LONDON, (The Southern African Times) – In Gammarth, shielded from the hubbub of the surrounding Tunis, the Sadika glass-blowing center offers its visitors a moment of serenity. As they cross its inner courtyard, they take one last breath before being carried away towards a constellation of stars; here, the shop shines with a thousand lights. The Tunisian sun brings a sparkle to glasses, chandeliers and vases, and many other works of art.
Handmade by glass-blowers from the Cap Bon region, these artisanal pieces are picked one by one and with extreme delicacy from a molten oven. They become the pride and joy of those who wish to bring tradition and sparkle to their homes. From Tunisian houses to the Vatican and as far as New York’s Rockefeller Center, Sadika is a world leader in design and pâte de verre, a kiln technique of creating a paste from powdered glass and coloring agents.
In Tunisia, this glass-blowing center is an institution. It represents a highly refined art that is passed from one generation to the next. It is the fruit of one woman’s boldness and drive; since 1984, Sadika Keskes has taken one of the arts of fire, blown glass, to sublime levels.
Over three decades and against all odds, this artist has built a universe of grace where the arts and culture go hand in hand. Sadika made a place for herself in the early 1980s in what is traditionally a man’s trade through perseverance after going to Murano Island, near Venice, Italy, and learning how to blow glass. And her two daughters, Fatma and Zeineb, are following in her footsteps. Zeineb now runs the family business with its 30 employees. “That’s where I grew up, immersed in it from head to toe. It’s in my DNA,” she says with pride.
Although the picture seems idyllic, Zeineb, an architect by training, has dealt with several threats, exacerbated by the 2011 Jasmine Revolution and successive crises. But for Zeineb, “it is unimaginable to see the company disappear”. Together with her family, she chose to fight to save it, with the help of the Tunisian Bank for the Financing of Small and Medium Enterprises.
For Lebid Zâafrane, CEO of this development bank, “the goal is not profitability at all costs, but to find a balance. And the main priority is to help enterprises create value and jobs.” This nuanced approach is the essence of an institution such as the African Development Bank, which helps bring the Tunisian private sector’s contribution to advancing the country.
Through the Fund for African Private Sector Assistance, the Bank has mobilized nearly $1 million to finance technical assistance to strengthen the commitment of the Tunisian Bank for the Financing of Small and Medium Enterprises to companies in difficulty. In turn, the Tunisian lender has provided support throughout the country to some 50 companies in sectors as varied as industry, education, textiles, and artisan manufacturing.
In Sadika’s case, it helped provide a new impetus to her business. The process took place in three stages, says Asma Bouzaouache, technical assistance project manager at the Tunisian Bank for the Financing of Small and Medium Enterprises. “We carried out strategic and financial diagnostic assessments and they led to a restructuring plan that we broke down into operational objectives”. The Tunisian Bank for the Financing of Small and Medium Enterprises also helped the company to internationally patent a manufacturing process to position itself to make the most of promising new markets.
A few months after implementing all this, the effects are being felt. The furnaces have rekindled their flames and the first samples of a new collection have been shipped throughout Europe and to the United States. A first firm order from Oslo fills Zeineb with optimism. “Without this advice, we simply couldn’t have survived the pandemic. It was that important. If not for that, we would have had to dismiss staff.”
In Tunisia, employment is a crucial issue. As everywhere in North Africa, young graduates are faced with unemployment. Therefore, motivating them to start a business is the common leitmotiv shared by the two development banks. For Lebid Zâafrane, entrepreneurship is a “philosophy, a culture” that needs to gently work its way into every Tunisian heart and mind. “The African Development Bank has helped us a lot. It has brought us great satisfaction. We share the same DNA, that of supporting SMEs to grow,” stressed the CEO of the Tunisian Bank for the Financing of Small and Medium Enterprises.
“I absolutely want to pass on to the generations to come. That is my greatest mission,” promised Zeineb. “Before, this family responsibility made me anxious. I just couldn’t see a way to make it through. But now, there are new opportunities. To tell the truth, we have no option but to succeed, together.”
There is every reason to believe that Zeineb’s words will come to fruition and that the youngest of the family, Aisha, already bursting with talent at the age of six and a half, will be ready to take over the reins of an enterprise that is like no other.