Tunisian Olive Oil Producers Thrive Despite Political Turmoil

While one of the world’s largest olive-producing nations undergoes shifts that worry international observers, olive growers are more concerned about climate change.

By Paolo DeAndreis
Nov. 4, 2021 10:53 UTC

The extra­or­di­nary mea­sures intro­duced in recent months by Tunisian President Kais Saied to con­cen­trate the power of his own office will bear far-reach­ing con­se­quences.

Still, local olive oil pro­duc­ers and polit­i­cal experts do not believe that what is hap­pen­ing will impact the olive oil sec­tor.

Unless things spi­ral out of con­trol and Tunisia faces mas­sive insta­bil­ity, it seems that the agri­cul­tural sec­tor should remain as it is.- Sarah Yerkes, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

With 240,000 tons of olive oil expected for the 2021/22 crop year, Tunisia will remain among the world’s largest olive oil-pro­duc­ing coun­tries. Over the past two decades, the sec­tor has been fueled by large invest­ments and steadily ris­ing rates of global olive oil con­sump­tion.

See Also:2021 Harvest Updates

According to Ministry of Agriculture data, Tunisia expects to export at least 180,000 tons of olive oil in 2021/22. The cur­rent crop year opened right after Saied froze the coun­try’s par­lia­ment, fired the prime min­is­ter and announced that he would gov­ern the coun­try by decree.

His office clar­i­fied that the con­sti­tu­tion will remain largely intact, but any pro­vi­sion lim­it­ing the power of the pres­i­dent is no longer in force. At the end of September, Saied nom­i­nated a new prime min­is­ter and a new gov­ern­ment has been formed.

While polit­i­cal insta­bil­ity and uncer­tainty about the future of the North African democ­racy could impact an essen­tial piece of the coun­try’s olive oil econ­omy – exports and inter­na­tional trade rela­tions – experts say that is not yet the case.

While Saied’s sup­port amongst the polit­i­cal elite, such as polit­i­cal par­ties and large civil soci­ety groups, is wan­ing, pub­lic sup­port for his actions remains high,” Sarah Yerkes, a senior fel­low at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Middle East pro­gram, told Olive Oil Times.

This is largely because many Tunisians are fed up with the tra­di­tional polit­i­cal actors and have not seen any improve­ment to their daily lives in the decade since the rev­o­lu­tion,” she added. Many of them see Saied as some­one who is try­ing to give Tunisia a fresh start and hold those account­able who have failed to address Tunisia’s chal­lenges.”

However, Saied has not shown that he has any real or effec­tive plan to address the eco­nomic, social or polit­i­cal prob­lems cur­rently fac­ing the coun­try,” Yerkes con­tin­ued. And with all of the power con­cen­trated in his hands, he will have no one to blame if he is unable to deliver.”

Appeals have been directed to Saied by sev­eral inter­na­tional observers to rein­state the par­lia­ment and return power to elected offi­cials. In the last few days, more than 30 local human rights advo­cates asked Saied in an open let­ter to set a time limit for his extra­or­di­nary mea­sures.

They denounced a cli­mate of hatred and repres­sion, which they believe is the true rea­son behind the arrest of the for­mer Agriculture Minister Samir Bettaieb on charges of cor­rup­tion.

At the same time, International Olive Council (IOC) exec­u­tives recently met with their Tunisian coun­ter­parts in the cap­i­tal, Tunis, which con­firmed the nor­mal­iza­tion of Tunisia’s inter­na­tional rela­tions.

The IOC meet­ing with cur­rent Agriculture Minister Mahmoud Elias Hamza focused on the devel­op­ment of inter­na­tional coop­er­a­tion both in the train­ing of local experts and in the coun­try’s par­tic­i­pa­tion in the IOC’s next inter­na­tional meet­ings. Tunisia was also con­firmed as the guest of honor for Expoliva 2023.


Despite the polit­i­cal uncer­tainty, pro­duc­ers in the coun­try told Olive Oil Times that the biggest threat they con­tinue to face is cli­mate change.

The new sea­son promises to be aver­age in terms of olive oil vol­umes, given the drought and the water scarcity,” said Salah Ben Ayed, the owner of Domaine Adonis, which earned two Gold Awards at the 2021 NYIOOC World Olive Oil Competition.


Aerial view of an olive plantation in Tunisia

As a mat­ter of fact, cli­mate change is increas­ingly felt over time because of the hot weather and the lack of rain­fall,” he told Olive Oil Times.

Weather was harsh lately. We had a very hot sum­mer this year with hardly any rain, which put a lot of stress on our trees,” added Karim Fitouri, the founder of Olivko, whose extra vir­gin olive oils also earned awards at the 2021 NYIOOC.

Still, we under­stood from his­tory and from nature that olive trees are sur­vivors,” he told Olive Oil Times. During sev­eral thou­sand years, the olive tree man­aged to stay strong through a lot of dis­as­ters.”

See Also:U.K. Drops Tariffs on Tunisian Olive Oil Imports After Signing Trade Deal

Along with con­cerns about the cli­mate, Ben Ayed explained that local pro­duc­ers’ other wor­ries come from low mar­ket prices for olive oil and the fact that its health ben­e­fits are not yet well-known in Tunisia and under­ap­pre­ci­ated abroad.

If we look at the future of high-qual­ity olive oil pro­duc­tion in Tunisia, we can be opti­mistic, given the demand growth expe­ri­enced dur­ing the Covid-19 pan­demic,” he said. Yet, many con­sumers do not dif­fer­en­ti­ate dif­fer­ent qual­i­ties of olive oil.”

According to Fitouri, one of the ways in which Tunisian pro­duc­ers have strength­ened their posi­tion in both the domes­tic and inter­na­tional mar­ket is through win­ning awards at inter­na­tional com­pe­ti­tions. Consumers, he added, will fol­low.

Covid-19 has sped up the process of pub­lic health aware­ness,” Fitouri said. If a few years ago one would have asked the gen­eral pub­lic what the immune sys­tem is, only a few would have been able to answer.”

But now that is chang­ing,” he added. People now know they need good qual­ity food and they began under­stand­ing the ben­e­fits extra vir­gin olive oil pro­vides.”

Recently the European Bank for recon­struc­tion and devel­op­ment (EBRD) con­firmed fund­ing for sev­eral projects to sus­tain the devel­op­ment of the olive oil sec­tor in Tunisia.

See Also:The Best Olive Oils from Tunisia

Since 2012, EBRD has awarded €6.2 mil­lion in loans to fos­ter export com­pet­i­tive­ness and the country’s eco­nomic growth. In this sce­nario, the olive oil sec­tor plays a piv­otal role. Some of the lat­est funds will specif­i­cally sus­tain olive oil pro­duc­tion, bot­tling and exports.

I don’t think agri­cul­ture will suf­fer,” Yerkes said. So far, Europe and the United States have been rel­a­tively muted in their responses to Saied and assis­tance con­tin­ues to flow with rela­tions largely nor­mal­ized.”

Unless things spi­ral out of con­trol and Tunisia faces mas­sive insta­bil­ity, it seems that the agri­cul­tural sec­tor should remain as it is,” she added.

The European Union is far and away Tunisia’s largest olive oil cus­tomer. According to the Tunisian National Olive Oil Board, roughly 80 per­cent of all exports are shipped to the E.U., with a grow­ing mar­ket share in the United States and Canada.

Tunisia is now on the right path to becom­ing one of the lead­ers of high-qual­ity extra vir­gin olive oil pro­duc­tion,” Fitouri con­cluded. Our dry cli­mate and our per­fect soil make our coun­try the ideal home for the olive trees.”

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