Putting the ‘cool’ back into Tunisian culture

Leila Ben Gacem is reviving local Medinas with the help of local youth and entrepreneurs to help put the country on a growth path
By Alicia Buller

Tunisian-born corporate globetrotter Leila Ben Gacem returned to the region in 2013 to help drive the economic development of her beloved home country.

She’s not alone. The 2011 ‘Arab Spring’ revolution encouraged many of the Tunisian diaspora to return and use their skills to reshape the nation.

In a sign of immense progress, Tunisia ranked first in Africa, sixth in MENA, and 40th worldwide for ‘health of the eco-system’ in 2017, as ranked by the Global Entrepreneurship and Development Institute.

For her part, Gacem has founded Blue Fish, a growing grassroots movement led by students and cultural entrepreneurs to restore the vibrancy of Tunisia’s Medinas.

More broadly, her social enterprise identifies opportunities in historical and cultural heritage and develops ways to make these opportunities sustainable and improve people’s living standards.

Blue Fish – so named because Gacem loves ‘fish’ and ‘the colour blue – began life as an export business for local artisan projects but this approach ‘didn’t really work’ so she decided to ‘step back’ and improve the entrepreneurial skills of the artisans.

Gacem says: “In doing that, I discovered a lot of other challenges. It was frustrating that we weren’t communicating the right story about our country with its wealth of heritage, culture and positive stories.”

She adds: “In the region, in general, we underestimate the potential of our heritage and culture in creating opportunities. I wanted to prove that we could invest in what we have and create a better community.”

Boutique hotel success

The Blue Fish founder began with the creation of Dar Ben-Gacem, a uniquely restored hotel in the Medina of Tunis. Built in 1600s and restored into a seven-room guesthouse, the hotel touts itself as ‘a story of commitment and positivity inspired by Tunisia’s rich cultural history’.

“It tells a positive story of our past and our future,” says Gacem.

Launched in 2013, the popular boutique hotel reinvests all of its profits in the restoration of homes in the Medina or initiatives that improve the socio-urban experience in the oldest part of Tunis.

The project aspires to revive architectural and artistic heritage, as well as to diversify the use of space and enable its continuity.

The hotel, which has so far welcomed guests from 59 nationalities, offers a range of experiences that allow guests to sample local artisan activities while supporting the old city’s small businesses.

Gacem currently funds her social enterprise initiatives through the consulting arm of Blue Fish, which has eight employees. She also works with a network of freelancers and volunteers. “But I prefer to remunerate people,” she says.

Promoting artisans through stories

The Blue Fish founder is also continuing to work with artisan groups in several parts of Tunisia, such as Kasserine and Tataouine, to help them structure and improve their exports.

She says: “We are continuously promoting their work, stores, and products. We’re trying to do this in a fun way, working with youths to tell the story – whether it’s through articles or videos.

“By promoting cities through stories about their produce, heritage, people, cuisine we are highlighting local identities, which improves city social-economic dynamics and encourages youth to achieve around these ideas.”

Empowering youth

According to Gacem, the youth of Tunisia – and the world – is facing challenging times.

“The world is going at a speed where the national education systems find it hard to keep up. We’ve got to a stage where we are not giving young people the right skills for today’s job market,” she says.

Gacem says mismatched vocational skills, a lack of jobs, and the tumultuous aftermaths of revolution provide a ‘very challenging’ backdrop for local youths as they enter the working world.

She says: “We don’t understand democracy here, we’ve had so many changes of government in the last eight years. I think hope for the youth should be a national priority.”

“At my micro-level, I try to make our heritage and identity cool and trendy in a way that the youth can be part of it.

“I think they need to be proud of their identity and roots. They can use this to create opportunities, cultivate hope and use that to create positive change in our society.”