you have to be patient and monitor the slow growth of the businesses. But I think entrepreneurship is more empowering over the long run.”
What is your vision for Blue Fish’s future? For Tunisia’s future?
“I was in the most southern state in Tunisia two weeks ago, where there is 34% unemployment. I met youth desperate to do something. We have amazing palaces there — palaces are storage spaces where Bedouins used to store bags of wheat and barley while they wandered around with their camels. I am trying to work with youth to see how we can create a new story for these palaces.
I am also working on a beautiful project called funtech. We use digital technology to preserve heritage. Right now, we are digitizing a hundred years of Tunisian music and using it to create a new sound. But first, we must make youth proud of what they have and where they come from. Tunisia has the biggest number of Isis fighters in the region. There are lots of people dying in the Mediterranean. We need to have pride in our heritage, and we need to be innovative and understand that heritage is a dynamic concept. Even if we are a small country, we have tremendous differences between states. Each state has it its own treasures — patterns, weaving, embroidery. Each culture needs to be promoted with its own wealth. I believe there are many opportunities ahead for us.”