Awards 1996 Booker Tate Award for Small Businesses

Booker Tate Award for Small Businesses

The Winner: Société Mosaica

Business award winners tend to be earnest: but there is a touch of humour about the fishes and dolphins that swim across Société Mosaica's tiles. It comes from Abdelkader Ben Schehida who, apart from being joint managing director, does the painstaking work of converting Roman designs into tiles which can be made in his factory in Tunisia.

The design in an eight-inch tile is made up of 400 or more small stones, set in a specially devised mixture of cement, marble powder and marble granules. Abdelkader accidentally drove a truck over some of them and they did not break.

Mosaica's tiles are unique: lighter than the mosaic tiles made by local craftsmen for tourists, easier to use than Israeli mosaic tiles which are sold in sheets. Their rarity commands a price of 22, at Fired Earth's showroom in the Fulham Road, London. In spring 1996, sales took off. With a big customer also in the United States and a smaller one in Belgium, the factory at El Ghraba, 15 miles from Sfax, strives to keep up. It plans to be making 300 square metres of tiles a month this year. This means setting over three million pieces of mosaic monthly.

Mosaica's directors searched far and wide for coloured stone. Eighty people are employed cutting it and assembling the chippings into tiles. The El Ghraba area, largely devoted to olive-growing, lacks jobs. Europe no longer buys so much of its olive oil. Most Mosaica workers are dexterous young women, many of them skilled at traditional carpet weaving. Some work at home, with their own assembly frames and stonecutters. This is more acceptable to their families who need their help in the home or the olive groves. They are paid per tile and can earn as much as in the factory.

There is also a tile workshop at a handicapped association in Sfax. This is sponsored by British Gas, the major British investor in Tunisia. It enables over 20 disabled people to earn their own living, rather than rely on handouts. (Some recruits who simply expected handouts or were used only to repetitive tasks did not stay.)

Mosaica has even found work for handicapped women with only one usable arm. They sort through rejected stone for useful pieces. Mosaica's disabled workers come from a wide area and may live far from a bus. Some young women come by taxi.

The story of Mosaica began in 1993 when terrorism forced foreigners including two British business executives, Peter Quincey and Roger Humberstone, to leave Algeria in a hurry. They returned to Britain and then went to Tunisia intending to invest their savings in a business and find a more peaceful and hospitable environment.

British banks refused them loans, even on the deeds of their houses. But Peter Quincey looked forward to being his own boss after working for a big firm. They tried selling John West tinned food, and Guinness. These proved too dear and the market was too small. They also tried exporting almond oil to the Body Shop. They looked at the potential of Tunisian marble.

They were both interested in Roman sites, and Tunisia has more Roman mosaics than any other country. They got tables made in Sfax, with mosaic set in the tops, and put these on show at Wembley in February 1995. Visitors were attracted by the mosaic rather than the tables. David Smallbone of Paris Ceramics said that, if they could produce mosaic in tile form, it would sell.

In 1995 they joined up with Abdelkader Ben Schehida, who provided the factory, and Moncef Belghith, who tackled the technique of tile production. Abdelkader holds a doctorate from the Sorbonne and was also a visiting scholar at Harvard. After returning home, he set up a business making wooden educational toys and ran it for 12 years.

After endless approaches to Fired Earth in Britain, Peter Quincey persuaded a buyer there to give him five minutes to show his tiles. They were minutes well spent. Fired Earth placed a 33,800 order for 300 square metres.

Abdelkader had to train workers. The order took a long time to fulfil and sales were slow at first; but Mosaica has now shipped four orders to Fired Earth. Finding one well-known customer made it possible to find others in Belgium and the United States.

Peter Quincey and Roger Humberstone have invested 150,000 in all, which they do not expect to recoup for many years. They own 30 per cent of Mosaica. Peter says: "You start something and you believe in it and you just keep going. We have worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week, for three years."

Société Mosaica, El Ghraba, 3043 Sfax, Tunisia
Fax: 00 216 4 229242