Technology Drives the Ambitions of Tunisia’s Largest Olive Oil Producer

The CHO Group was an early adopter of blockchain technology for traceability. Now, they are turning to AI to help mitigate the impacts of climate change.

Chief executive Abdelaziz Makhloufi and Wajih Rekik in the company's Chemlali olive grove in Sfax (Photo: CHO Group)
By Paolo DeAndreis
Mar. 27, 2024 14:23 UTC
811
Chief executive Abdelaziz Makhloufi and Wajih Rekik in the company's Chemlali olive grove in Sfax (Photo: CHO Group)

Born from the pas­sion of a Tunisian fam­ily, the CHO Group has grown and become the country’s largest olive oil pro­ducer over the past 20 years.

The com­pany has bet its future in the indus­try on tech­nol­o­gy’s role in mit­i­gat­ing the impacts of Tunisia’s increas­ingly hot and dry cli­mate on its abil­ity to pro­duce and export award-win­ning olive oil.

The chal­lenges we face with the cli­mate are beyond our con­trol, severely affect­ing olive yields and, by exten­sion, the eco­nomic sta­bil­ity of rural com­mu­ni­ties in Tunisia,” Wajih Rekik, CHO America’s chief exec­u­tive, told Olive Oil Times.

See Also:Producer Profiles

More specif­i­cally, Rekik said the extreme sum­mer heat and record dry win­ters in the last two years have impacted olive yields in large areas of the Mediterranean basin.

A farm that used to pro­duce 20,000 liters of olive oil is now yield­ing only 10,000 liters, while pro­duc­tion expenses have remained con­stant, nearly dou­bling the total cost of pro­duc­tion,” he said.

As a result, CHO Group is rais­ing the price of its flag­ship Terra Delyssa brand. Since 2007, the com­pany has pro­duced extra vir­gin olive oil named after Queen Elissa, also known as Dido, the leg­endary founder and first queen of Carthage in the 9th Century BCE.

profiles-the-best-olive-oils-production-africa-middle-east-olive-oil-times

CHO Group’s Terra Delyssa brand pays homage to Queen Elissa, the legendary patron of the Tunisian olive oil industry. (Photo: CHO Group)

We worked on a brand that would have been able to tell the story of Queen Elissa, who ini­ti­ated the olive oil cul­ture in Tunisia,” Rekik said.

Formerly the queen of Tyre, in mod­ern-day Lebanon, Queen Elissa fled the tyranny of her auto­cratic brother to estab­lish a new Phoenician city-state on the North African coast, intro­duc­ing olive farm­ing to the region.

We wanted to be true to that legacy, show­cas­ing a prod­uct of the high­est qual­ity bot­tled in an ele­gant pack­ag­ing that nar­rates such a story,” Rekik said.

Indeed, the com­pany has been awarded for its efforts, win­ning two Gold Awards for its organic and con­ven­tion­ally-farmed Terra Delyssa brands at the 2024 NYIOOC World Olive Oil Competition.

We are deeply hum­bled and filled with immense pride,” Rekik said. These awards sym­bol­ize the ded­i­ca­tion, pas­sion and hard work of our entire net­work — from the devoted farm­ers and skilled millers to every mem­ber of our fam­ily who plays a part in bring­ing our vision to life.”

Since the coun­try’s lib­er­al­iza­tion of olive oil pro­duc­tion in the 1990s, the CHO Group has expanded rapidly. It now exports an aver­age of 50,000 tons of olive oil annu­ally to more than 50 coun­tries, rep­re­sent­ing approx­i­mately one-fifth of all Tunisian olive oil exports.

We pro­duce up to 1,200 met­ric tons of olive oil daily,” Rekik said. In Tunisia, we have a stor­age capac­ity of about 30,000 tons. We employ about 1,000 peo­ple with approx­i­mately 1,300 sea­sonal work­ers adding up dur­ing har­vest.”

profiles-the-best-olive-oils-production-africa-middle-east-olive-oil-times

The CHO Group is Tunisia’s largest olive oil producer and exporter by a wide margin. (Photo: CHO Group)

The CHO Group farms more than 4,000 hectares of olive trees in Tunisia, and it is expand­ing else­where. Our first major diver­si­fi­ca­tion is in Morocco, where we are now plant­ing 280 hectares of olives,” Rekik said.

In Morocco, the company’s mills oper­ate in the Marrakesh region. We cre­ated the Moresh brand, rep­re­sent­ing our Moroccan oper­a­tions,” Rekik said. Moresh earned a Silver Award at the 2024 NYIOOC.

Advertisement

It is now the most present Moroccan brand on the shelves in North America, as it is already sold in over 4,000 stores,” he added. It is also mak­ing its debut in France and Germany, so it is get­ting into the inter­na­tional mar­ket.”

According to Rekik, one key to CHO Group’s suc­cess is its adop­tion of new and inno­v­a­tive tech­nol­ogy. A cru­cial ele­ment of our suc­cess lies in our unwa­ver­ing com­mit­ment to qual­ity, sup­ported by full blockchain trace­abil­ity back to the orchards,” he con­firmed.

profiles-the-best-olive-oils-production-africa-middle-east-olive-oil-times

The CHO Group has embraced new technologies, including blockchain for traceability, and AI to help the company adapt to the impacts of climate change in Tunisia. (Photo: CHO Group)

We were the pio­neers in adopt­ing blockchain tech­nol­ogy,” Rekik added. At the begin­ning, such a choice raised a few laughs in the sec­tor. However, blockchain added value for our cus­tomers and retail part­ners, as it rep­re­sents that addi­tional layer of trust that is very impor­tant on the mar­ket.”

Rekik believes inno­va­tion remains at the fore­front of the company’s busi­ness, which is now ven­tur­ing into arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence (AI).

Advertisement

Digitalization is really in the DNA of the group,” he said. Today, we are pio­neer­ing AI by cre­at­ing pre­dic­tion mod­els and work­ing closely with Tunisian experts and devel­op­ers. We are also work­ing with Tunisian uni­ver­si­ties and col­lab­o­rat­ing with them in open labs.”

It is a pro­fi­cient rela­tion­ship as we feed researchers with a touch of real­ity, a con­tact with the busi­ness world,” he added. The com­pany feeds them real-life prob­lems that need to be solved.”

CHO Group is also work­ing with InstaDeep, one of the lead­ing Tunisian com­pa­nies focus­ing on AI devel­op­ment.

profiles-the-best-olive-oils-production-africa-middle-east-olive-oil-times

The CHO Group can mill 1,200 tons of olive oil per day during the harvest. (Photo: CHO Group)

Rekik said AI helps the com­pany adapt to cli­mate change and adopt sus­tain­able prac­tices such as renew­able energy devel­op­ment, water con­ser­va­tion and sus­tain­able pack­ag­ing solu­tions. CHO Group also announced a net-zero car­bon foot­print pro­gram by 2040.

Water scarcity is a non-deni­able issue. We have seen almost no rain dur­ing win­ter in Tunisia,” Rekik said. In our coun­try, peo­ple used to say that the qual­ity of its olive oil came from the 320 days of sun­shine through the year. Now we are head­ing towards 350 days.”

Still, the sun makes us the num­ber one pro­ducer of organic olive oil in the world, as it does not allow insects to pro­lif­er­ate,” he added. We do not need to spray chem­i­cals, which is a big issue else­where. Pesticides are a big issue abroad, and they are also becom­ing such in the United States.”

The CHO Group relies more on local olive vari­eties, such as Chemlali or Chetoui, to cope with the coun­try’s increas­ingly hot and dry cli­mate. Such vari­eties existed well before irri­ga­tion began,” Rekik said. Their resilience will save the olive oil sec­tor in Tunisia.”

The same is hap­pen­ing in Morocco,” he added. In our orchards in Marrakesh, we are now focus­ing on the Beldi cul­ti­var, con­sid­ered the Moroccan Picholine. That is also going to save the sec­tor.”

Rekik believes that grow­ing native olive vari­eties and care­fully mon­i­tor­ing the groves dig­i­tally will allow the com­pany to over­come the chal­lenges posed by cli­mate change.

profiles-the-best-olive-oils-production-africa-middle-east-olive-oil-times

CHO Group is betting on endemic olive varieties in Tunisia and Morocco to cope with the increasingly hot and dry climate. (Photo: CHO Group)

The company’s use of tech­nol­ogy expands beyond the olive groves and into its net­work of 20 lab­o­ra­to­ries, one of which is accred­ited by the International Olive Council. This net­work allows the com­pany to ver­ify the qual­ity of its olive oils in Tunisia. Our tast­ing panel is also rec­og­nized by the IOC,” Rekik said.

Addressing high olive oil prices, which resulted in a tem­po­rary export ban in December, Rekik said prices must remain high to reflect increased oper­a­tional costs and decreased pro­duc­tion vol­umes.

This price adjust­ment is not just a response to pro­duc­tion costs but a nec­es­sary step to ensure the sus­tain­abil­ity of our olive farms and the well-being of the farm­ers who are the back­bone of this indus­try,” he said.

We are com­mit­ted to revis­ing our prices in [the customer’s] favor as soon as con­di­tions allow and deeply appre­ci­ate [their] under­stand­ing and sup­port dur­ing these chal­leng­ing times,” Rekik added. “[Their] sup­port is cru­cial not only to us but to the entire olive-grow­ing com­mu­nity in Tunisia.”



Share this article

Advertisement
Advertisement

Related Articles