Olive Oil Production Seen as Path to Revitalization in Tunisia's Gafsa Region

Phosphate production dominates the local economy, but the local population has not seen the benefits. Expansion of olive growing and oil production may provide a solution.
Gafsa, Tunisia
By Ofeoritse Daibo
Oct. 3, 2023 14:18 UTC

Increasing olive pro­duc­tion in the cen­tral Tunisian region of Gafsa is one strat­egy to diver­sify the region’s heav­ily min­ing-depen­dent econ­omy, revi­tal­ize land­scapes and pro­mote devel­op­ment.

A his­tor­i­cal oasis once heav­ily influ­enced by the Romans, Gafsa is one of Tunisia’s lead­ing pro­duc­ers of phos­phate, an essen­tial ingre­di­ent in fer­til­iz­ers, with more than 800 mil­lion tons of reserves. The sec­tor con­tributes 4 per­cent to the national GDP and 15 per­cent to its annual exports.

Despite Gafsa’s phos­phate wealth, its pop­u­la­tion has not ben­e­fit­ted from the sec­tor, accord­ing to the World Bank, and has one of the coun­try’s high­est poverty and unem­ploy­ment rates.

See Also:Leading Tunisian Bulk Olive Oil Exporter Pivots to Adding Value

A new gen­er­a­tion of young peo­ple from the region are work­ing with local offi­cials to imple­ment the Gafsa Vision 2050, which seeks to diver­sify the econ­omy while restor­ing the min­ing-rav­aged envi­ron­ment.

A 2012 report from the African Development Bank high­lighted the poten­tial for olive cul­ti­va­tion in the region, home to 700 hectares of oases clas­si­fied as Globally Important Agricultural Systems by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

Along with almond and other veg­etable cul­ti­va­tion, the bank esti­mated that renewed olive cul­ti­va­tion could cre­ate 3,400 agri­cul­tural jobs, pro­vid­ing direct ben­e­fits to 10,000 peo­ple and indi­rect ben­e­fits to another 60,000. About 300,000 peo­ple live in the region.

According to local media, farm­ers expect to har­vest 88,000 tons of olives in the 2023/24 crop year, a sig­nif­i­cant increase from the 50,000 har­vested last year, which yielded 12,000 tons of olive oil. The crop pro­vides the region with around 3 bil­lion dinars (€900 mil­lion) in rev­enue.

Unlike last year, which saw a decline in olive pro­duc­tion due to drought and high tem­per­a­tures, weather con­di­tions were more favor­able lead­ing up to the cur­rent har­vest.

Overall, offi­cials in the coun­try expect olive oil pro­duc­tion to rise from last year’s dis­ap­point­ing yield of 180,000 tons. Generally, west-cen­tral Tunisia accounts for about 35 per­cent of annual olive oil pro­duc­tion.

The Tunisian gov­ern­ment announced plans to boost the country’s olive oil indus­try ear­lier this year. The goal is for Tunisia to pro­duce 250,000 tons of extra vir­gin olive oil each year, export 200,000 tons of olive oil annu­ally and raise domes­tic con­sump­tion to 50,000 tons annu­ally by 2035.

So far, Tunisia has pro­duced an aver­age of 228,000 tons of olive oil each year over the past half-decade, includ­ing a record-high 440,000 tons in the 2019/20 crop year, accord­ing to data from the International Olive Council.

However, researchers have raised con­cerns regard­ing the impacts of cli­mate change on Tunisia’s olive oil sec­tor. In a 2022 report, the National Observatory for Agriculture esti­mated that olive oil pro­duc­tion could fall by 70 per­cent if noth­ing is done to reduce green­house gas emis­sions.

A sep­a­rate report from the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights found that cli­mate change is also threat­en­ing Gafsa’s oases, with drought cited as the most sig­nif­i­cant con­cern from the lack of rain­fall.

With the help of fund­ing from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, 55 per­cent of Gafsa’s olive har­vest comes from irri­gated groves.

Officials esti­mate that irri­gated olive groves will con­tribute to 53 per­cent of this year’s har­vest in Tunisia, an esti­mated 106,000 tons of olive oil.

However, the impacts of the region’s increas­ingly hot and dry cli­mate, com­bined with the phos­phate industry’s deple­tion of water resources, have strained the farm­ers, who have led sit-ins and protests at phos­phate mines.

In July, a group of farm­ers in Gafsa protested against irri­ga­tion cuts that lasted more than a month.

In response, President Kaïs Saïed called on pub­lic offi­cials to put an end as quickly as pos­si­ble to the reg­u­lar water and elec­tric­ity cuts in sev­eral regions of the coun­try,” includ­ing Gafsa, adding that out­ages can­not be jus­ti­fied by rou­tine main­te­nance oper­a­tions, which should have been car­ried out before the sum­mer sea­son.”

Gafsa Vision 2050 has been one of the steps taken by the Tunisian gov­ern­ment to bridge the gap between pro­tes­tors and the min­ing sec­tor by cre­at­ing new oppor­tu­ni­ties, includ­ing devel­op­ing the agri­cul­tural sec­tor.

Despite the chal­lenges, offi­cials remain opti­mistic. Dorsaf Ben Ahmed, an agri­cul­tural pro­duc­tion rep­re­sen­ta­tive from the coun­try’s agri­cul­ture min­istry, expects Tunisia’s olive indus­try to flour­ish.

He spoke of the improve­ment in the gen­eral con­di­tion of olive trees in most pro­duc­tion regions fol­low­ing heavy rain­falls recorded in May and June, along with suc­cess­ful efforts to curb pest infes­ta­tions.


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