Is offering Arab families e-commerce, a social network and classifieds all-in-one a crazy idea, or visionary?

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Like many other Tunisian moms, Ahlem Bouchahba finds it hard to do it all: shopping, organizing birthdays partys, getting answers to her questions, and finding good recipes and restaurants, alongside her fulltime work.

To help working moms like herself, Bouchahba decided to create a web and mobile superplatform that offers a variety of services, from a social network to retail products and even a doctor scheduling function- think Facebook meets Ebay meets Doctissimo (or content portal Supermama meets e-commerce site Mumzworld meets health portals WebTeb or AlTibbi). Even though the platform, named Famissima, hasn't launched publicly, it's won accolades from Microsoft, MIT and VC4Africa. But it's so ambitious that one can't help but wonder: is it unfocused? Or visionary? 

An entrepreneur at heart 

In 2009, Bouchahba moved back to Tunisia after spending a few years in France. While working full time as a computer science professor at Tunisian University, found it hard to resettle in Tunisia without the family-oriented e-commerce and information websites she had grown used to in France. She found herself constantly calling friends and family for tips and recommendations.

In November 2010, she decided to launch something to improve the lives of Tunisian moms, but the lack of startup ecosystem and infrastructure made it difficult to consider something tangible. 

Everything changed with the 2011 revolution. Entrepreneurship became a buzzword, which, at the very least, helped Bouchahba as mentoring infrastructures multiply, and she began working full time on her idea.

Her idea quickly picked up steam. In February 2013, she took first place in the National Microsoft Innovation Center Competition, winning an office, technical and business training and mentoring, and membership in BizSpark, the startup network that gave her access to various Microsoft tools and software. Through the MSP (Microsoft Student Partner), she was able to recruit engineers.

Ambitious but coherent 

Bouchahba wanted to create a website that will offer solutions to every parents' issues. Hence, she decided she would go the comprehensive route that no other site dedicated to mothers in the Arab world have taken, and begin adding in tools and social network capabilities, including:

  • An organizer: The organization section offers tools like a to do list, a budget manager, a pregnancy diary, or a meal planner.
     
  • A classified directory of local services. The classified section also allows arents to buy second-hand products.
     
  • An e-commerce section. The e-commerce section offers brand new items thanks to a tool whereby interested retailers can create their own online boutique on Famissima. Here, social elements allow users to like a product, add it to a wishlist open to friends, indicate they own a specific product, recommend it, or ask and reply to questions about it.

    The grocery section should be a real time-saver as parents can do their supermarket, fresh market, newspaper, bakery, and book shopping there.

 

  • Expert advice: In the "Experts" section, doctors and experts will reply publicly to anonymous questions from members; while on the forums and shopping sections, members are in charge of replying to their fellow parents’ questions.
     
  • A inspiration section offers advice on restaurants, gifts, going out, and discounts.
     
  • A social network for kids. A special social networking section allows kids to take their first steps on the web under their parents’ supervision. On Famissima, children can post on a Facebook-like timeline, interact with other members of their network, and surf the web via a private integrated browser. (The only other social network for children we've heard of in the Arab world is Worldoo, which was developed by Dubai firm RBBi for an Indian media company). 

All those functionalities might been too much if it wasn’t for a great user interface that links them together via an interface that somewhat resembles Facebook. It's very family-oriented, allowing families to register and then add sub-accounts for each member.

During its beta phase this year, the site gained exposure from being listed as a semi-finalist at the MIT Entreprise Forum Arab Business Plan Competition, and in October, being was listed as one of the 40 most innovative African startups by VC4Africa, a community of VCs and angels in Africa.  

An upcoming launch

Famissima’s main challenge, however, won’t be the user experience or the technology, or winning awards, but rather user acquisition and building an engaged community.

At the end of November, the site will exit beta and launch a marketing blitz, funded through a soon-to-be finalize fundraising, that will include online ads, radio ads, and press articles; it will monetize via advertising, subscription fees, and premium purchases for families. 

While the website is currently only in French, Bouchahda plans on launching it in Arabic and English to expand throughout the Arab world. Will the Tunisian audience take the bait? Time will tell. If it does, Famissima will mark the beginning of new area for digital families.

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