In 2006, Leïla Ben Gacem undertook a radical conversion: an engineer in medical biology, she embarked on social entrepreneurship. By restoring a guest house, Dar Ben Gacem, in the heart of the medina, in Tunis, she advocates for the protection of the national cultural heritage.
On this first Monday after Ramadan, at 9am with some minutes on top of the hour, a deep calm in Medina, the historic district of Tunis. The stalls still closed. Some onlookers enjoy their first coffee after a month of fasting. In the heart of the district, a guest house, Dar Ben Gacem, the manager of the place, Leila Ben Gacem is already active. Eyeglasses on the nose, account book in front her and checkbook in hand, her activity summarizes the daily life of a businesswoman like any other one.
Leila’s carrier path is unique. « It is my second life,» she jokes. Born in Tunisia in Beni Khalled in the Cap Bon region, daughter of a former Ministry of Economy official – who was the first Tunisian to school in the prestigious American University of Harvard – she studied biomedical engineering in Tunisia then abroad. For eleven years she worked for successful multinationals. Before making a radical reconversion. « I lived abroad for a long time, traveled a lot, and I saw that Tunisia did not reflect the image it deserved. It became an obsession. » And another one, entrepreneurship. The idea grew in her mind until it became an imperative. « I had to try, even if it did not work, to have no regrets and participate in writing a new page in the history of my country. So I stopped everything to start from scratch. »
Tunisia, an under-exploited heritage
For Leïla, entrepreneurship requires social responsibility. « Business must be able to have a socio-economic impact. However, we have an extremely rich cultural heritage in Tunisia but still too little tapped into. Tourism holds an important place in government strategies, but the promotion of heritage, integrated and responsible tourism is not promoted. Thus, Leila created a consulting company, Blue Fish, which supports the integration of artisans and helps them to export to the international market. When she hears about this house, Dar Ben Gacem, three centuries old, put on sale by its owners, our budding entrepreneur had crush for it.
« This building tells a positive story of Tunisia. This house testifies to the contributions of Arabs, Turks and other civilizations to Tunisian culture ». The purchase was obvious let alone the refurbishment. « Strangely, the refurbishment cost more than the acquisition. What I had not planned ». Tenacious, Leila eventually made it and acquired the building in 2006. She began a long restoration project that will end in 2013. « Next month we will celebrate our five years. The occupancy rate is around 50% on average. The clients are largely foreigners, curious, interested in history, the Tunisian culture. For example, this week we receive a team of American photographers who are coming for a mission. They chose Dar Ben Gacem to immerse themselves in our culture. They are coming to exchange with our craftsmen, have coffee with one of the young unemployed students who wander around, eat our little dishes. »
This warm welcome characterizes the Dar Ben Gacem guest house. Benefiting from the “Certificate of Excellence” label awarded three years in a row by the online booking site Tripadvisor, the hotel has become the place to stay for tourists in search of meaning and authenticity. Haven of peace in the heart of the historic district of Tunis, visitors have a special access to the « secrets of the Medina », according to the name of a cultural program proposed by an association supported by Leila.
« If our youth do not invest in our historic district, this heritage will be lost. »
11am, Leïla receives students members of the Tunisian section of the international association Actus, which works on this program. « Together, we support local artisans in the development of their business. They can aside from their product, develop services such as calligraphy, bookbinding, jewelry making, or other ». This cultural network provides the artisans a complementary income while the sector experienced a strong crisis with the decline in tourism activity in the country. It is Leila’s hobby-horse: protect the Tunisian cultural heritage through the support for artisans from the Medina and others. « We want to encourage young people to start business in the cultural sector. Through support for festivals or craft design workshops. We do not necessarily have means to support them financially but we provide them with a space and a meal. »
A fight that she now shares with the artisans of the Medina. « In the beginning, it was necessary to convince, reassure, but today the traders understood that we had the same objective. This sector also provides opportunities for young people. If our youth do not invest in our historic district, this heritage will be lost. For this, we work with artisans, cultural associations, young people, municipal authorities ».
From entrepreneurship to politics
In the last municipal elections last May, Leïla ran in her home municipality of Beni Khalled on an independent list. « After more than a decade of work, this is the first time that I am asked if as a woman I would be able to do something, including becoming a mayor of a city ».
If Tunisia appears as an exemplary country in the emancipation of women, on the political scene, it is no exception: ‘it’s a man world’. « I discover it. Negotiations are played in cafés and not on the ground. That said, Leïla is focusing on her work, in the Medina and across the country, in favor of cultural heritage and young people in order to influence. « We cannot act alone. Our work must be done in harmony and in synergy with public authorities, private operators, associations … It takes time but the path set ».