Africa / Middle East

Tunisia: Window on a Traditional Olive World

There are scant funds to assist Tunisia's rural farmers' transition to a more efficient, high-quality production. Some locals say that's just fine with them, while others look to a more prosperous future,

Photo: Cain Burdeau for Olive Oil Times
Feb. 27, 2018
By Cain Burdeau
Photo: Cain Burdeau for Olive Oil Times

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Picking olives – even well into the spring – with bare hands and fin­gers threaded with goat horns. Collecting bags lying in fields full of olives and tree cut­tings by cart and donkey. Making oil in mills where grind­ing stones crush olives and the floors are busy with crews of work­ers cov­ered in olive juice.

In 30, 40 years time I would be quite sad frankly if we ended up with an indus­tri­al­ized pro­duc­tion style.- Zena Ely-Séide Rabia, Olive Oil Producer

These are sights, sounds and smells mostly long gone from Europe, where olive oil pro­duc­tion has increas­ingly become mech­a­nized and mod­ern­ized.

But in Tunisia, things are dif­fer­ent – olive oil making is still largely a rural activ­ity evok­ing a bygone era.

This is viewed both as an obsta­cle and a trea­sure for a nation seek­ing to expand its pro­duc­tion of high-qual­ity olive oil through mod­ern­iza­tion and an expan­sion of olive plan­ta­tions while it also deals with deep rural poverty, entrenched busi­ness inter­ests and polit­i­cal and eco­nomic insta­bil­ity.

Tunisia’s rural pop­u­la­tion lives in a state of poverty – and this fact helps explain why olive oil pro­duc­tion is so tra­di­tional and simple. Yet the sheer size of its pro­duc­tion (180,000 tons this year) and its ambi­tions as a major exporter set Tunisia apart.

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“The prob­lem isn’t a lack of tech­ni­cal knowl­edge in Tunisia,” said Tiziano Caruso, an agrar­ian and olive spe­cial­ist at the University of Palermo in Italy, “but the lack of finan­cial resources to spread” mod­ern­iza­tion.

The World Bank says Tunisia’s rural pop­u­la­tion lives in a state near­ing extreme poverty. Rural work­ers often earn about $6 a day, or often much less. Average per capita daily income in rural Tunisia is $1.60, accord­ing to World Bank fig­ures.

This explains why the vast major­ity of exports are in bulk, sent off in ships to richer coun­tries in need of olive oil; why a drive through the coun­try­side during the spring­time finds people still pick­ing olives that are black and over­ripe; why pro­duc­tiv­ity can fluc­tu­ate so rad­i­cally from year to year and why yields are much lower than European com­peti­tors.

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There are other prob­lems too. Irrigation is scarce. Many plan­ta­tions are young and there is lack of know-how among many farm­ers, Tunisian oil pro­duc­ers said. And since the 2011 demo­c­ra­tic rev­o­lu­tion that ended a dic­ta­tor­ship, pro­duc­ers said they have been hit by a dwin­dling rural work­force that in turn has driven up labor costs.

Meanwhile, many farm­ers and pro­duc­ers com­plain that entrenched inter­ests at the gov­ern­ment and pri­vate levels are also imped­ing change and progress.

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At the end of January in a small town called Bir Salah in the olive-tree dotted plains near Sfax, the olive har­vest was in motion.

A half-dozen people worked on one large tree. Men stand­ing on the ground and on heavy wooden lad­ders beat drupe-laden branches with sticks to get the olives off. A stooped woman in a head-scarf swept olives on col­lec­tion nets into piles, using as a broom a hand­ful of olive branches.

Photo: Cain Burdeau for Olive Oil Times

“It’s the job of the zaytun (olive tree in Arabic),” said Amine Mhimda, a 20-year-old stu­dent help­ing his family during a school hol­i­day. He spoke in basic English. “Friends and family (do the work.) It’s the job of my family.”

The tree they were work­ing on wasn’t theirs but instead one they had rented to pick, a common prac­tice among Tunisian farm­ers.

Mhimda said pick­ing machines are too expen­sive for his family.

Similar scenes are found through­out Tunisia, where fam­i­lies spend months slowly pick­ing olives from the nation’s mil­lions of trees. They stop at mid-day to eat and make pots of tea on fires.

The olives are poured into bags and packed to olive mills, often on the backs of pickup trucks streaked in olive juice.

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Photo: Cain Burdeau for Olive Oil Times

Often olives end up in places like a mill in Sfax owned by Hamed Kamoun. His family has been in the olive busi­ness since the late 1800s.

It’s a tra­di­tional mill. On a recent morn­ing, work­ers were busy inside work­ing the presses, the grind­ing stones, pour­ing oil bucket-by-bucket into decanta­tion vats. Overhead, a big belt whirred as it spun on a line­shaft dri­ving the rotat­ing grind­ing stones. The smell of crushed olives was intense and pleas­ant. The floor was cov­ered in black pulp and oil. Olive presses dripped with dark juice.

“My pro­duc­tion is spe­cific and only for here,” Kamoun said, speak­ing through a trans­la­tor. All the oil he makes, he said, is con­sumed in Tunisia.

Before the break of dawn during the har­vest period, Kamoun has a buyer at an auc­tion market where farm­ers sell their olives to mills. He gets large quan­ti­ties of olives from this market, he said.

Many in Tunisia’s olive busi­ness, though, say these tra­di­tional meth­ods of har­vest­ing and milling are hold­ing the nation back.

For instance, many farm­ers wait to pick olives until they are deep black and more mature in the hope of get­ting more oil out of them. But this goes against best-prac­tices for obtain­ing the best extra virgin olive oil, which gen­er­ally occurs when olives are turn­ing from green to black, a phase known as inva­iatura.

Photo: Cain Burdeau for Olive Oil Times

“People have small knowl­edge about olives, so they think if we pick olives now (in January and later) we get more olive oil — it is right, but it is wrong,” said Rafik Ben Jeddou, an oil pro­ducer.

Habib Douss, an oil exporter and chemist, said many farm­ers believe the olive tree is a sacred plant.

“There’s a lot of mythol­ogy in olive oil,” he said. “As far as the olive tree is con­cerned, Tunisians feel it is a blessed tree. Nothing from the olive tree can be dis­carded and so if there are olives late in the season, it’s part of the bounty. If they pick it in May, to them it is blessed.”

Douss added: “When I worked for Proctor and Gamble (in the United States) we talked about ‘oppor­tu­ni­ties for improve­ment,’ or OFIs. In Tunisia, you could write ency­clo­pe­dias of OFIs.”

Imed Ghodhbeni, the man­ager of a tast­ing and analy­sis lab­o­ra­tory for the CHO Group, a major Tunisian exporter, said many Tunisians dis­like the taste of extra virgin olive oil.

“Some people actu­ally like this,” he said about oil he would con­sider lam­pante. “People will keep the olives a long time to fer­ment to get this kind of oil.”

Photo: Cain Burdeau for Olive Oil Times

In south­ern Tunisia, for exam­ple, it is common for Berbers to keep olives in caves, allow­ing them to fer­ment, and to press olives when they need them, he said. “They are proud of their oil and offer it to guests,” Ghodhbeni said.

Tunisia is not unique in this. In south­ern Italy, for exam­ple, it was cus­tom­ary to let olives fer­ment too until more recent times.

“In Italy, espe­cially in the South, the olive sector … has made giant steps for­ward only in the last 20 years,” Caruso said, refer­ring specif­i­cally to oil extrac­tion, stor­age and pack­ag­ing.

In Tunisia, some oil pro­duc­ers cau­tion that the nation’s tra­di­tional meth­ods are of value.

“This is a bless­ing,” said Zena Ely-Séide Rabia, a 34-year-old bou­tique oil pro­ducer. For instance, she said, pick­ing olives by hand is good for the fruit whereas machines can bruise olives.

Another advan­tage of Tunisia’s tra­di­tional meth­ods is that there is very little use of pes­ti­cides or her­bi­cides, making the coun­try well known for its organic oil, she said.

“In 30, 40 years time I would be quite sad frankly if we ended up with an indus­tri­al­ized pro­duc­tion style,” she said.

The olive har­vest is an inte­gral part of rural life. “They work from place to place,” Ely-Séide Rabia said of olive work­ers. “It is the fabric of the rural com­mu­ni­ties. Their lives revolve around these pro­duc­tions.”

Photo: Cain Burdeau for Olive Oil Times

Thus, Tunisia needs to both mod­ern­ize but also main­tain its tra­di­tions. “It’s a del­i­cate bal­ance.”

And it is far from clear how quickly Tunisia will want to change or can. “It’s a family pro­duc­tion, it’s not indus­trial like Spain,” said Mseddi Moncef, a 70-year-old olive farmer from Sfax who has about 400 trees.

Many olive orchards are like his: small, family-run oper­a­tions unlikely to change quickly. And there is resis­tance to the idea of focus­ing efforts on pro­duc­ing more oil for exports.

An oil vendor in the Marché Central in Tunis shook his head at the sug­ges­tion that Tunisia should take more steps to improve its oil for export mar­kets.

“Exporting is not so good for us. It’s good for the rich,” Adel Ben Ali said. He sells oil in one-liter plas­tic bot­tles.

He tasted some of the oil he sells from an alu­minum con­tainer. It was a fine oil, he said: “It’s nat­ural like this. How can we make it better? More refined?” He shook his head. “No. It’s good like this.”