Leila Ben Gacem believes that to restore a people’s historical legacy and build a community of patriotic citizens who believe in their nation and its economic potential, a city’s Medina, or historical district, is the ideal starting point. In her work, she identifies socio-economic opportunities in historical and cultural heritage, then develops ways to make these opportunities sustainable, helping to preserve this heritage and improve people’s living standards. This is the mission of Blue Fish, the social enterprise Ben Gacem founded in 2006 to revive the Medina of Tunis, Tunisia’s capital and largest city. “I think most countries in our region underestimate the potential of their historical districts,” says the former biomedical engineer. “They can create socio-economic and cultural opportunities that improve young people’s relationships with their city, as well as a greater sense of belonging and community engagement. And I love proving this every day!”

Once a cultural opportunity is identified, Ben Gacem makes it happen, either by raising funds, or using profits generated by Blue Fish. The idea is to promote sustainable and efficient solutions through partnerships between civil society and the public and private sectors. “When projects involve public and private representatives and NGOs, the pace is often too slow,” Ben Gacem reflects, “since it can be hard to get to a consensus on the next steps. I have learned from experience that when everyone is onboard, it becomes everyone’s project, which is crucial to ensure continuous progress.”

Considering this, engaging local artisans makes all the difference. The problem is that this is not an easy time to make a living from art in Tunisia. Most raw materials must be imported, making them hard to acquire. In addition, consumers’ buying power has diminished significantly since the revolution of 2011, when then-president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali escaped to Saudi Arabia as protesters took over the streets of Tunis calling for his ouster. The country survived the Arab Spring and has transitioned to democracy, but is still mired in economic troubles, making it difficult for artisans to sell their products.

“Blue Fish is working on this problem in three ways: we are connecting artisans with designers, to improve product positioning, pricing and sellability; we are also working on developing export potential; and we are initiating continuous cultural activities in the Medina, to improve the overall economic dynamics,” Ben Gacem explains. “So far, through crowdfunding, we have created the first digital library for Tunisian Andalousi music, we have founded Dar el Harka, a cultural hub and coworking space, and we will start the first digital arts school in the Medina before the end of the year.”

The same woman as featured in the cover photo, now in a different location, her arm resting on the wooden railing of a different balcony, next to a marble column.

Through crowdfunding, Leila Ben Gacem has created the first digital library of Tunisian Andalousi music, founded a cultural hub and coworking space, and will start the Medina’s first digital arts school (Leila Ben Gacem/Personal Archive)

Online tools have been powerful allies in this process, encouraging people to help  remake the Medina according to their own vision. The first is the search tool, which allows users to map the buildings and get demographic information. Another is the MedinaPedia, which students can use to share what they are learning about the Medina through text, photos and videos on Wikipedia. As well, in a participatory newspaper,  Journal de la Medina, locals voice their opinions and tell their life stories.

And it’s working. Since Blue Fish was founded, more than a decade ago, the project has attracted more and more interest. Seeing what she has accomplished in Tunis, people from other Tunisian cities, such as Sfax and Sousse, have contacted Ben Gacem to discuss reviving their own Medinas. Historic buildings are being turned into attractive destinations for tourists, sometimes as hotels and boutique shops.

In September of 2016, Leila launched the first light art festival in the Maghreb region, illuminating the Medina of Tunis with the outdoor work of local and international artists. The event was funded by significant contributions from the Medina’s private and public sectors, and help from about 120 student volunteers.

The festival was held in over 30 locations around the Medina of Tunis, and seems likely to inspire more national festivals to boost the local social and cultural scene and bring more confidence to the Tunisian people.

“I work a lot with young people, unemployed university graduates as well as high-schoolers. What saddens me the most is their lack of hope for their future. I think the root cause is a loss of identity and a disconnection from their own culture. Democratising culture helps youth figure out where they belong and, therefore, improves self-esteem and brings hope for the future,” she believes.

Leila Ben Gacem is an Ashoka fellow. Ashoka is a worldwide organization present in 84 countries and leads a movement in which any individual can be responsible for positive social transformation.