Tunisia’s 2011 revolution brought many economic challenges, due in part to the country’s heavy dependency on foreign trade and investments, which slowed down as the world watched the country adjust to its new post-revolution reality. The revolution also brought many civil society opportunities, as activists of all sorts, good and bad, finally found freedom of expression and liberty to advocate against government inefficiency in many sectors, which was a life-threatening subject before the revolution.

 
One important social challenge in Tunisia is women’s economic inclusion. Despite the fact that Tunisia has progressive laws to ensure gender equality, women’s economic inclusion remains low; in fact, the MENA region in general has the lowest percentage of women inclusion in the labor force (25% MENA, 58% Latin America, 62% OECD members, 64% sub-Saharan countries; World Bank Gender Database). With Tunisia’s economic challenges, women’s economic inclusion remains the most underestimated economic opportunity today. This was one of the motivations behind the initiation of the Women’s Enterprise for Sustainability (WES) program, which sees women’s economic inclusion as essential for women’s empowerment and active participation in society.

 
Today WES is a leading network of NGO’s in nine regions which offers women business support services and networks them with financial and government institutions to facilitate women’s enterprise creation, sustainability and growth. WES regional centers are led by regional NGO’s. Although diverse in their causes, sizes and beneficiary type; all agree on the importance of women’s economic empowerment.

 
Despite the Tunisian post revolution NGO boom caused by newly found freedom of advocacy, activism and civil society movements which was also fueled by international donors’ contributions to the young democracy, few NGO’s had WES’ long-term vision of financial sustainability in its strategy from day one. Most NGO’s are donor dependent, and often change visions depending on donor agenda and perception of the socio-economic problems on the ground.

 
WES on the other hand, enabled a network of ten WES centers a certain level of freedom, to design solutions based on women entrepreneurs’ needs, challenges and potential vis a vis their social and economic reality. This was crucial in the project’s initial stage to enable each WES center to become a “solutions designer” equipped with WES tools customized to best fit the identified target population’s needs. The WES center in Kairouan, for example, identified the women micro-entrepreneur informal sector as their target due to the fact that few institutions have provided professional assistance to this group, while the WES center in Sfax focused on women in the STEM sector.

 
Part of the WES initial set up strategy was to enable WES centers to convert slowly into a social enterprise model, hence generating income through provided services to ensure sustainability of the center and more importantly, sustainability of WES centers’ impact. Very few programs since the revolution were able to expand regionally as WES did, and fewer programs had enough insight to plan for financial sustainability from the start as WES did.

 
The migration from the NGO model to the social entrepreneurship model requires a carefully designed strategy that is center/region-specific.  Hence, IIE contracted SHANTI to assist in this transition.

 

Social entrepreneurship is an old new concept in Tunisia; in the old Kingdom of Tunisia days, the royals and their entourage practiced a similar concept of business practices where all generated profits were reinvested in the community – in health or religious institutions. The concept was abolished with the fall of the kingdom. In Tunisia’s recent history, or just before the revolution, people went out in the street to overthrow a president that was above the law and whose relatives were the biggest businessmen with mafia business strategies, leaving Tunisians almost unable to understand the possibility of creating a business for good; this is the challenge for the social entrepreneurship mind set today.

 
Nevertheless, today is the time for Tunisia’s social entrepreneurship to flourish again; entrepreneurs today can grow their business in a much more secure environment, activism is protected by the government and respected by civil society. Creating our own financial resources to solve a social problem, through business, gives the power to follow our own agenda which will not be based on stereotypes nor perceptions, but on realities that the entrepreneur is part of. This makes solutions much more sustainable, especially that the entrepreneur is there to grow, and not to achieve a project bound by an end date and budget lines.

 
The ten WES centers today present an important national network of regional enablers of socio-economic development, women’s empowerment and a hub of important know-how acquired over important individual and collective achievements since the start of the WES project in 2012. The centers have gained maturity in designing best solutions for their target beneficiaries and are now using their collective and individual acquired know-how to design a strategy for WES centers that will be operationally and financially sustainable. The journey continues, the impact grows and each center will become a reference in NGO auto-financial management.

 
Leila Ben-Gacem is a Biomedical Engineer converted into social entrepreneur who passionately unites people, heritage and entrepreneurship for sustainable socio-economic development. You can see her discussing some of her passions in a recent PBS Newshour segment on the Tunis medina.

 

SHANTI is a social enterprise, which develops the skills of Tunisian changemakers to enable them to design best solutions to face the challenges of their target communities, through assisting in designing best implementation plans for their social solutions, or through co-designing and initiation of social innovation initiatives. Leila is a member of the SHANTI team that IIE is working with to support the social enterprise development of WES centers.  Check out SHANTI’s Facebook page to learn more about their work.