With her soft smile and easy laugh, Leyla Mohamed invites us into her office, a tiny apartment with white walls and great windows. The space is bright and simple, sparsely but carefully decorated: French doors with blue-yellow-green panes; emptied, hand-painted dresser drawers transformed into hanging shelves; classroom-like chairs plastered with newspaper print. A flyer pinned to a small bulletin board on the back of the door offers a humble indication of where we are: behind the scenes of CREATISTES, an online marketplace for all things handmade.
Once upon a time, after graduating with a degree in international trade, Leyla found herself doing ceramics and making jewelry alongside other creative individuals who she observed “were doing beautiful work, but couldn’t sell it. Either they lacked the means to open their own stores, or other outlets and concept stores were few and far between.” Leyla wondered, “Why not create a solution for these individuals—something that is both practical and affordable?”
On March 19, 2016, after about a year and a half of seeking out different creators, artists, and artisans, Leyla and her small team of volunteers—Sara and Hosn, two university students who write an art and culture blog—launched Creatistes. Although it is not the country’s first virtual outlet for Tunisian arts and craft products, it is perhaps the first Tunisian version of the widely-popular Etsy (started in Brooklyn in 2005), Dawanda (Berlin, 2006), and Little Majlis (Dubai, 2012).
The concept of these platforms is simple, an online shopping place where an artist can set up a boutique and showcase his or her work for a minimal price. Compared to Etsy’s 921 employees and 1.7 million sellers, Creatistes now hosts 119 artists, designers, architects, painters from across Tunisia. “The part that interests me the most is looking for creators, approaching artisans. Now we work with the artisan cooperatives in Kasserine, Mehdia, El Mensej in Nafta…” Leyla clicks and scrolls through the site as she describes the diverse profiles of vendors. Before potential “creatistes” can sell on the platform, Leyla examines the quality of their products, which must be handmade, unique, or one of a very limited series, she explains. No copied products or “Made in China.” How can she be sure of the quality? “Tunisia is small,” she smiles. “I know the creators, the creations. Once you are a little familiar with the milieu, it’s easy to detect.”
Once an artist sets up a boutique, he pays one dinar per product displayed for a period of three months. For every item sold, Creatistes makes a commission of 13%. “Our role is to help them take photographs, better communicate about their store, and also to facilitate logistics—the technical aspects, shipping, delivery.” Afterwards, the number of items sold “depends on the strategy of each person. There are those who don’t sell. We offer advice, try to reorient them, encourage them to try new things.”
For example, the most popular items sold through Creatistes are from the cooperative Artisanes Solidaires Kasserine. Why? “Because the products are 100% handmade and inexpensive.” At the other end of the spectrum, there is the work of Ilyes Messaoudi, a painter who, from his first week on the site began selling his work. Leyla indicates that those who buy Messaoudi’s paintings are “collectors, connoisseurs—those who can throw down 350 dinars or more for a painting.” In other words, these are not everyday customers.
And while interest in all things homemade, handycraft, vintage may be on the rise in Tunisia, demand is still constrained by weak purchasing power. Indeed, the platform’s main consumer base is in Greater Tunis, and particularly the affluent seaside neighborhood La Marsa. Leyla confirms that growing the platform’s consumer base means promoting the platform at home, but especially abroad.
While the team awaits approval to utilize the Paypal service which will facilitate purchases for customers overseas, Tunisian customers purchase from the website directly using their bank card, or as in most cases (about 75% of transactions), pay upon delivery. Instead of using the national postal service, the company relies on private delivery services (6 dinars 900 millimes) to ensure that products arrive within 72 hours of an order. Otherwise, “If we receive an order in Tunis, I prefer to deliver myself. We are always looking for faster, more economical solutions…sometimes this means me.”
Besides seeking out potential creatistes, providing technical and communication support to vendors, carrying out product quality control, and overseeing shipping and deliveries, Leyla is seeking out funding opportunities to help grow the company and make it more sustainable. “The problem is that we are a business. Generally, funding goes to cultural projects or associations—it’s very rare to find sponsors for a company,” although she confirms that Creatistes practices social entrepreneurship. “We do have a social impact, but that kind of status doesn’t yet exist in Tunisia.”
Leyla shares her office with two others: an architect, and Sonia Zid. Sonia shows us some of her work, intricately hand-painted mugs which she began selling on Facebook three years ago and now also sells through her boutique on Creatistes. Sonia’s pieces are among the few articles available online that are kept in the co-working space. Leyla explains that the point is not to keep a stock of the items sold the site: “We showcase them and nothing more. I prefer that each piece remain with its owner. There are many things that are too fragile, and besides, we don’t pretend to be an exclusive outlet for these products. If we have created an effective solution, why limit sales to one outlet? Whether it’s on Creatistes or elsewhere, the essential thing is for the artist to sell his work.”