Methodical, thoughtful, and rigorous, Samia Ben Abdallah does nothing in a haste. A graduate from the National School of Architecture and Urban Planning in Tunis, she launched her own company in 2019: AWA, for “Architect with Artisan”, a line of leather goods and various accessories.
To increase her chances of succeeding with her entrepreneurship project, Samia took two years before using the funds made available to her seven years earlier by Souk At-Tanmia.
In this interview, Samia, who was named "woman entrepreneur of the year 2021" in the crafts sector in Tunisia, explains how Souk At-Tanmia favored the launch of her business.
Hosted by the African Development Bank Group, Souk At-Tanmia was created in 2012 to offer financial assistance and support in the form of training, coaching, mentoring, market access services and networking to business promoters. This programme, launched by the Bank Group and several partners, directly supported nearly 800 entrepreneurs in North Africa (Egypt, Morocco, and Tunisia). Souk At-Tanmia was followed in 2019 by EInA (Entrepreneurship Innovations and Advice – North Africa), a platform for entrepreneurship, innovation, and advice for the benefit of first-time entrepreneurs in North Africa. EInA, which strengthens the action of Souk At-Tanmia, aims to promote, through operational innovations, public policies to support entrepreneurship and the creation of sustainable jobs in North Africa.
Tell us about your business.
Architect with Artisan (AWA) makes bags and jewelry inspired by the Tunisian architectural heritage. Our products are made locally by Tunisian craftspeople, and with the most durable materials possible. They are notably made with leftover leather from major luxury brands. This year, we innovated by using unsold fast fashion through the Indigo Tunisia platform, distributor of the Zara, Bershka and Celio brands in Tunisia. For six years, we have produced more than 100 models of leather goods and jewelry, sold in five countries, to 1,500 customers.
How was AWA founded?
I participated in a Souk At-Tanmia call for applications in 2014-2015, during its 2nd edition, and I was a finalist. It was a big moment for me.
That said, I took time to refine my project and, after two years, I made the plunge. But beforehand, I wanted to make sure that I was engaged in a direction that was going to be fruitful. Basically, I proposed a design project around home decoration accessories.
Along the way, I realized that this was perhaps not an important commercial need in Tunisia. While discussing with coaches from Souk At-Tanmia, I realized that what would work the most in Tunisia would be related to fashion. I took that as a big challenge and designed my first bag. The adventure has been going on for five great years now!
Tell us more about this cautious attitude?
Souk At-Tanmia placed its confidence in me, and I felt indebted. I also felt these we were not at the time in the most favorable market conditions for the design of decorative objects. The enthusiasm of the beginnings of the Tunisian Revolution was fading. So, I redefined my project, convinced that there was a market to support my concept. Prudence and conviction were the foundations of my approach.
You also must succeed in the execution of your project; how did it go?
I had ten years of experience in architecture. This allowed me to develop concepts combining design, aesthetics, culture, but also the technique and the ability to coordinate a network of stakeholders. I had knowledge of artisanal production in Tunisia.
I also received quality training with Souk At-Tanmia, in strategy development, marketing, sales, a very successful training. The Tunisian ecosystem has helped. Many may not know it, but in Tunisia, there is no shortage of talent or capacities for production, in the textile, fashion, leather goods sectors, etc. In craftsmanship, there is real know-how, an innovative, quality value chain.
Would you say that you started with the rightful entrepreneur mindset?
I come from a family where the majority are self-employed.
For my part, I wanted to find a job up to my satisfaction, motivated by the desire to do things differently. Then, as I started, I was energized by the experiences of others, by those who encourage us, who give us recognition, validation. I was selected three times in a row for the Paris Fashion Week, a high-level trade show, and this was a great recognition for me and confirmation that my efforts were going in the right direction.
How were those first six years with AWA?
Overall, they were great years of learning a new job: doing marketing, commerce, communication, sales, not to mention the production part. We must renewù the collections, in short it is a test and learn process, i.e., learning in iteration. Now, I think I have reached another stage, with a more ambitious strategy, focused on internationalization. I will need to consolidate long-term strategic partnerships with reliable and committed partners and increase my staff, which should grow from a small team of two people to around ten employees.
What have been the main challenges during these six years?
The positive surprises are more numerous than the pitfalls. The pitfalls, in fact, it becomes the daily life of an entrepreneur. Our role is to find solutions. One of the great pleasures of my new life is the people I meet daily, enriching interactions on a professional and human level, and the sincere partnerships that are established. One of the keys for me is to surround myself with the right people, who help to tackle difficult issues with confidence and serenity.
What would be your advice to a young woman considering entrepreneurship?
I would tell her to capitalize on where she could differentiate her product or serve from others. Develop something truly unique. Also, surround yourself well, establish good partnerships, with clear, well-defined agreements. Surrounding yourself well also means obtaining the support of mentors, with whom you speak regularly, with whom you establish constructive and stimulating exchanges.
What will AWA be in five years?
Our brand will be distributed internationally. It will be a brand of Mediterranean-inspired fashion accessories, which will make a beautiful mix of the civilizations that have built its heritage, and with an inspiring, committed, contemporary, modern aesthetic.
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