Leila Ben Gacem

Blue Fish | Dar Ben Gacem

Leila Ben Gacem

A few years back, after the Tunisian Revolution, we introduced you to our dear friend Leila Ben Gacem, social and community entrepreneur, investor and ecosystem builder in Tunisia (read previous interview here). An Ashoka fellow, Leila combines business and social ecosystem restoration to create tangible local impact. It's 2020, things again go upside down and we meet again with Leila to understand what her world looks like today.

Ogunte: Leila, great to talk to you again! What is your ecosystem about and what has been your role so far?

Leila Ben-Gacem: I have 3 ecosystems, it’s fun to jump from one to the other and I love creating links between them; as an entrepreneur, [Manager of marvelous boutique hotel Dar Ben Gacem and suppliers) I love being part of an ecosystem of inspiring entrepreneurs. In the Medina where my business Blue Fish is based, I love initiating shared economy opportunities with small businesses around us and collaborate with young people with cultural initiatives. In 2018 I became an elected city councillor and the city of Beni-Khalled [town and commune in the west of Nabeul Governorate, Tunisia, about 42 km from the capital Tunis] is my 3rd ecosystem. Being elected is a tough adventure for a bad politician as myself, but I love to discover impacts of public policies and designing solutions for our city to become more resilient for the benefit of resident communities.


Leila Ben Gacem - Pic by Shanti

Ogunte: It is April 2020, the Corona Virus is spreading all around the world. The Arab region could lose at least 1.7 million jobs in this year due to COVID19. From social tensions, unemployment to widening inequality, the butterfly effects of Coronavirus on peace, stability and Sustainable Development Goals in the Arab region can become really destabilizing. How has the context changed in the past two months in Tunisia for you and your ecosystem?

Leila Ben Gacem: I had to close my guesthouse business Dar Ben Gacem temporarily; I was too worried about the team. I actually encouraged guests to cancel their bookings, something I had never thought I would ever do! My worry today - which is not different from any business owner all over the world - is how long could I cover my charges before I dry out. For now I am happy I was able to pay salaries for this month; I could maybe last another month or two, but not more. In the meantime, I am trying to do some consultancy from home, hoping that this will help me keep the salaries going a bit longer!

Blue Fish Pictures

We will come out economically destroyed, but humanly stronger!

Despite the healthcare challenges and uncertain future, what is happening in Tunisia now gives so much positive vibes; my whole ecosystem seems to be busy with the corona war. Some are fundraising, some are donating, some looking for masks and gloves, some delivering, some in call centres comforting people… Strangely, political class stories are not the headlines anymore, all we have is stories of Mr and Mrs someone doing the little they can to protect healthcare workers in their community or donating to those that lost their jobs. We will come out economically destroyed, but humanly stronger!

Digital Solutions

As a city councillor, the economic hardship resulting from the loss of many jobs, is a big concern which could become a security challenge; it is hard to ask people to stay home, when they live with what the money they make today. On the other hand, we are finally implementing digital solutions. At last digital transformation is happening in our municipality, forced unfortunately thanks to Corona!

Ogunte: Interestingly, what are the things that haven’t changed but are actually revealed or emerging by this covid-19 situation, and that people outside Tunisia maybe didn’t know or didn’t want to see…?

Leila Ben Gacem: What has not changed is the speed of execution of the public sector, vis-a-vis civil society; the government is trying to loosen its processes and regulations to have the needed agility for the current war on COVID-19, but it’s not enough. In the meantime, as usual, civil society is trying with modest means to help hospital staff get the needed protection, to become better equipped and ready.
Since the 2011 revolution, civil society is the main driver for much needed sectorial transformations, protecting democracy and modestly resolving socio-economic issues in every corner of the country. Today with COVID-19, civil society gave a big push to the much needed digital transformation; we have 4 or 5 COVID hackathons next weekend; applications to follow contaminations spread; online tools to assess hospital needs…

The government is also trying to, finally, activate its online tools for national social security and tax payments… However their websites do not work despite pushing people to use them instead of physically going to regional offices. We are not sure if government websites do not work because of too many simultaneous requests jamming the server or because they released their sites without enough testing, but at least there is an honest attempt to make them work!


Ogunte: You said you were focusing on four specific things at the moment: making sure your parents are ok, fundraising for hospital needs, worried about all the people that lost their income, trying to work virtually. What is your process to make decisions, prioritise and keep your cool? How do control your focus or how you respond to the challenge?

Leila Ben Gacem: I actually have a serious problem focusing since the general quarantine; I keep promising myself to spend the entire day with no corona reports and numbers, but failed to keep myself disciplined! I try to keep a positive spirit, as I am watching my concerned parents, and don’t want them to worry. On Facebook, I support different fundraising groups, linking people, identifying needs, looking for hospital suppliers. I escape sometimes to read a book or do some work. Whenever possible, I check my bank statement, the numbers are not changing, but I like to visually get comfort by reminding myself everyday that I have a few months of salaries ahead for my team.

Ogunte: What do you feel you should have completed or learned before, had you had the time? 

Leila Ben Gacem: If I had the time to prepare for the general quarantine, I would have gotten more chocolate supply, more books and saved more money!

I feel I am more creative without my calendar controlling my day

Ogunte: By extension, what hasn't got that much importance now and that you can happily let go now?

Leila Ben Gacem: My calendar! I had a calendar full for 2 weeks ahead, and always struggled to find time for lunch. My day used to start at 7am, and on a good day, would end at 7pm. My life was back to back meetings all week, and weekends were great especially to catch up with emails and write reports. Now I wake up when I wake up, start each day by looking at my empty calendar, design my day the same day. I have lunch, dinner, practice sports (finally), read books, check social media, learn new things… I thought this life would only be possible when I become too old to move, or too slow to think, or when I become a dinosaur that needs to give space to younger people… However, it has been good to experience life with not so much “pressure”. I feel I am more creative without my calendar controlling my day; I am writing, it’s a hobby that I am not giving enough time to!

I will give our planet more attention

Ogunte: When the bandwidth, the energy, the financial context is on your side, (and imagine, if there is no obstacle) what kind of innovation do you think you will develop, or focus on in priority when the situation stabilises in Tunisia (or elsewhere!)?

Leila Ben Gacem: I will remain a social entrepreneur, but maybe give our planet more attention. COVID-19 is like a reminder that we humans share the planet with other creatures, and that the world is a village. We have a sick lady - China - and the whole world is poorer, because of a microscopic virus that jumped around the planet in 3 or 4 months! I think despite the difference between countries, nations, races, we are now all connected to the point that where you are from and what your religion is doesn’t matter anymore. Global communities that are passionate about planetarian empathy, no matter where they are, should create a lobby, a global ecosystem for a more empathetic world, towards each other and nature.

Leila Ben Gacem walking in the medina, in Tunis

Ogunte: Finally, can you share a short word of advice / wisdom to people who are not used to these unlinear / unpredictable business and life scenarios?

Leila Ben Gacem: Stay safe & healthy. Everything is going to be OK.

Ogunte: Is there anything you would like to share, shout out?

Leila Ben Gacem: All we need is empathy and forgiveness.

Interview produced by Servane Mouazan , CEO of Ogunte. 
Learn from other ImpactWomen interviews here.

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