Roberval Tavares
Ashoka Fellow since 2016   |   Tunisia

Leila Ben Gacem

Blue Fish
Leila is creating and growing a grassroots movement led by students and heritage activists’ and cultural entrepreneurs to restore the vibrancy of the Medinas’ throughout Tunisia. She is doing this…
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This description of Leila Ben Gacem's work was prepared when Leila Ben Gacem was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2016.


Leila is creating and growing a grassroots movement led by students and heritage activists’ and cultural entrepreneurs to restore the vibrancy of the Medinas’ throughout Tunisia. She is doing this through creating an economic dynamic that speaks true to its heritage and increasing the cultural confidence of the people in their own country.

The New Idea

For Leila, a city’s Medina is where people can come together, connect to their heritage and build a new, vibrant and connected community that is based on 21st century reality & needs. Leila aims at providing urban restoration to historical places and at the same time integrating these renovated historical places in the economy, in turn succeeding in returning people’s confidence in their own country, its economy and increases the people’s sense of patriotism. That’s why Leila decided to establish her project Blue Fish.

Through Blue Fish, Leila is creating a new economic dynamic, where marginalized people are given the opportunities to make a change in their communities. This of course helps Leila increase the people’s confidence in their country through her project. Leila’s model for Blue Fish is based on the renovation of the old historical sites as well as transforming Tunisian informal artisan produce into sustainable business.

Leila encourages people to co-create the renewal of their own Medinas through the use of a variety of online tools. The first of these is the survey tool; which allows for mapping of the buildings as well as the areas demographics. The second tool is the Medinapedia; which allows people, especially students, to share what they are learning about Medina through text, pictures and videos on Wikipedia. The third tool is community journalism through a printed journal and an online publication for Medina inhabitants’ renewal enthusiasts through “Journal de la Medina”.

Citizen groups from different cities like Sfax and Sousse have contacted Leila to discuss potential collaborations and revive their Medinas. Leila is bringing together culture and heritage enthusiasts and is creating a touristic competitive edge. This is done through renovating these historical buildings and turning them into buildings that attract tourists whilst preserving their heritage in the form of hotels and boutiques. Leila has launched the first Light Festival in the Maghreb region at the Tunis Medina in September this year, which was executed in collaboration with local and international light artists, with important contribution from Medina’s private sector, public sector and about 120 student volunteers. The festival took place at over 30 locations around the Medina of Tunis and it will enable more national festivals to come and empower Medina’s socio-cultural dynamics and help increase the cultural confidence of the Tunisians.

The Problem

The main problem Leila is addressing is the neglected and underestimated potential of creating socioeconomic development through the field of culture and heritage. For example, the Medina of Tunis was founded by the Arabs during the 8th century. During the times of the Ottomans the Medina was a vibrant center for arts and crafts with over 30 souks for craft; it was also a center where prominent merchants and royals lived and worked. After the Tunisian independence, the first government to follow perceived the old Medina as something outdated from the past that doesn’t fit in the new modern-day Tunisia.

The Medina has over 400 closed and rundown historical buildings owned by the government. Leila sees the potential for these buildings to become social enterprises which have the potential to be a source of instill the cultural and social confidence Tunisian society needs and could create economic opportunities hence uplifting socio-economic status of the communities they belong to.

Over 2,000 artisans work in informal workshops in Medina. The problem is that there is no efficient inclusive system that helps transmit the know-how of master artisans’ in a way that satisfies the expectations of today’s youth. Another problem is that the decision making process of Medina urban matters is not inclusive local community; civil society and residential communities are not involved in the legislative reforms and the social initiatives that concern Medina, which makes these initiatives and attempts unsustainable.

The Strategy

Leila first establishes a tool that can map the historical buildings for renovation through a three faceted strategy. This strategy takes place through: (1) map public owned historical buildings, analyze their reuse potential and work with NGO, public and private sector to enable them to contribute to socio-cultural revival through a financially sustainable model (2) improve creative industry contribution to historical urban quarter revival through advocacy and business development (3) the inclusion of youth and civil society in the historical urban quarter and creative industry revival. The reason for this is to increase the cultural confidence of the local people as well as economically empower them through holding national festivals sponsored by the government where merchants and local artisans come in and sell their products and offer their services. The latter takes place as follows. Leila drafts the concept note. She then goes to the government and receives the permit. After this, she moves on to the private sector in order to raise funds as the private sector will partner in the equation and will renovate the building. This is alongside the local artisans in contrast to the renovation process of the preceding two categories where the local artisans are the ones who renovate the building completely.

One of The goals is to create a Medina’s digital library that documents preserves the heritage of Medina, and or any historical city that Leila’s model fits in any part in the Arab World. That digital library space will then serve as a digital hub for research for architects and historians in order to increase the cultural confidence of the people in their nation. These databases are also key information for ways in which Leila can drive cash to finance the Medinapedia through coming up with ideas for festivals to celebrate the heritage and create a space for economic empowerment. This is done by getting local artisans and medina based micro-businesses to sell their products in these festivals. She started contacting NGOs and actually collected the data and made the team.

A big component of Leila’s work is the Journal of Medina which serves as a social integration strategy. The Journal of Medina which is by and for the inhabitants of the Medina in order to socially integrate them through presenting their voices and life stories in this Journal. Through a craft revival project that Leila developed, to revive Tunisia’s traditional shoes, the traditional product got an important uplift that enabled it to become exportable to Europe hence creating new economic opportunities. Leila sees the potential for empowering over 2,000 other local artisans through better Medina promotion and marketing of local crafts know-how and event organization.

Leila creates an inclusive decision making process, where civil society, private sectors NGOs and the public sector all come together and collaborate for implementing a new model for the use of neglected and rundown historical national monuments. This collaboration among key stakeholders’ results in better-rounded and thought out ideas, making the implementation financially and culturally sustainable. As a part of this effort, Leila is currently developing a private-public partnerships legislation to enable the efficient reuse of historical buildings for this purpose. This has enabled her to move forward towards approaching the private sector to raise funds and ask for their technical support in this process of renovation.

Leila also works on improving the socioeconomic dynamics of the threatened field of crafts by creating a business model that helps integrate master artisans and the youth. This integration happens by enabling these artisans to have mentees while at the same time increasing their market share.

Several state-based craft training Medressas in Medina have closed down due to the fact that government officials have neither the passion or the know how to leverage these assets. Leila stepped in and developed a new business model to transform these “Medrassas" into co-working spaces, where there is a mutual benefit between both the masters and apprentices in working together. Leila aims for these “Medrassas" to become talent development centers as well as attractive destinations for tourists. These centers preserve the knowledge of making the craft, the business skills required to sustain it and the marketing skills required to sell it. There are about 200 young artisans per year that have and can benefit from this. Leila has lobbied for the new business model, and has gained public sector’s approval for Medressa reuse model. She is now approaching private construction firms to raise funds for the renovation process.

The Person

Leila was born in 1969 to a grandfather, who was a self-taught designer, builder and engineer of mosques all across Tunisia. Her father was an engineer who earned an MPA at the Kennedy School and helped draw the first development plans in Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Having grown up in Tunisia, UAE and the USA, Leila has been exposed to multiple cultures from a young age. She studied Biomedical Engineering at Boston University and later worked her way up at Hewlett Packard to become the Product Line Business Development of medical products in Europe and the MENA Region. However, Leila soon realized her work was not fulfilling enough.

Leila founded Blue Fish in 2006 to work with Tunisian artisans, develop their export potential and empower local women artisan businesses through Sougha. Leila then realized that working with artisans doesn’t work, that she had to connect to heritage and create a citizen-based movement to drive the scale up of her idea.

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