Feeling the Global Itch


By Stephan Bachenheimer.

The little artisan studio in a suburb of Tunis is an interior designer's dream. Craftsmen are busy weaving baskets, young women are embroidering fabric. There is pottery, colorful Kelims, ironwork. Antique wood beams are piled up in a corner. Mosaics decorate the walls. A place to bring a shipping container, not a shopping bag.

In the midst of a little patio, lit by the soft afternoon sun, stands Hajer Messaoudi, scratching her left hand and smiling at the visitors touring her workshop. "When I have to scratch my left hand, I usually receive money," she explains. "If it’s the right hand, then I have to spend money."

For Hajer it is all about experience. 59 years old, a divorced mother of two, she has built a successful business with her brother Mohamed. Her label "Caravan Serail" offers all things fashion: bags, clothes, embroidery. "Fair trade" business that emphasizes the artisans behind the work. And above all: quality. Hajer is proud of having learned her trade in Paris at the Francois Lesage School - an entry ticket to the world's top fashion houses. Her creations are destined for more than tourist shoppers in Tunis' Medina. "I would really like to sell my products on the Internet, because that would mean true globalization for me."

Not that Caravan Serail hasn't made international sales yet. There were shipments to customers in Paris and New York. But the sales were generated in an old fashioned way: through trade shows and middlemen. Approaching - and trusting - customers on the Internet - for Hajer that still means entering untested waters.

"You have to build a story around your product, in order to stand out". Sitting with Hajer in the dimly lit warehouse part of her workshop, Akrem Haddad, lays out marketing strategies for Caravan Serail. Both agree that selling to individual clients on Amazon will be the most promising strategy. For now, large quantities shall be avoided. The exclusivity of the products shall not be compromised.

Akrem has become Hayer's coach for the global marketplace. Courtesy of the so called "Virtual Marketplaces Project" that will propel businesses like Hajer's into the global marketplace. Run by the World Bank, the initiative supports the economic transition of countries in the Middle East and North Africa. As of now 100 businesses, many run by women, receive support from coaches like Akrem: product selection, sales strategy, export compliance.

"It is not really the IT skills we need to teach", Akrem noticed. "IT skills depend on age and knowledge, but we can always hand on these skills to somebody savy in their team. What is more important is to teach them how to communicate with their customers in virtual marketplaces. We need to create relationships that go beyond the virtual. We need to work with them on storytelling, on creating a brand."

And "Caravan Serail" products certainly come with their own story: many of Hajer's artisans are from rural areas that lack jobs and opportunity and provided fertile ground for Tunisia's revolution. Every international sale will trickle down to this young workforce.

The prospect of global marketplace has ignited Hajer's passion and enthusiasm "Tunisia's problems are not here to stay" she declares with a voice that allows no objection.

Chances are that the itch in her left hand will get much stronger.