Africa / Middle East

Troubles Persist for Tunisian Olive Oil, As Officials Hope to Turn a Corner

Bureaucratic and technological hurdles, decreasing olive oil prices and political difficulties may hinder ambitious plans to expand the Tunisian olive oil sector.

Cain Bardeau for Olive Oil Times
Feb. 3, 2020
By Paolo DeAndreis
Cain Bardeau for Olive Oil Times

The world’s largest olive oil pro­ducer out­side of the Euro­pean Union is look­ing for a fresh start. A renewed focus on com­mu­ni­ca­tion, cul­ture and exports will be fuel­ing new ini­tia­tives in Tunisia, say offi­cials.

The goal is to push some of the coun­try’s olive oil brands into new inter­na­tional mar­kets. The core of the project is to give the world a new image of Tunisian olive oil and its pro­duc­tion prac­tices.

A few months ago we could count on the com­mit­ment of large com­pa­nies, now it is all gone… They (the gov­ern­ment) tell us it will get bet­ter with the new ini­tia­tives, so we hope for the best.- Mohammed Mahgub

Given the col­lapse of olive oil prices and the shrink­ing prof­itabil­ity of pro­duc­ing oils for grow­ers, it could be a tough bat­tle.

Add in the polit­i­cal tur­moil that is shak­ing the coun­try and tar­iffs, and the chal­lenge seems even more daunt­ing. Still, Tunisian offi­cials are opti­mistic about the future.

See more: The Best Oils from Tunisia

We are going to make national com­pa­nies able to posi­tion them­selves in the most rel­e­vant inter­na­tional mar­kets for pack­aged oil and to effec­tively com­pete in new mar­kets,” Yous­eff Neji, the pres­i­dent of Tunisi­a’s Export Pro­mo­tion Cen­ter (Cepex), said.

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China, Japan, Rus­sia, Fin­land, Swe­den, Saudi Ara­bia and Brazil are the main mar­kets that offi­cials from Cepex are aim­ing for.

In a press brief­ing, Neji explained that exports cur­rently face sev­eral hur­dles that may eas­ily be removed. He cited the bureau­cratic process Tunisian com­pa­nies have to undergo to be listed as reg­is­tered exporters as one of the main hur­dles.

How­ever, with the new plan in place, exporters will be able to reg­is­ter with the cus­toms author­ity more quickly and eas­ily.

Tunisian olive pro­duc­tion in 2019 was quite good, with a yield of 300,000 tons, accord­ing to the Inter­na­tional Olive Coun­cil, the coun­try’s third-high­est yield on record. Over­all, the olive oil sec­tor accounts for a large share of the total agri­cul­tural out­put of the coun­try.

The Tunisian olive sec­tor is of great impor­tance in the revi­tal­iza­tion of the national econ­omy since it rep­re­sents a real source of income in for­eign cur­rency for the coun­try,” Neji said.

How­ever, olive oil prices have col­lapsed in Tunisia as well as else­where in the Mediter­ranean and do not show any sign of recov­ery.

Grow­ing olives in some areas of the coun­try is becom­ing increas­ingly dif­fi­cult. In those areas, many of which oper­ate using tra­di­tional farm­ing and har­vest­ing meth­ods, low olive oil prices are leav­ing farm­ers and pro­duc­ers with lit­tle if any prof­its.

A big share of our pro­duc­tion this year is going to be wasted,” Mohammed Mahgub, from the east­ern Tunisian region of Mah­dia, told Olive Oil Times. A few months ago we could count on the com­mit­ment of large com­pa­nies, now it is all gone.”

Olive oil prices are now so low in the area that some com­pa­nies have retracted their ear­lier com­mit­ments and will not invest in har­vest­ing olives.

In Mah­dia, olive oil prices are now set to three Dinars ($1.07) per kilo­gram,” Mahgub said.

A new nar­ra­tive alone will not be enough to bring Tunisian olive oil to new inter­na­tional mar­kets, but offi­cials at Cepex believe opti­mism and a new vision mark the begin­ning of a drive to bring in much-needed investors, tech­nol­ogy and dynamism.

They tell us it will get bet­ter with the new ini­tia­tives, so we hope for the best,” Mahgub said.

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