A Lady with many Hats
A Lady with many Hats
Sonia Mhamdi has taken charge of the challenges facing a run-down oasis in southern Tunisia and transformed it into a new center of production center and hope.
Sonia Mhamdi is a woman who had the courage to radically change the course of her life and destiny. In the past, her job consisted mainly in distributing micro-credits. Today, her ambition and will have transformed her into a woman of action and field work. ''Before the Tunisian Revolution, I was devastated by the gloomy prospect of stagnating forever in micro-credits distribution. Working on my own initiative was not possible in Ben Ali’s regime. But I wanted to work on agricultural development projects; projects that have the potential to sustainably improve people's lives', Sonia Mhamdi reveals emotionally.
An unconventional approach
Then came the project that marked her entry into the world of development: the Green Oasis. A decade ago, Sonia Mhamdi noticed the decay of the ancient oasis of Gafsa (El Kasbah and the southwest), shared by more than 1,000 owners. “The local oasis population did not want me to enter their space. In their eyes, I had the double disadvantage of being a woman and an outsider. But they soon realized that I would never give up. I started to visit their homes and talk to women, men and even the so-called 'bandits' and' vagabonds' to overcome the barriers and obstacles. Through this unconventional approach, and with the help of my team with its honesty and volunteering, the local oasis population finally accepted me'', she explains.
Her unstinting efforts reflect the importance of this project for her. From the beginning, she wanted to do things in accordance with all the proper rules. Her first step was to go on the field with a team of investigators for the diagnosis and identification of needs. The gathered data showed a catastrophic situation: difficult living conditions of the local oasis population; inconsistent distribution of plots; irrigation problems; lack of agricultural output; a legal dispute with the electricity company STEG; lack of professional qualification on the part of the oasis dwellers; lack of team work; piles of waste.
The five phases of Green Oasis
''We have formed a working group: Initially it was composed of my association, then it was extended to include regional representatives of various government agencies. Then we took in private consultants from Gafsa. After identifying the needs, five phases crystallized: First, to create a proper irrigation system, then to introduce agricultural service companies, to re-use the oasis waste and to generate renewable energy to sell to the STEG. Finally, we planned that there should be investment in photovoltaics and the creation of micro-projects for the local oasis population with the aim of increasing their income.
The preliminary estimate of the cost to implement the profect’s five phases is 1.8 million dinars (around 380,000 Euro). The action plan was finished in April 2014. It won Sonia Mhamdi the award for the best project in a competition organized for young leaders in Tunisia by the American Islamic Congress. Then she began to look for funding. To date, the donors she has addressed for the first two phases have granted her almost 100,000 dinars (slightly over 40,000 Euro). Sonia Mhamdi is now seeking additional funds to support the project.
The grand challenges are what keeps her motivated after fifteen years of experience in the non-profit and associational sector. It was during this time that Sonia Mhamdi became ''the lady wearing six hats”. The first five hats are the following: First, she is an application engineer in the production management linked to rural women, responsible for economic insertion and capacity building; second, an independent trainer-consultant to the United Nations Development Program, the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), and the European Union; third, executive director of the Development Association of southern Gafsa; fourth, director of the Women's Training Centre of Gafsa; and fifth, chair of the Executive Office of the MEPI Alumni in Tunisia.
''My sixth hat, and the most important one, is that of wife and mother," Sonia Mhamdi emphasizes while announcing that she has already engaged in the pursuit of her seventh mission: ''I want to become an international-level expert in the field of development and coaching entrepreneurs.'' This entails, in Sonia Mhamdi’s mind, the creation of micro-projects, establishing support for entrepreneurs, the creation of mutual service companies in the field of craftworks and agriculture, personalized coaching and much more. Her secret of success: “When people love what they are doing, they can get results. And when it comes to love and organization, the women of Gafsa are definitely a model.''
The woman soon to wear seven hats is preparing for her next coup: She wishes to convince three other partners of supporting the Green Oasis: the Global Environment Fund, GIZ (the German government development agency), and the International Labour Organization.