Tunisia has a long and illustrious history of craftsmanship, boasting some 76 craft specialities, including pottery, weaving, tapestry, embroidery, basketry and jewellery-making. The industry, which sells its goods primarily to tourists in the country’s traditional souqs (shops or boutiques), was significantly impacted by the slump in tourist numbers following 2015’s terrorist incidents (see overview). However, with tourists now returning to Tunisia, the government has turned its attention to rehabilitating this key segment.
Tunisia enjoys a large and diverse artisanal industry, employing 350,000 people, or 8.5% of the active population, and contributing up to 4% of GDP. Zied Zaoui, director of skills development at Tunisia’s National Artisanal Office (Office National de l’Artisanat Tunisien, ONAT) told OBG that there are 150,000 licensed artisans and 1900 artisanal companies registered with ONAT. Licensed artisans can benefit from financial aid, access to expertise and fiscal incentives. They can register to export and qualify for tax relief on export revenue: up to 100% of export revenue is exempt for the first 10 years, falling to 50% thereafter. Artisanal exports currently amount to a modest €57m-86m per annum. However, Zaoui told OBG that with proper training and implementation of an appropriate framework, there is significant potential to further develop export capacity. Global appetite for artisanal products has risen sharply over the past decade. According to a recent “Handicrafts Market: Global Industry Trends 2018-23” report published by research firm Research and Markets, it is expected that the global market will grow from $526.5bn in 2017 to $984.8bn by 2023. Tapping into this global trend will be of great benefit to Tunisian artisans.
In March 2018 the government launched a four-year national artisanal plan that aims to double the sector’s GDP contribution to 8% by 2022, and increase that of exports from 1.8% to 4%. The plan seeks to boost annual investment in the sector from TD19m ($6.6m) to TD30m ($10.4m), and generate an average of 30,000 jobs per year.
In order to achieve these goals, a budget of TD1.9m ($660,000) has been allocated to reinforce the regulatory and institutional framework of the sector, while TD3.9m ($1.4m) will be allocated to the development of skills and knowledge. In addition to this, the Ministry of Tourism and Handicrafts has set its sights on upgrading 200 artisanal companies to international standards, reinforcing the skill sets of a further 3000 artisans through the creation of clusters and increasing the level of graduates working in the sector to about 40% from the current 10%. Lastly, the national plan will establish a number of sector norms and plans to establish a quality label on up to 50 products.
Local artisans have recently generated international interest. In 2015 funding came from the EU for the Med Creative Tunisia initiative under its broader Creative Mediterranean project. The initial pilot concentrated on ceramics, particularly tableware produced in Nabeul. A total of 12 candidates were retained to participate in the cluster, who got to take advantage of extensive training covering areas such as design, market analysis and finance. “The programme exceeded expectations, with ceramics exports now double their 2015 levels,” Talel Sahmim, the project coordinator, told OBG. He said that the programme was such a success that the EU had decided to extend the initial 2019 timeline and apply the cluster concept to other crafts as well.
In 2019 the US Department of State joined forces with Aid to Artisans and the International Institute for Human Development to fund a two-year project to build export capacity in Tunisia, known as CAP-X. The project will provide training on technical expertise, helping Tunisians to fine-tune their products to align them with international tastes. CAP-X will also work with the Ministry of Tourism and Handicrafts to develop a national craft strategy to facilitate increased exports.
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