For centuries, people have been living off it, using its wood and fruit as well as all its byproducts to create objects for their daily lives.
Tourism is now one of the most important resources for Nefta and in 2010 a small eco-lodge with 18 rooms was founded by Frenchmen Patrick Elouarghi and Philippe Chapelet. The world is changing, even in Africa, and slowly but surely local populations were abandoning their traditional lifestyle and also the oasis.
Seeing the value of the site and the progressive lack of care that was being put in it, Elouarghi and Chapelet decided to envisage a sustainable project – one that would provide a job for the locals and make enough money to reinvest in the preservation of the
oasis. They saw design as the possible means to achieve this purpose.
Elouarghi and Chapelet asked French designer Matali Crasset to help them in what turned out to be called the Palm Lab project. The purpose was the creation
of a series of objects to be co-developed with the Nefta inhabitants and made using resources from the palm oasis.
The experience started off as a long workshop, involving local women, experts in turning palm leaves into
fabrics, and men, highly skilled in working palm wood. Everyone put his or her knowhow on the table.
Through a process of mutual understanding, the team realised that many of the values that dictate the guidelines
of local production would actually also perfectly fit contemporary interiors. Mobility, first of all: being nomads, the Nafta people are used to creating objects that are light and easy to move. But also simplicity: function is much more valued than mere décor and the ease of manufacture is key.
The decision that is likely to ensure the success of this project, though, was a commercial one. Crasset decided to involve a large Internet retailer of design items. Made In Design is one of the largest e-commerce sites in Europe and is a reference point for most style enthusiasts.
Matali Crasset decided to design the Nefta objects exclusively and specifically for them. Suddenly, economic sustainability did not seem as far fetched
as it would have been through mere tourist sales.
The collection was launched earlier this year. It consists of fruit holders, small stools, a lamp and several fabrics for the home and for outdoors. Prices range from
€15 to €225.
The Palm Lab project is not unique in the African panorama of today. Niche fashion labels, such as Carmina Campus by Ilaria Venturini Fendi, or global brands, such as Diesel + EDUN (by Diesel and Ali Hewson, the wife of Bono Vox) have been producing in Africa for years. The purpose is, always, to strengthen local craftsmanship.
Yet something has recently been changing. Now people actually make money throughout the partnership with African craftsmen and they no longer consider such projects as charity. On the one hand, this is because the middle-class is rising in Africa (in a recent luxury symposium in Rome organised by the International Herald Tribune, fashion giant group Pinault-Printemps-Redoute looked ahead a decade and talked about the continent as the “new China”).
Local sales actually exist, and they are quite conspicious. On the other hand, the use of the internet can truly represent an opportunity for those who cannot afford an actual retail space in the ever-more expensive large cities
in developed countries.
The market for ethic items, especially if they were pro-
fessionally designed and well manufactured, is certainly there. Possibly, the magic oasis of palm trees in Nefta will thus have more than a slim chance of survival.