How Ramadan Helps Artisans

The Ramadan period is one of the most important times of the year in the Islamic world. It is a time of fasting, realignment and spiritual catharsis, and for some social entrepreneurs in our Impact Together!-project, a time of great visibility, too.

Tom Dinneweth |
dowit meal
People gathering for a shared Iftar meal organised by Dowit in Tunis.

First off, a confession. Last year, during Ramadan, we made a few tactical errors. Our EU-funded market building project Impact Together! in the MENA-region had only just started, and there was a lot of ground to cover with our national partners. Overjoyed with the open calendar space we thought we had found in our agendas, we booked a bunch of meetings and set up events right in the middle of the fasting period. In hindsight, it was not the most practical decision, but at the time, we just didn’t really know any better.

This year, luckily, we are more in tune. But as we drew closer towards this important period in the Islamic year, it did make us wonder – what happens during these weeks? What changes? So we did what any reasonable person would do: we asked.

A first note: there’s not one fixed answer to this question, as traditions tend to differ from country to country. “The rhythm of life changes”, says Oumelghit Guelzim, Head of Operations at Happy Smala in Morocco. “The days are a lot shorter, because people get tired more easily. We typically break our fast somewhere after 6PM”. That being said, not everyone at Happy Smala fasts in the same way, which offers them some flexibility in keeping their normal flow of operations running. Our partners at Enroot in Egypt, too, attest to the difference in work rhythm. Communications officer Shereen El Assar says that it's often during this period that they have the time to prepare the upcoming quarters, because day-to-day operations are that bit slower. 

A slightly different perspective is offered by Ahlem Ghazouani, Program Manager with our Tunisian national partner, Impact Partner. She describes a day that broadly exists of two different parts, before and after the ‘iftar’ or breaking of the fast. Mornings come early in Tunis, or rather, nights are cut in two. The first alarm clock rings at around 4AM, so there is room for the ‘suhoor’ – the last part of the night. It offers the only opportunity to eat before the sun rises. A few hours later, a second alarm clock goes off, prompting everyone to start their day.

“A typical work day would be from 8 AM to 3 PM, more or less”, explains Ghazouani. “However, a lot of people continue to work after iftar, when it is dark again. It’s actually often in these last hours that they are at their most productive.” Central during this period is the sense of community. The evening meal after a day of fasting is not meant to be consumed by yourself – instead, you share it with family, friends, neighbours, or even unknown people who are find themselves more isolated in society. Oftentimes, after the meal, you go out for coffee or tea. In Tunis, that means venturing out into the old city, dressed in traditional garments for the occasion. 

In Egypt, there's a similar focus on hospitality and togetherness. People buy 'ramadan bags', which are grocery bags filled with all the necessary items for iftar, that they can then hand over to those in need. Our partner Enroot adds that this year, celebrations are a bit more modest than they would typically be, as there is much sadness about the situation in Palestine. 'Pictures of tables filled with food seem out of place, at the moment', says El Assar. 

Heydays of heritage

Interestingly, the Ramadan period offers unique opportunities for some of the social entrepreneurs that Impact Partner works with. Artisans who sell traditional food, clothing and decorations see more customers than in any other period of the year. Some of these customers are tourists, whose interest in the local history is sparked by what they see around them. But for a large part, it’s the local community, rallying together and celebrating their heritage. 

One social enterprise that has a specific programme around Ramadan is Dowit. In their day-to-day operations, they work around sustainable tourism, and are committed to sharing the work of Tunisian artisans. In practice, this means helping them sell their goods at fair prices and informing the broad public of the craftsmanship that is involved in their products. Dowit works with a broad range of artisans, including clothing manufacturers, designers, carpenters and cooks. 

group during ramadan
A group of people on the heritage tour offered by Dowit during Ramadan.

During Ramadan, they offer special events aimed at amplifying the culture and the rich heritage of the city. Guided walking tours take participants through the medina or historical inner city, explaining its history and introducing groups of people to local traditions and customs. It's a quick but meaningful way of creating a lasting connection with Tunis, and sets the scene for the subsequent nocturnal activities.

When the sun goes down, Dowit serves large traditional meals within the walls of the medina. These iftar meals showcase the work of the local cooks, while also offering a space for other artisans to present their goods and to network. At the same time, there are provisions for those who are less fortunate to join in on the meals, offering companionship and free or affordable food to the local community. Those who want, can participate in different workshops after iftar, and get to know the ways of the traditional artisans. For Dowit, it's all about marrying tradition and innovation. Without the promotion and capacity building offered by Dowit, the artisans they support would face increasing difficulties in generating visibility and maintaining their revenues.

Chechia is one of the artisan brands on the ILEY'COM website.

Dowit are not the only ones to be working this angle. ILEY'COM, another Impact Partner portfolio organisation, run an online multichannel webshop that offers up to 2.000 products from around 400 artisans. Bringing these products online provides crucial access to the market and to consumers. During Ramadan, the webshop sees an increase in order volumes, especially when it comes to local products and gastronomy and traditional clothing such as the Tunisian hat and the traditional attire (Djebba). The main focus of ILEY'COM in these weeks is to promote a completely local and eco-friendly Ramadan, highlighting the cross-over and synergy between tradition and sustainability.

Situated in the heart of the Medina of Sfax, ILEY'COM is ideally located to capture the Ramadan atmosphere, with its local artisans and passing buyers. After the breaking of the fast, they too organize various events on their premises. Artisanal workshops such as ceramics, candle making, and handmade accessories, as well as a physical market, contribute to showcasing local expertise and provide additional visibility and sales opportunities. 

As such, Ramadan provides a well-deserved boost to many artisans in the MENA-region. Not only does it bring the local community together, but it also helps provide professional viability for its artisans. It's a goal that our Impact Together!-project strives to support, too, by creating a framework for the local social economy and by providing different types of financial and non-financial support. More on that, later. For now, though, we wish all our partners in the region a wonderful continuation of Ramadan and an Eid Mubarak, when that day comes around.