Most Tunisian schools are cash-strapped and dilapidated, but an innovative project has enabled one to become self-sufficient by generating its own solar power and growing its own food.
Now the man behind the initiative hopes the success of rural boarding school in Makthar can serve as a model for improving the crumbling public school sector in the small North African nation.
Entrepreneur Lotfi Hamadi, 46, founder of the “Wallah (Swear to God) We Can” association, grew up in France but moved to Tunisia after the 2011 revolution that toppled dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
Based in Tunis, the hospitality consultant set his sights on the school, located in a remote and impoverished area 170 kilometers (100 miles) southwest of the capital and close to his parents’ hometown of Kesra .
“I wanted to take what works in the business world and turn schools into social enterprises,” said Hamadi, whose parents were economic migrants in France who couldn’t read or write.
“We are not trying to fill the void left by the education system but to compensate them a little, to teach them to learn, to give them the curiosity to open up to the world”, he declared about the 565 students of school, most of whom are boarders.
Hamadi started ten years ago by collecting donations to buy 50 solar water heaters – enabling regular hot showers for students for the first time – and 140 photovoltaic panels that produce four times the electricity consumed on site.
By selling a third of the surplus to the national electricity company, the school could pay off its debts to utilities and fund site improvements and extracurricular activities.
The remaining additional electricity is distributed free of charge to three other nearby schools.
Last year, Hamadi’s group launched Kidchen, a farmers’ cooperative that grows vegetables on about eight hectares (20 acres) of land nearby.
While part of the proceeds go to the school canteen, 90% have been sold since this summer, with profits helping to pay for school activities.
Kidchen is made up of six formerly unemployed parents of students and an agricultural engineer, who receive stable incomes and a share of equity and dividends.
“It pushes us to work harder and produce more,” said head gardener Chayeb Chayeb, a 44-year-old father of three.
“It’s a project for ourselves.”
Hamadi said better schooling was urgently needed in the country plagued by years of political instability and economic hardship since the revolution.
The situation today is a far cry from the era of Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia’s first president after independence from France in 1956, who strongly encouraged primary education.
Initially, the Arab Spring uprising raised hopes for greater social and economic rights, but today “75% of students leave primary school without being able to write two sentences”, Hamadi said.
“The education system has been suffering since the revolution…because every government gave in to pressure from the unions,” he said.
As a result, more than 95% of the ministry’s budget is spent on paying staff salaries, leaving little room for maintenance, textbooks and teacher training.
Some 100,000 students drop out of the Tunisian school system each year, and many parents, worried about low academic standards in public schools, opt for expensive private tuition.
Chayeb, the head farmer, said the Makthar model had helped his family and given his children better school meals and activities ranging from business skills and foreign languages to robotics and drama.
“Before, I was seasonal with contracts of five or six months, always in a different place,” he says. “Now I work close to home.”
Former student Chaima Rhouma, 21 and a law student aiming to become a diplomat, said the project had completely revitalized the school, replacing a rubbish-strewn courtyard with a sports field and garden.
Literature, drama and film clubs had filled her with “good vibes”, she said. “I became more curious, I’m always looking for new things. Here, you can study while having fun.”
The school has gained a reputation in the region and is in high demand, with 80 children now on the waiting list, headmaster Taher Meterfi said.
Meanwhile, Hamadi is moving forward with his next project – a 40-hectare largely organic farm project to supply the city’s 23 schools with energy and food for some 3,500 students.
At a time when the Tunisian crisis is pushing many young people to emigrate, he hopes to help children “reconcile with their country and discover the opportunities it has to offer them”.