Tunisian Women Producers Making a Mark in a Man's World

Women are making their mark on Tunisia's fast-growing olive oil industry, even if it's often behind the scenes.

Zakia Hajabdallah in her olive grove. Photo by Isabel Putinja.
Sep. 17, 2018
By Isabel Putinja
Zakia Hajabdallah in her olive grove. Photo by Isabel Putinja.

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Much like wine-mak­ing, the world of olive oil is largely a male-dom­i­nated indus­try. This is also true in Tunisia, where one-third of the land is cov­ered in olive groves and 300,000 peo­ple work in olive oil pro­duc­tion.

But many of these are women who are mak­ing a sig­nif­i­cant mark on Tunisia’s fast-grow­ing olive oil indus­try, even if it’s often from some­where behind the scenes.

Olive pro­duc­ers in Tunisia are get­ting noticed but there’s more to be done.It’s only together than we can pro­mote the image of Tunisian olive oil.- Afet Ben Hamouda, A&S

The biggest con­tri­bu­tion of women to an indus­try worth 2 bil­lion Tunisian dinars ($723.7 mil­lion) in exports has been as a source of cheap labor dur­ing the har­vest sea­son. Ninety per­cent of har­vest work­ers are rural women who work as sea­sonal agri­cul­tural labor­ers. They are gen­er­ally paid a daily wage which is often less than that earned by the male work­ers doing the same job.

A small part of their daily wage goes to pay for trans­porta­tion from their vil­lages to the olive groves which is usu­ally orga­nized by their employ­ers, the farm own­ers. Bundled in mul­ti­ple lay­ers of cloth­ing against the win­ter cold, the women har­vesters spend their work­ing day pluck­ing the olive fruits from the trees by hand.


At the other end of the social spec­trum are highly edu­cated women involved in the every­day man­age­ment of their fam­i­lies’ olive oil busi­nesses. At the Tunisian Olive Oil Awards orga­nized by the Ministry of Industry this past April, sev­eral women climbed the podium to col­lect awards at a flashy cer­e­mony held at a high-end hotel.

Semia Salma Belkhira, gen­eral man­ager of fam­ily-run Medagro, received the sec­ond prize for a medium fruity Ruspina olive oil; while Rawia Ben Ammar, sales man­ager at Domaine Ben Ammar organic farm, took home the first prize for the fam­i­ly’s brand Société Mutuelle de Services Agricoles (SMSA), a farm­ers’ coop­er­a­tive bring­ing together agri­cul­tural work­ers in the town of Fahs and neigh­bor­ing areas. She also wears the hat of VP of the Union Régionale de l’Agriculture et de la Pêche, a union of agri­cul­tural work­ers; and is active in the Fédération Nationale des Agricultrices which rep­re­sents women farm­ers.

Zakia Hajabdallah (Photo by Isabel Putinja)

Hajabdallah wears a head­scarf and dri­ves a white Toyota pick up truck. This image is not incon­gru­ous in Tunisia, a coun­try where women like to do things on their own terms and where they have long had rights and free­doms their sis­ters in some other Arab coun­tries don’t.

Women gen­er­ally work with their fathers and hus­bands on fam­ily farms,” she said from behind the wheel of her pick-up. She explains that one rea­son why women own so lit­tle land is that the cur­rent inher­i­tance law works against them: women can only inherit half of what their broth­ers do. The cur­rent gov­ern­ment has pro­posed to revise this law, which if passed would make Tunisia the first coun­try in the Arab world to grant equal inher­i­tance rights.

The drive from Fahs to her olive farm winds through a land­scape of undu­lat­ing hills punc­tu­ated by the loom­ing moun­tains of the gov­er­norate of Zaghouan, some 60 km south-west of the cap­i­tal Tunis. This is an agri­cul­tural region where 80 per­cent of inhab­i­tants make a liv­ing from the land.

Olive groves in the region of Zaghouan. (Photo by Isabel Putinja)

Hajabdallah became an olive farmer when she decided to quit her pub­lic sec­tor job as an agron­o­mist to work the land she leased from the gov­ern­ment as part of a scheme to reha­bil­i­tate agri­cul­tural land and pro­vide a boost to local farm­ers.

Bordered by impos­ing cac­tus plants, her plot of land stretches over 40 hectares and is planted mostly with long neat rows of olive trees. In neigh­bor­ing fields soft wheat” is cul­ti­vated for flour, as well as durum wheat for the semolina used to make cous­cous, a sta­ple of Tunisian cui­sine.

She points to a green plant with del­i­cate flow­ers. I’ve also planted legu­mi­nous plants like fava beans and oth­ers that resist high tem­per­a­tures and fix nitro­gen into the soil. This improves its fer­til­ity and ulti­mately opti­mizes the growth and yield of my olive trees.”

Her trees are of the Chetoui olive vari­ety which resists the North African heat well but only pro­duces every other year. With her farm cer­ti­fied organic since 2014, Hajabdallah sells the olives she har­vests to the local com­pany AGROMED for their organic brand Oriviera which is exported to North America.

My biggest chal­lenge is irri­ga­tion,” she said, ges­tur­ing towards the cracked earth. This is a semi-arid region that’s been expe­ri­enc­ing a drought for the past three years. The water table here is low and the water salty. The state does­n’t offer com­pen­sa­tion dur­ing peri­ods of drought. The past sea­son was okay but last year was bad. The year before that was an excel­lent year for Tunisian pro­duc­ers.”

The har­vest starts at the begin­ning of November and find­ing labor is get­ting more and more dif­fi­cult each year,” she said of the chal­lenges faced by local olive farm­ers. Using machines is out of the ques­tion because they just don’t work for this vari­ety. The olives stick to the branches so we have to pick them by hand. Another prob­lem we have at har­vest is that small pro­duc­ers some­times have to wait a long time to press their olives because the mills get too busy. As you know, olives have to be pressed as soon as pos­si­ble, within 24 hours, to get a qual­ity oil.”

Further north in another rural land­scape near Mateur, 70 km north­west of Tunis located in the gov­er­norate of Bizerte, Afet and Selima Ben Hamouda tend to their olive groves. The fer­tile soil of this agri­cul­tural region has been used to grow cere­als since the times this was the bread­bas­ket of the Romans.

The Ben Hamouda sis­ters are in their thir­ties and part of a new gen­er­a­tion of olive grow­ers and pro­duc­ers whose focus is on mak­ing extra vir­gin olive oil of the high­est qual­ity. Though they’re the sixth gen­er­a­tion to tend their fam­i­ly’s land, they both left their pro­fes­sional careers to do so. In 2015, Afet quit her tourism mar­ket­ing job while Selima left her career in law to plant an olive grove and even­tu­ally launch their own brand, A&S, two years later.

Our par­ents were very encour­ag­ing and sup­port­ive of our deci­sion,” shared Afet. It was our father who said Why not plant olive trees?’ He pointed out that olive oil is a fast grow­ing indus­try in Tunisia. People are very sur­prised and curi­ous when they hear we’re olive pro­duc­ers. At first some of our friends laughed at us, but now a few have planted their own olive trees.”

Selima and Afet Ben Hamouda

We did our research and from the begin­ning, we knew that we wanted to focus on qual­ity,” Selima added, speak­ing about their approach to olive pro­duc­tion. The sis­ters trav­eled south to Sfax to attend a train­ing pro­gram by the cham­ber of com­merce cov­er­ing all aspects of olive pro­duc­tion. About half of the atten­dees were other women,” she said of the expe­ri­ence. We got lots of excel­lent infor­ma­tion and advice but also encour­age­ment and sup­port, which con­tin­ues today.” Wanting to fur­ther expand on their knowl­edge, they trav­eled to Australia next for fur­ther train­ing.

We con­tin­ued the work that our father had started on a test plot based on the prin­ci­ples of con­ser­va­tion agri­cul­ture,” Afet explained. The aim is to con­serve the rich­ness of the soil so we rotate wheat and legumes every other year, avoid till­ing the land, and con­serve plant cover to min­i­mize ero­sion and evap­o­ra­tion. We need to try to keep mois­ture as much as pos­si­ble because we don’t get much rain.”

Groves at A&S near Mateur, Tunisia

With 900 Chetoui olive trees already on their land, they decided to plant 12,000 trees of the Spanish vari­eties Arbosana and Arbquina which pro­duce fruit quickly. Also found in their groves is the Greek Koroneiki vari­ety, a pol­li­na­tor. Of course we have to defend our Tunisian vari­eties too,” Afet ponted out. So two years ago we planted nine more hectares of our native Chetoui.”

Their obses­sion with qual­ity extends to all phases of the pro­duc­tion process. In order to be able to press their olives as quickly as pos­si­ble and avoid delays at mills, they invested in their own two-phase milling machine.

Mill at A&S

This is the only way to ensure qual­ity, by hav­ing our own mill,” Selima said of their deci­sion. The oil mills in this region use a three-phase sys­tem which intro­duces water into the process and the qual­ity is not great as a result. Also, mill oper­a­tors often don’t sep­a­rate your olives from those of other pro­duc­ers so every­thing is pressed and mixed together. So hav­ing our own mill was absolutely essen­tial.”

That first taste of new oil is a very emo­tional moment,” Afet said, express­ing the magic alchemy that hap­pens when months of hard work is syn­the­sized into a green-gold liq­uid. We did­n’t really plan to have our own label, it just hap­pened. It was the log­i­cal next step.”

Awards have come quickly for their brand A&S. Last year, their medium Chetoui extra vir­gin olive oil won first prize at a national com­pe­ti­tion orga­nized by the Office National de l’Huile, while their intense fruity was awarded a fourth prize. 2018 has brought more acco­lades, with awards at well-known inter­na­tional com­pe­ti­tions like BIOL Italy, and NYIOOC, where they won a Gold Award.

These two young women who are mak­ing a mark on Tunisia’s devel­op­ing olive oil indus­try now have an eye on the future. They’re work­ing on build­ing a new build­ing with space for a tast­ing room and believe that the local indus­try needs to develop fur­ther.

Olive pro­duc­ers in Tunisia are get­ting noticed but there’s more to be done,” Afet told us. We should teach cooks how to use olive oil and there’s also the scope to cre­ate spe­cial­ized olive oil bou­tiques and develop projects in olive oil tourism. Also, pro­duc­ers need to talk more and com­mu­ni­cate. We need to cre­ate a group of pro­duc­ers work­ing together on qual­ity pro­duc­tion. It’s only together than we can pro­mote the image of Tunisian olive oil.”


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