Riadh Ben Youssef turns his passion for chéchia into a profession (Portrait)

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Tunis: In his shop on rue Sidi Ben Arous in the heart of the medina, Riadh Ben Youssef, a smiling craftsman and maker of “chéchia” (traditional headdress, red woolen hat), welcomes visitors as he continues to work on a chéchia that he holds preciously in his hands. Ben Youssef gave up his medical studies to turn his passion for the chéchia into a profession.

“I come from the capital of the Aghlabides (Kairouan). The chéchia is a precious family heirloom, passed on to me by my father and uncle. And I have no regrets about giving up my medical studies to continue this legacy. If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t hesitate,” he says.

“My goal is not just to make money. My main ambition is to create jobs for young people and to promote a profession that I love,” he adds.

His passion led him to set up his company, La maison africaine de la Chéchia, 90% of whose production is destined for export, mainly to West African countries such as Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon and Burkina Faso.

“My ambition is to develo
p other markets by 2025, particularly in Asia. However, the European market is not one of my current targets, as the volume of my current production doesn’t allow it,” Riadh points out.

According to Riadh, there are a number of values that must be brought to bear in order to be successful in this business, and he believes that it requires a great deal of patience, personality and skill. “You also need a good apprenticeship and ongoing training,” he said.

He added that his company organises training sessions in collaboration with the National Handicrafts Office and has trained around 400 women so far.

The aim, he said, is to increase this number to 1,500, giving priority to young people in order to attract them to a profession that suffers from a serious labour shortage.

“Although the sector is profitable, it is currently clinically dead because there is no clear strategy for its development and promotion,” he lamented, describing the government’s communication policy in this area as “weak”.

For him, the
state’s role in supporting artisans is limited to providing tax breaks, training and credit.

Social and solidarity economy at the service of crafts

With the help of the social and solidarity economy, Ben Youssef employs women from certain delegations in Bizerte, in particular Ghazala, Mateur and Louata, and helps them to have a source of income.

He added that these artisans benefit from a training programme at the end of which they receive a professional certificate, enabling them to be registered in the national register of artisans and to create their own projects in their localities.

Despite being in his sixties, Riadh retains a youthful spirit and cultivates perseverance to achieve his ambitions.

I want to conquer new markets and set up a workshop for tourists to show them the different stages in the production of chéchia. I also want to create a tourist route dedicated to this craft, which has become an ancestral skill inherited by Andalusians since the 15th century and a symbol of national identity
,” he pointed out.

Source: Agence Tunis Afrique Presse

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