Gafsa women united for sustainable crafts

August 5, 2022

More and more young entrepreneurs from Tunisia’s interior regions are realizing that you don’t have to be an expert or visionary leader to consider the circular economy as an economic lever, or even a pillar of sustainable and inclusive development. Aware that the circular economy can help break away from the prevailing simplistic logic: extract to manufacture, consume then throw away and faced with the depletion of resources in their regions, these young people are thinking of producing differently by integrating ecology at all levels, from design to production and recycling.

“I imagined a business model where my resources are mostly natural or renewable, where the use of chemical products is avoided and where the essential link is zero waste,” explains Sassia Bougatef. The 40-year-old entrepreneur from the Belkhir region of Gafsa has put sustainability thinking at the core of her business, including the use of natural raw materials, waste and its recycling.

“Belkhir is a rural area, where the economy is mainly based on women’s work, animal husbandry, work in the fields, beekeeping, pottery or margoum weaving. I stopped my studies at a very early age because of our limited financial means and it was at my mother’s side that I learned to weave.”

Behind the loom, Sassia discovered a whole world rich in symbols, colours and geographical forms with which she expresses herself and which reflect the rich cultural heritage that has been handed down from generation to generation. Young and open-minded, she learns very quickly from her mother and the women of her community and decides to go further and share all this knowledge with the women of her region.

In 2018, with the help of her parents, she set up her own premises and launched her business, the manufacture and marketing of mergoums made from natural and recycled raw materials. Two years later, she founded “Socrate for the development of rural women”, a group for the women weavers of Belkhir. Around 30 women, who make a living from this trade, meet and develop their activity around a sustainable natural resource, wool, and recycled raw materials.

“As they say, strength comes from unity. I have made my premises available to the women weavers of Belkhir, where they meet to benefit from my training in the work of wool, to display their margoums for sale, or to dispatch the orders we receive. It is also the base point of our wool value chain, which starts with its collection, washing and processing, dyeing, spinning, weaving and finally marketing. Everything is done in a natural way.”  Sassia has made it a point to develop a natural cycle of working with wool that starts with the supply and allows all stakeholders to develop the region’s resources and earn income from them.

“I developed contracts with farmers in the region for supplies. These supplies allow me to guarantee the best quality. The washing and treatment of the wool is done by the women of the group without any chemical additives. For the dyeing of the wool, the women gather different plants such as mugwort, thyme and rosemary which allow us to play fully and naturally with the choice of colours. We also collect waste coffee, tea and fruit (bananas, strawberries) from the coffee shops and stalls, which allows us to diversify the colours naturally.

In 2020, Sassia met the experts of the Mashrou3i Project who gave a new impetus to her business activity and the group. They helped her to strengthen the structure of the business, to enhance wool quality, set prices, and improve marketing and product presentation methods.

“Thanks to the support of Mashrou3i, today my customers come from all over Tunisia and even from abroad. They come mainly to learn about the value chain, and when they buy a product, they also buy a story. The idea of the value chain was always there from the beginning, but it has developed with the support of Mashrou3i.”

Sassia has also benefited from coaching and technical training, along with 13 other groups from the north and south of Tunisia, to improve products, innovate, enhance branding, packaging and communication, and strengthen the value chain.

“With Mashrou3i I learned to develop a vision for the future. When I sell my carpets today at fairs, I also sell their story, that of 100% natural Berber carpets made by a chain of local workers and from organic or recycled products. We are currently working on a catalogue that will tell the story and the technical details of each carpet. We are also working on the design of a commercial website and a regional brand for Berber carpets that we see as a factor of attractiveness and job creation in our region…”