Tunisia Seeks Renewal Through the Olive Tree

Seven years after a sweeping revolution in 2011 ended a decades-long dictatorship, production of high-quality extra-virgin olive oil has become a symbol of renewal and rallying call.

Tunisian agriculture minister Samir Taieb (Photo: Cain Burdeau for Olive Oil Times)
Feb. 15, 2018
By Cain Burdeau
Tunisian agriculture minister Samir Taieb (Photo: Cain Burdeau for Olive Oil Times)

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An assem­blage of dark green bot­tles of extra-vir­gin olive oil – each from dif­fer­ent domaines as olive estates are called in Tunisia, are on dis­play inside the hotel con­fer­ence room in Sfax, a coastal indus­trial city and the cen­ter of Tunisia’s olive oil pro­duc­tion.

These bot­tles rep­re­sent Tunisia’s hope to cre­ate a bet­ter future.

The gov­ern­ment wants to give life to these regions invaded by ter­ror­ists by plant­ing olive trees.- Agriculture Minister Samir Taieb

Seven years after Tunisia’s sweep­ing rev­o­lu­tion in 2011 ended a decades-long dic­ta­tor­ship, pro­duc­tion of high-qual­ity extra-vir­gin olive oil has become a sym­bol of renewal and ral­ly­ing call for this pio­neer­ing North African nation strug­gling to keep a fledg­ling democ­racy and weak econ­omy on course.

It’s a course made even more pre­car­i­ous after ter­ror­ist attacks against tourists and pres­i­den­tial guards in 2015 made Tunisia a no-go land for many tourists.

The set­ting for the bot­tles on dis­play is a forum at the sec­ond edi­tion of the Olive Festival of Sfax inside a hotel called Les Oliviers Palace.


This ele­gant colo­nial-era hotel is per­fectly named for the occa­sion: The Palace of Olive Trees.

In the past decade, Tunisian olive oil mak­ers have evolved from being pro­duc­ers of cheap bulk olive oil for export to Italy and other major mar­kets (where Tunisian oil was found by inves­ti­ga­tors mixed with other oils and fraud­u­lently labeled and sold for mas­sive prof­its) toward cre­at­ing and cel­e­brat­ing their own brands.

This tran­si­tion is now openly being called a rev­o­lu­tion,” as the New York Times did in 2016.

There are some good oils down here, and peo­ple don’t know it,” said Karim Fitouri, an ener­getic 45-year-old olive oil maker and hon­orary pres­i­dent of the Sfax fes­ti­val. His brand is called Olivko.

This is the most impor­tant time in olive oil (in Tunisia) since Roman times.”

Tunisia was indeed val­ued by the Roman empire, espe­cially as a land for the cul­ti­va­tion of olives and wheat, mighty pil­lars of that empire.

Oil wealth, for exam­ple, helped build a mas­sive amphithe­ater in the arid plains near Sfax at today’s El Jem. It was an elab­o­rate con­struc­tion that rivaled the col­i­seum in Rome.

The impor­tance of olive oil in Tunisia can­not be over­stated. It is the nation’s No. 1 agri­cul­tural export, val­ued at $374 mil­lion in 2016, accord­ing to World Bank data.

What’s now con­sid­ered more impor­tant are olive oil’s more elu­sive qual­i­ties: The hope is that Tunisia can gain a global rep­u­ta­tion for qual­ity through its olive oil.

How? Tunisians are tout­ing their olive oil as the best in the world — a state­ment repeated time and again to an Olive Oil Times reporter tour­ing Tunisia to bet­ter under­stand the nation’s olive oil indus­try.

It’s the antiox­i­dants,” said Habib Douss, a chemist and olive oil exporter. That’s what is really spe­cial about Tunisia’s olive oil.”

Tunisian oil mak­ers are point­ing to recent stud­ies by Japanese experts who say they found very high polyphe­nol lev­els in Tunisian oils. Polyphenols are nat­ural chem­i­cal struc­tures con­sid­ered good for health due to their qual­i­ties as antiox­i­dants.

Antioxidants: It is the only true value for the health of olive oil,” Douss said.

One the­ory is that Tunisian trees may develop more polyphe­nols due to Tunisia’s tough semi-arid cli­mate.

Another sell­ing point is how Tunisia’s oils tend to be pro­duced organ­i­cally. Due to Tunisia’s arid­ity, pes­ti­cides and her­bi­cides are largely unnec­es­sary. In addi­tion, Tunisia is poor and farm­ers pick olives by hand.

Tunisia is most impor­tantly the world’s first pro­ducer in organic olive oil and tra­di­tional olive oil,” said Zena Ely-Séide Rabia, a 34-year-old Tunisian oil maker who sells high-priced bou­tique oils in Europe. Her brand is called Ely-Séide.

I was invited to taste numer­ous Tunisian olive oils, and found they nat­u­rally ranged in qual­ity and taste. There are lots of excel­lent oils, and a lot that are mediocre and even bad – just as you will find in other coun­tries where olive oil is made.

Tunisia’s push into export­ing bot­tled oil is on full dis­play at a fac­tory near Sfax owned by the CHO Group, a major pro­ducer that exports its brand Terra Delyssa to super­mar­kets in the United States, Canada and Europe.

Two bot­tling lines were run­ning in the mod­ern, high-tech fac­tory. Last year it pro­duced more than 8 mil­lion bot­tles and tins for export, the com­pany said.

This is going to Germany and this other line is going to Canada,” said Mohamed Walha, a CHO qual­ity man­ager, as bot­tles of Terra Delyssa were labeled and pack­aged.

In a large stor­age space, Walha pointed out labels for the com­pa­ny’s newest brand: an oil called Origin 846” and touted as raw and unfil­tered.”

This is our new baby,” Walha said. This is not only Chemlali but also Chetoui. A high level of fruiti­ness, pun­gency.”

The CHO plant near Sfax

Chemlali and Chetoui are the two major olive cul­ti­vars native to Tunisia. Chemlali is a sweet-tast­ing, golden-green oil grown in cen­tral and south­ern Tunisia while Chetoui olives are com­mon in the north and make a darker and more pun­gent oil.

Boosting exports was the theme of the Sfax fes­ti­val this year, where pro­duc­ers put their oils on dis­play inside an out­door pavil­ion.

We want to do a high-qual­ity, afford­able oil,” said Hazem Haddar, com­mer­cial direc­tor at the Noor Oil Company. His com­pany is look­ing at sell­ing in Japan with a label still in the mak­ing, per­haps fea­tur­ing an image of Syphax, an ancient king.

Similarly, Fatma Makki, who works for the Domaine Bensaida that makes an oil called La Verte, said exports are the future. We want to improve our exports.”

Efforts to break into inter­na­tional mar­kets are multi-faceted and are led both by pri­vate com­pa­nies and gov­ern­ment agen­cies.

For exam­ple, the Tunisian agency ded­i­cated to the oil sec­tor, the Office National de l’Huile, is spon­sor­ing for the first time a com­pe­ti­tion to find the coun­try’s best extra-vir­gin oils.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Agriculture is plant­ing 10 mil­lion new trees in north­ern and cen­tral parts of Tunisia in a bid to help impov­er­ished rural areas and expand oil out­put.

© Olive Oil Times | Data source: International Olive Council

The trees will be planted in areas invaded by ter­ror­ists,” said Agriculture Minister Samir Taieb in an inter­view at his office in Tunis. His office was adorned with painted scenes of camels, the desert and horse rid­ers.

The gov­ern­ment wants to give life to these regions by plant­ing olive trees,” he said, speak­ing through a trans­la­tor. Terrorists have to leave these regions,” he added.

Tunisia has made a lot of progress in what con­cerns qual­ity olive oil pro­duc­tion,” said Chopki Bayoudh, the direc­tor gen­eral of the Office National de l’Huile, speak­ing through a trans­la­tor.

The next step is to expand Tunisia’s bot­tling for export, he said.

Tunisia is export­ing the major­ity of its olive oil pro­duc­tion in bulk, so there is no iden­tity,” Bayoudh said. The final con­sumer does not know that Tunisia is an olive oil pro­ducer and that in fact has very good qual­ity olive oil.”

Bayoudh added: So we are work­ing on bot­tling our olive oil and mak­ing an iden­tity for the prod­uct – to men­tion the Tunisian ori­gin.”

That’s the goal: The next time you go shop­ping for olive oil, Tunisia’s olive oil mak­ers want you to see more of their brands. They want those dark green bot­tles on dis­play at the Palace of Olive Trees to be sit­ting on shelves around the world.

Chopki Bayoudh, Office National de l’Huile

Still, there are hur­dles.

Quality itself is not enough to pro­mote exports,” said Polymeros Chrysochou, a mar­ket­ing spe­cial­ist at the Aarhus University in Denmark. He spoke at the Sfax con­fer­ence.

He said Tunisia will need to invest in pro­mot­ing its oils, work to under­stand con­sumers’ tastes and slowly and strate­gi­cally” build a national name that will allow con­sumers to accept the coun­try as a qual­ity pro­ducer.”

And Tunisia is new at this. Until 1994, the Tunisian gov­ern­ment did not allow pri­vate exports of oil and held a monop­oly over the sec­tor.

In a recent report, the World Bank said Tunisia had done a poor job of improv­ing exports.

No effec­tive efforts have been made to develop exports and pro­mote higher value-added prod­ucts, and the over­all level of pri­mary olive oil pro­duc­tion, com­pared to its poten­tial, has been lag­ging,” the World Bank report said.

One advan­tage Tunisian oil has is that it does not have a tainted rep­u­ta­tion, Bayoudh said.

Tunisian olive oil is very appre­ci­ated in the United States because Italian olive has had many prob­lems with adul­ter­ation, prob­lems of fake oil, even with the very well-known brands,” he said. We don’t have any prob­lems with that.”

Chrysochou agreed and said the lack of famil­iar­ity with Tunisian oils can be an advan­tage because they start with a clean slate.

Although the lack of knowl­edge forms a bar­rier, I see it as a great oppor­tu­nity,” he said.

He used an exam­ple: It’s eas­ier to believe the hon­esty of some­one you’ve just met than change your mind about a per­son who’s been dis­hon­est with you in the past.


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