Ahlem transforms by-products from Kebili’s oases into trendy decorations
Kebili in the South of Tunisia is a region typically known for its date production. Ignited by her passion for interior design, Ahlem Chortani saw an opportunity in the recycling of by-products from these palm trees and turned it into an innovative business idea.
“When I saw palm waste lying on the ground I always thought, why not use it to create objects that are both decorative and also help protect the oases?”, reveals Ahlem.
After nine years working in interior design, as well as a degree in interior design and a master’s degree in design research, Ahlem felt ready to take on the challenge of entrepreneurship. In September 2017 she founded IMA Design, a company specialized in the creation of decorative objects made from palm waste, that mainly sells to individuals.
Before launching her business, Ahlem researched local artisan techniques to better understand how to work with palm wood and to get inspiration for her designs. She also visited the Kebili Business Center where she discovered Mashrou3i, an entrepreneurship development project, funded by USAID, the Italian Cooperation and HP Foundation, and implemented by UNIDO. After taking the HP LIFE e-Learning courses, Ahlem was invited to attend a 5-day Mashrou3i face-to-face workshop in Djerba.
“Mashrou3i and HP LIFE have been very helpful,” explains Ahlem. “Through the trainings I learned how to promote the value of my unique creations, to look for new markets and to choose the right partners to work with.”
“I also improved my managerial skills. Before the training I was outsourcing my accounting and inventory. Now I can do these things by myself,” she adds.
Ahlem is devoted to raising awareness of Tunisia’s rich cultural heritage and artisanal traditions. She has established a network of local artisans who provide carpentry support and hand-woven textiles for IMA Design’s creations. As the business grows she also plans to recruit a full time employee and move into a larger workshop.
“Palm wood fibres are very resistant, so you can produce durable items and sturdy furniture like chairs and tables,” she explains. “Our flagship products are trays and candlesticks which are made using traditional techniques. Each piece is unique and the motives are mostly engraved by hand.”
Ahlem is proving the tremendous potential and demand for Tunisian crafts. Recently she attended several fairs, including the national fair for handicrafts in Tunis, which has helped raise awareness of her products. “Mashrou3i has been a great support. My sales are growing and I’m diversifying my products to attract new clients,” she says confidently. “In the future I hope to access export markets.”