Africa / Middle East

Tunisia Seeks Renewal Through the Olive Tree

Seven years after a sweeping revolution in 2011 ended a decades-long dictatorship, production of high-quality extra-virgin olive oil has become a symbol of renewal and rallying call.

Tunisian agriculture minister Samir Taieb (Photo: Cain Burdeau for Olive Oil Times)
Feb. 15, 2018
By Cain Burdeau
Tunisian agriculture minister Samir Taieb (Photo: Cain Burdeau for Olive Oil Times)

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An assem­blage of dark green bot­tles of extra-vir­gin olive oil – each from dif­fer­ent domaines as olive estates are called in Tunisia, are on dis­play inside the hotel con­fer­ence room in Sfax, a coastal indus­trial city and the cen­ter of Tunisi­a’s olive oil pro­duc­tion.

These bot­tles rep­re­sent Tunisi­a’s hope to cre­ate a bet­ter future.

The gov­ern­ment wants to give life to these regions invaded by ter­ror­ists by plant­ing olive trees.- Agri­cul­ture Min­is­ter Samir Taieb

Seven years after Tunisi­a’s sweep­ing rev­o­lu­tion in 2011 ended a decades-long dic­ta­tor­ship, pro­duc­tion of high-qual­ity extra-vir­gin olive oil has become a sym­bol of renewal and ral­ly­ing call for this pio­neer­ing North African nation strug­gling to keep a fledg­ling democ­racy and weak econ­omy on course.

It’s a course made even more pre­car­i­ous after ter­ror­ist attacks against tourists and pres­i­den­tial guards in 2015 made Tunisia a no-go land for many tourists.

The set­ting for the bot­tles on dis­play is a forum at the sec­ond edi­tion of the Olive Fes­ti­val of Sfax inside a hotel called Les Oliviers Palace.


This ele­gant colo­nial-era hotel is per­fectly named for the occa­sion: The Palace of Olive Trees.

In the past decade, Tunisian olive oil mak­ers have evolved from being pro­duc­ers of cheap bulk olive oil for export to Italy and other major mar­kets (where Tunisian oil was found by inves­ti­ga­tors mixed with other oils and fraud­u­lently labeled and sold for mas­sive prof­its) toward cre­at­ing and cel­e­brat­ing their own brands.

This tran­si­tion is now openly being called a rev­o­lu­tion,” as the New York Times did in 2016.

There are some good oils down here, and peo­ple don’t know it,” said Karim Fitouri, an ener­getic 45-year-old olive oil maker and hon­orary pres­i­dent of the Sfax fes­ti­val. His brand is called Olivko.

This is the most impor­tant time in olive oil (in Tunisia) since Roman times.”

Tunisia was indeed val­ued by the Roman empire, espe­cially as a land for the cul­ti­va­tion of olives and wheat, mighty pil­lars of that empire.

Oil wealth, for exam­ple, helped build a mas­sive amphithe­ater in the arid plains near Sfax at today’s El Jem. It was an elab­o­rate con­struc­tion that rivaled the col­i­seum in Rome.

The impor­tance of olive oil in Tunisia can­not be over­stated. It is the nation’s No. 1 agri­cul­tural export, val­ued at $374 mil­lion in 2016, accord­ing to World Bank data.

What’s now con­sid­ered more impor­tant are olive oil’s more elu­sive qual­i­ties: The hope is that Tunisia can gain a global rep­u­ta­tion for qual­ity through its olive oil.

How? Tunisians are tout­ing their olive oil as the best in the world — a state­ment repeated time and again to an Olive Oil Times reporter tour­ing Tunisia to bet­ter under­stand the nation’s olive oil indus­try.

It’s the antiox­i­dants,” said Habib Douss, a chemist and olive oil exporter. That’s what is really spe­cial about Tunisi­a’s olive oil.”

Tunisian oil mak­ers are point­ing to recent stud­ies by Japan­ese experts who say they found very high polyphe­nol lev­els in Tunisian oils. Polyphe­nols are nat­ural chem­i­cal struc­tures con­sid­ered good for health due to their qual­i­ties as antiox­i­dants.

Antiox­i­dants: It is the only true value for the health of olive oil,” Douss said.

One the­ory is that Tunisian trees may develop more polyphe­nols due to Tunisi­a’s tough semi-arid cli­mate.

Another sell­ing point is how Tunisi­a’s oils tend to be pro­duced organ­i­cally. Due to Tunisi­a’s arid­ity, pes­ti­cides and her­bi­cides are largely unnec­es­sary. In addi­tion, Tunisia is poor and farm­ers pick olives by hand.

Tunisia is most impor­tantly the world’s first pro­ducer in organic olive oil and tra­di­tional olive oil,” said Zena Ely-Séide Rabia, a 34-year-old Tunisian oil maker who sells high-priced bou­tique oils in Europe. Her brand is called Ely-Séide.

I was invited to taste numer­ous Tunisian olive oils, and found they nat­u­rally ranged in qual­ity and taste. There are lots of excel­lent oils, and a lot that are mediocre and even bad – just as you will find in other coun­tries where olive oil is made.

Tunisi­a’s push into export­ing bot­tled oil is on full dis­play at a fac­tory near Sfax owned by the CHO Group, a major pro­ducer that exports its brand Terra Delyssa to super­mar­kets in the United States, Canada and Europe.

Two bot­tling lines were run­ning in the mod­ern, high-tech fac­tory. Last year it pro­duced more than 8 mil­lion bot­tles and tins for export, the com­pany said.

This is going to Ger­many and this other line is going to Canada,” said Mohamed Walha, a CHO qual­ity man­ager, as bot­tles of Terra Delyssa were labeled and pack­aged.

In a large stor­age space, Walha pointed out labels for the com­pa­ny’s newest brand: an oil called Ori­gin 846” and touted as raw and unfil­tered.”

This is our new baby,” Walha said. This is not only Chem­lali but also Chetoui. A high level of fruiti­ness, pun­gency.”

The CHO plant near Sfax

Chem­lali and Chetoui are the two major olive cul­ti­vars native to Tunisia. Chem­lali is a sweet-tast­ing, golden-green oil grown in cen­tral and south­ern Tunisia while Chetoui olives are com­mon in the north and make a darker and more pun­gent oil.

Boost­ing exports was the theme of the Sfax fes­ti­val this year, where pro­duc­ers put their oils on dis­play inside an out­door pavil­ion.

We want to do a high-qual­ity, afford­able oil,” said Hazem Had­dar, com­mer­cial direc­tor at the Noor Oil Com­pany. His com­pany is look­ing at sell­ing in Japan with a label still in the mak­ing, per­haps fea­tur­ing an image of Syphax, an ancient king.

Sim­i­larly, Fatma Makki, who works for the Domaine Ben­saida that makes an oil called La Verte, said exports are the future. We want to improve our exports.”

Efforts to break into inter­na­tional mar­kets are multi-faceted and are led both by pri­vate com­pa­nies and gov­ern­ment agen­cies.

For exam­ple, the Tunisian agency ded­i­cated to the oil sec­tor, the Office National de l’Huile, is spon­sor­ing for the first time a com­pe­ti­tion to find the coun­try’s best extra-vir­gin oils.

Mean­while, the Min­istry of Agri­cul­ture is plant­ing 10 mil­lion new trees in north­ern and cen­tral parts of Tunisia in a bid to help impov­er­ished rural areas and expand oil out­put.

© Olive Oil Times | Data source: Inter­na­tional Olive Coun­cil

The trees will be planted in areas invaded by ter­ror­ists,” said Agri­cul­ture Min­is­ter Samir Taieb in an inter­view at his office in Tunis. His office was adorned with painted scenes of camels, the desert and horse rid­ers.

The gov­ern­ment wants to give life to these regions by plant­ing olive trees,” he said, speak­ing through a trans­la­tor. Ter­ror­ists have to leave these regions,” he added.

Tunisia has made a lot of progress in what con­cerns qual­ity olive oil pro­duc­tion,” said Chopki Bay­oudh, the direc­tor gen­eral of the Office National de l’Huile, speak­ing through a trans­la­tor.

The next step is to expand Tunisi­a’s bot­tling for export, he said.

Tunisia is export­ing the major­ity of its olive oil pro­duc­tion in bulk, so there is no iden­tity,” Bay­oudh said. The final con­sumer does not know that Tunisia is an olive oil pro­ducer and that in fact has very good qual­ity olive oil.”

Bay­oudh added: So we are work­ing on bot­tling our olive oil and mak­ing an iden­tity for the prod­uct – to men­tion the Tunisian ori­gin.”

That’s the goal: The next time you go shop­ping for olive oil, Tunisi­a’s olive oil mak­ers want you to see more of their brands. They want those dark green bot­tles on dis­play at the Palace of Olive Trees to be sit­ting on shelves around the world.

Chopki Bayoudh, Office National de l’Huile

Still, there are hur­dles.

Qual­ity itself is not enough to pro­mote exports,” said Poly­meros Chryso­chou, a mar­ket­ing spe­cial­ist at the Aarhus Uni­ver­sity in Den­mark. He spoke at the Sfax con­fer­ence.

He said Tunisia will need to invest in pro­mot­ing its oils, work to under­stand con­sumers’ tastes and slowly and strate­gi­cally” build a national name that will allow con­sumers to accept the coun­try as a qual­ity pro­ducer.”

And Tunisia is new at this. Until 1994, the Tunisian gov­ern­ment did not allow pri­vate exports of oil and held a monop­oly over the sec­tor.

In a recent report, the World Bank said Tunisia had done a poor job of improv­ing exports.

No effec­tive efforts have been made to develop exports and pro­mote higher value-added prod­ucts, and the over­all level of pri­mary olive oil pro­duc­tion, com­pared to its poten­tial, has been lag­ging,” the World Bank report said.

One advan­tage Tunisian oil has is that it does not have a tainted rep­u­ta­tion, Bay­oudh said.

Tunisian olive oil is very appre­ci­ated in the United States because Ital­ian olive has had many prob­lems with adul­ter­ation, prob­lems of fake oil, even with the very well-known brands,” he said. We don’t have any prob­lems with that.”

Chryso­chou agreed and said the lack of famil­iar­ity with Tunisian oils can be an advan­tage because they start with a clean slate.

Although the lack of knowl­edge forms a bar­rier, I see it as a great oppor­tu­nity,” he said.

He used an exam­ple: It’s eas­ier to believe the hon­esty of some­one you’ve just met than change your mind about a per­son who’s been dis­hon­est with you in the past.

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