Phoenician travellers first introduced the olive tree to what is nowadays Tunisia. Its cultivation is said to have been refined here, before trees were taken northwards and westwards, into the heartlands of the Roman Empire.
Tunisia is well established as a major exporter of olive oil, alongside Italy and Spain – and the country’s producers increasingly see the benefits of producing high quality extra virgin olive oil. This is helping them to become more competitive, while Tunisian oil is also being recognised more widely at home and abroad, according to the EBRD.
The EBRD and the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) are working closely to support this ambition and help producers – from small organic farms to large industrial businesses – to adopt state-of-the-art practices.
Best practices for better returns
“We have been in the olive oil business since 1988 and employ up to 300 pickers during the harvesting season, so we’re a well-established actor in the sector,” said Fathi Kanzari, owner of Société de Développement et de Production Agricole (SODEPA).
“The training sessions helped our technical director to learn some new tricks and trends, which made us even more efficient.”
The work of the EBRD and FAO includes training to spread knowledge about sustainable practices and help producers achieve the highest quality olive oil possible. This has helped more than 100 farms and oil millers to make their businesses more competitive.
The training offered advice on the whole production cycle, from managing olive orchards and harvesting, to the pressing process and storage needs.
Using breathable nets that surround the tree (so that the olives do not perish in the sun), storing olives in open containers, and transporting them immediately to the pressing mill – these are just a few examples of the advice that can help to achieve high quality.
Mr Kanzari’s family-run company is one of the largest producers in Zaghouan, a region south of Tunis with abundant olive trees, citrus plants and other agricultural crops.
There are many things to look out for during the harvest season, including pest control, which can often be done inexpensively, he added.
“We always try to stay up-to-date with the latest techniques and ensure best practices along the full cycle, from beginning to end.”
There is potential all across Tunisia to produce extra virgin olive oil – and there are different ways of adding value to your product.
Ms Zakia Bel Haj, for example, runs a small olive grove, which produces around 10,000 to 15,000 litres of organic oil per year. Her challenge is to ensure organic production along the whole cycle, from harvest to bottling.
“The training session allowed me to improve my knowledge on pest control and disease management for the organic planting system,” she said.
It also taught her how to improve soil fertility by using by-products for composting purposes.
Making use of by-products
Almost all by-products of olive oil production can be sustainably reused. Fallen branches and twigs can serve as compost for the soil around trees. The “margines”, the water squeezed out of the olives while separating the oil, can be used as fertiliser for the olive orchards.
Lastly, the left-over pits from Mr Kanzari’s grove, once separated from the oil and “mill water”, are spending their retirement in frosty Scandinavia.
Compressed into heating briquettes, they will provide industrial energy and keep homes warm for those living in colder climes.
Using all by-products makes good economic sense, as it can cut costs significantly and provide extra revenue.
Through resourcefulness and industry knowledge, olive farmers produce olive oil of a higher quality. This means a better product for consumers and the potential for producers to achieve higher profits.
The project is support by funds from the EBRD’s Southern and Eastern Mediterranean (SEMED) Multi-Donor Account, which includes Australia, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Taipei China and the United Kingdom as contributors.
Dialogue to strengthen the sector
The EBRD and FAO have also led structured discussions between all of the sector’s stakeholders, from small farmers, oil millers and exporters to government officials, which will help to guide the activities of the two organisations.
A high-level conference, held in Tunis in November 2017, brought together 100 industry players to discuss innovation, new technologies, and the importance of quality in a commercial strategy.
The sector – with the help of the EBRD and FAO – will now aim to tackle key constraints such as organisation, traceability and certification, access to long-term finance, and a supportive policy environment.
“The olive oil sector is one with huge potential in Tunisia – that’s why the EBRD is working with various producers to expand their businesses, which creates new economic opportunities,” said Antoine Sallé de Chou, Head of the EBRD’s Tunisia office.
“Our work with FAO helps to develop sustainable practices in the sector in the long run, while it also prepares local businesses for investment in their production facilities and equipment.”
Lisa Paglietti, FAO economist and project leader, stresses that olive oil is vital to Tunisia’s wider economy: “It can add significant value locally, develop complementary industries and services, such as tourism, and support the creation of rural employment.”