Risks of a too beautiful story-telling

The story of Sarah Toumi has made headlines in many countries. Her projet is about a young progressist and feminist women coming back to her village and starting an ecological sustainable agriculture cooperative for women: cooperative of women growing Moringa (ultra-nutritive plant that needs few water) in South Tunisia. She struggled againsts traditions and machism, against industrial agriculture and selfish behavior. Yet her project is far from being implemented.

Read the story about her (in french), it can teaches us lessons on the risks of a too beautiful story-telling: http://www.lemonde.fr/afrique/article/2017/08/30/chouchou-des-medias-et-de-l-elysee-sarah-toumi-butte-sur-de-nombreux-obstacles-en-tunisie_5178363_3212.html

My point is not to criticize her but to understand what are the pitfalls of social grassroots entrepreneurship we could avoid.


ping @unknown_author

Very interesting, @baderdean, thanks. This is gold.

Here is a pitfall to which an international project like OpenVillage is particularly prone:

Impossible de séparer la dimension personnelle du projet professionnel quand les champs sont familiaux, quand tous les voisins sont cousins et quand les 5 000 âmes du village (et au-delà une partie de la Tunisie, via les médias) se mêlent des décisions de quelques femmes.

The core team of OV is composed of Westerners and internationally minded young Arabs. Even with the best intentions there are going to be cultural dissonances, and the more so the deeper into the countryside we go. Yet another episode in the “city vs. rural” debate, with me squarely in the city camp and @matthias squarely in the rural one.


But the story ends by profiling one small group of women who are making real progress. Maybe that is the key with this: the big vision doesn’t materialize anywhere close to when it is expected, or probably pitched to funders, but with the right people, scale and situation, at least a part of what is promised looks like it can be delivered.


That’s right, @johncoate. And it begs the question: do you refrain from the hype altogether, and do savage expectation management instead (not necessarily great for sales, but it is my instinct)? Or do you spin the big story anyway, to get to the little win? I do not understand what you think about this, @unknown_author, what “good story telling” is for you.

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There is an old saying, “it ain’t bragging if you really done it.” So I see a burden or responsibility on Sarah to differentiate vision from real accomplishment. Not easy. But you know this is why I finished with that slide that says never mistake a clear vision for a short path.

And let’s face it, she is engaged in using agriculture to advance the standard of living in Tunisia. Regardless of who does it, new agriculture is among the hardest areas of endeavor for anyone. And then she has it led by women in a culture that traditionally doesn’t go much for that. So doubly hard. Did she have to heavily overpromise in order to get funded? What a shame if so, and also what funders would be that gullible? So maybe they were clear on the odds of success, but the PR and press aspect of it caused it to get more sensationalized. I don’t know.


It’s not so much that she is bragging: it’s that the context is pushing everyone to hustle and spin. The article has this to say:

« Le problème des bailleurs de fonds internationaux, c’est qu’ils aiment le romantisme. Une femme arabe, entrepreneuse, qui réussit et transforme son pays, ouaouh, ça change des méchants terroristes ! », grince Mehdi Baccouche.

Anyone who’s worked in development can recognise this attitude.

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I wonder what @MurielAboulrouss @zmorda @HadeerGhareeb @monarezk @clairedvn @monamakhlouf and @Yosser think about this?

It is hard to tell…
I have been using my spanish skills to understand the french text but reached nowhere :smiley:
However, I manged to search about Sarah and her beautiful project “Acacias For All” and the obstacles she faced.

I can see that just being very-known female from this region, she will be subject to many judgemental comments regardless what she is saying.

So what I can say about Sarah and the challeges faced, concerning the traditions, the families and so on, is that, they DO stand as a barrier towards the success she was seeking, and I do feel her, (As I come from the south of Tunisia as well, the only difference, which is a positivie point for me, is that I live in the city and not in a village) Such projects are held to be risky, since as mentionned, most of the women living in the village they don’t get to make decisions themselves, instead, their families does! So in such cases, the investment shouldn’t be done directly in women maybe, I guess at first that should have included all the families in the region and helping them understand what the women were doing exactly? Also, when it comes to funding, it is true

[quote=“alberto, post:9, topic:6856”]
« Le problème des bailleurs de fonds internationaux, c’est qu’ils aiment le romantisme. Une femme arabe, entrepreneuse, qui réussit et transforme son pays, ouaouh, ça change des méchants terroristes ! », grince Mehdi Baccouche.[/quote]

So as a woman she may get the attention of the media and the funders, some are really trying to help, and some are just there to be shown as some sort of heroes, which will leas me to what @unknown_author was saying, I do have trust issues with some funding programs and some other institutions that want to be involved in such projects, I have even had some funding opportunities about my project but they didn’t go well for one reason, is that I am doing this project for the sake of my region only, and the funders are considering it as a tool to reach a certain goal, with no consideration of the region’s real needs.

My point is when it comes to funding, media, projects, investing in people… we should be really careful and know each step we make.


So depressing, all of this communication and buzzword stuff. It’s saddening to see that apparently it is hard to just work hard and shut up about it until you’ve actually done something.

In our case, we made some small mistakes in the start, but quickly we were working so hard on our content that we had no time for selfies with King Filip. Although doing actual work is the perfect antidote, I guess you don’t have time for that anymore when you’re out and about chasing money at events.



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Hi Bader,

thanks for sharing this.

It brings me back to something that our friends over at Las Indias have pointed out about the need for communities to be able to do commerce. It’s hard - but only once you manage to do it are you really independent and don’t have to waste time chasing funders or whatever.

In the context of building the OpenVillage it could be very interesting to experiment with different ways in we can do commerce as a collective. It gets especially interesting if they are situated in economically lagging regions. How can we go about building it in such a way as to foster an entrepreneurial culture of community driven and owned commerce? How can we make use of our presence in the many countries where individual members of this community live and work?

Im not thinking about coworking spaces - 60% end up bleeding money. And of the ones that do actually generate revenue most don’t make a margin of more than 10% (source). I’ve heard about some examples that work (@iriedawta) because they charge exorbitant fees - which is neither realistic nor desirable a.f.a.i.c.

More something along the lines of what Galgael has done in Scotland ( @gehan, is one of the founders and may be able to share some experiences ).

Curious to hear what others think about this?

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Nadia, I think you got it right. The root cause of this type of issue is due to the fact that the product IS the story not the project itself cause the “clients” are the funders and the media and not the people who will benefit from it. Exactly like the hype over start-ups who’re too busy fundraising to focus on making their product a market success. Discussing about the fact that Sarah was wrong or not, victim from sexism or not, did mistakes or not, is not useful to us as social entrepreneurs. So thinking the project as economically viable from the beginning is IMHO key to its success.

I’m sure, there are others lessons to learn from this story but this one is a strong one.

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As I am writing this i am in Paris at an event called Afrobytes.
I usually avoid startup events like the plague but made an exception for this one.
There are 14 businesses pitching from different parts of the continent, most are Nigerian.
Apparently most of them are already generating revenues. On the other hand they are all very cashflow intensive and I suspect that this burn through rate is due to excessive costs for accessing the kind of infrastructure that one takes for granted in Europe. One company is paying over 5000 USD a month for generators because the electricity is flaky. It could be very interesting to look at some of these issues and see whether the OpenVillage community could build open source alternatives and sell them much cheaper than the options currently on the market (also creating jobs on the continent for installation and maintenance services). Piung @matthias

There is much to learn and I think it would be great to look at this pan- african business aspect in setting up the openvillage infrastructure in choosing the first location for the houses.

Just some thoughts…


I’ll answer to you nadia since I think that my project is an enabler to the problem you raised though I think that my answer is a bit too technical and off-topic to the issue we’re discussing.

Infrastructure for Africa is costly because much of hardware and services must be paid in $ or € and imported (customs fees not included…). On addition of this, there is some costs related to hosting software.

An alternative could be an african cloud infrastructure ISO to the top notch Silicon Valley ones… I know a guy here in Tunisia who’s developping an opensource alternative and compatible to Amazon S3 called minio. Another bunch of hackers set up a metaplatform with all tools included for free called http://op.tn/ That’s an example…

And a french NGO called framasoft is setting up a lot of free and open services online https://degooglisons-internet.org/liste

If we got a strong community of hackers with spare time, they could initiate alternatives. However I’ll say that most of software for infrastructure is available opensources and the real difficulty is about hardware and skilled people.

Moreover I’m aware of a tunisian governement project to set up a national cloud to mutualize investments. I think that many other countries in Africa are trying to do the same. These type of projects are HARDLY doable in p2p citizen-centric form and mostly needs heavy investments :s

(Btw Nigeria, Tunisia, Morocco, South Africa, Egypt and especially Mauritius are quite strong in IT.)


my project

Is this the “gamify opensource contributions” you describe in your “Empowering African Youth” topic where you can’t say much detail about it?

Based on your answer I understand that I was unclear about my project and this is a good exercice on the pitfalls of storytelling.

My project is about “leveraging Opensource community power”. The strategic purpose is empowering African youth. Hence, the mean is making talented youth yet underestimated to become more connected to the global opensource community. Build a sense of (local higly-connected focused) community. The tool I’m currently developping is using gamifcation to “reward” opensource contributions and connect those peoples. So this first step is mainly an enabler to the next steps.

The next steps are those you said I “can’t say much detail about”. Actually I can sell you a beautiful roadmap full of details but I’m not convinced I should. The fact is that Sarah Toumi story convinced me not to do so. She sold a very concrete project that fits to the narrative global funders wanted to hear but it just doesn’t fit to the ground.

Because the reality is that I’ll have to build in an interative way, step-by-step, based on local needs and capabilities. For the moment with the tool I’ve developping I’m assessing our local talents and skills. My project charter shouldn’t be detailed at this point. I’ve a vision, an approach, a measurable goal and myself to implement it. Shouldn’t it be enough?

Pushing social entrepreneur to sell a detailed version of their project IMHO tends to push them to be story-tellers and publicists and focus less on actually creating their MVP.

Sorry I was a bit long and my post may seems like political statement but I’m convinced that cooperation must start from mutual understanding.


I like your approach, @baderdean. You said it really well. I’m convinced.


I agree. Looking forward to seeing it unfold.