Souad Maknine Mami: Best practice – Organic farming brings growth and wealth

Small country, big ambitions. Beginn­­ings on the path of organic farming in Tunisia were scattered, with a few pion­eer private initiatives dating back to the eighties and early nineties. In the wake of these, the state’s response came in 1997 when a national strategy started to take shape. In the same year, the coun­­try participated for the first time in the international trade fair Biofach. As of 1999, a legal framework was set up which has since been updated by the promulgation of several laws, decrees and orders to comply with the sector’s need for struc­­ture and encouragement. In this context, Tunisia installed a set of dedicated insti­­­tutions: the Technical Centre of Organic Agriculture (CTAB) was created in 1999 and more recently, the General Direc­­tion of Organic Agriculture. The CTAB aims to vulgarise organic culture among Tuni­­­­sian farmers. It also coordinates applied research and shares knowledge with the farmers through training sessions, events and publications. The national program­­me for organic culture aims, among others, to increase organic crops to 500.000 hec­­tares and to achieve 1 per cent of or­­ganic local consumption by 2014. In this perspective, actions are undertaken to sen­­sitize the population to healthier eating and consumption habits, such as the Organic Week or the yearly exhibition Bio Expo, to be held this year from 9 to 11 May.

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The will is clearly to encourage investment in state-of-the art organic farming: for instance, in addition to common tax breaks, organic inputs are subsidised to the limit of 30 per cent. Moreover, under certain conditions, organic producers are granted a five-year annual premium to cover up to 70 per cent of certification ex­­penses. Certification bodies approved in Tunisia are ECOCERT, IMC, BCS, LACON, ICEA, SUOLO ET SALUTE, INNORPI. These public efforts are paying off, it seems: ac­­cording to the Agricultural Investments Promotion Agency (APIA), expenditure in organic farming reached circa 7.59 mil­­lion euros, representing over 52 per cent of total registered agricultural investments in 2012. Organic farming in Tunisia also offers an attractive platform for foreign investment materialising in partnerships between Tunisian farmers and foreign in­­­­­­vestors. For instance, Italian and French operators have invested large amounts of capital in organic crops in various and sometimes remote areas of the country. Relevant authorities are currently exa­­m­­in­­­­ing a new German-Tunisian joint-ven­­­ture valued at some 3 million euros. Projec­ted activities are organic market gardening, organic breeding, organic olive, cereal and citrus farming as well as an ecolodge.
On the private operators’ side, the Tuni­sian Farmers’ and Fishermen’s Union (UTAP) created the National Federation of Organic Agriculture (FNAB) as soon as 1999, to represent organic producers’ particular interests and support the spread of organic practices among agriculturists. For instance, specific training sessions have been designed for low-income women organic farmers.

Why are Tunisian producers so keen on organic farming? First of all, a competitive advantage is conferred by the natural con­­ditions: the Tunisian soil is only slightly if not unpolluted in comparison with other countries’ intensive use of land. Moreover, Tunisia’s geothermal water resources are a valuable input in organic growing, of­­­fering enhanced gustatory properties and giving access to high-end niches. Further­­more, Tunisian producers are very atten­­tive to markets’ expectations and are con­­vinced that the demand for organic pro­­duce is a mega-trend.
Born to bi-o-live! Apart from a crunch in 2009, Tunisian organic exports have been growing steadily over the last years and nearly doubled in value between 2006 and 2012, reaching 40.5 million euros in 2012 (DGAB statistical data). As one may expect, organic extra virgin olive oil and organic dates are the two flagship exports. Olive products accounted for 76 per cent of organic exports in 2012 (cf. gra­­phic below). Tunisia is the third largest organic olive oil producer in the world: 115.000 hectares of olive groves are certified or­­­ganic and half of the produce is exported to some 50 countries among which Ger­­­­many, France, Italy and Spain are main buyers. Some Tunisian organic olive oils have even won international awards for their taste and quality. One Tunisian pro­­vider says: “It’s not just about a company winning a contest. It’s also and mostly about the recognition of the origin and quality of Tunisian organic oil in gen­­e­­­ral, as most of the Tunisian oil is still being sold in containers and bottled up by the importer along with other oils and his own oil”. In this perspective, the Pack­ag­ing Technical Centre (PACKTEC) manages the national Promotion Programme for Tunisian Olive Oil and provides advocacy for the recognition of the Tunisian “Green Gold” – preferably organic, in bottles and labelled.

Indeed, differentiating the Tunisian organic oil has allowed exporters to access new remote markets which are otherwise hyper-competitive for conventional olive oil. With more added value, the organic business is lucrative: according to inter­­viewed organic olive oil exporters, the gross profit on organic olive oil may reach the double of what it would be with con­­ventional olive oil.

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Dates are Tunisia’s second organic best-seller and account for 20 per cent of organic exports in 2012. Supply comes from the “Djerid” oases area in the south-western part of the country and is provided by 5 key-players and some 200 mid-sized to small farmers and cooperatives. One inter­­view­­ed big supplier explains that the gross profit on organic dates is 20 per cent higher than that generated by conven­­tio­nal dates. “We yearly export 12.000 tones of dates, of which 600 tones are or­­­ganic. We are the only organic date pro­­ducer with a FAIRTRADE certification in Tunisia. This certification means, for in­­stance, that we can deposit 10 cents for every kilogramme we sell in what we call our “fair-trade fund”. At the end of the year, this fund is then proportionally transferred to our 30 to 40 small suppliers. What’s more, providers generally set their prices for organic dates 15 per cent higher than for conventional dates”, he says. Other organic products are scoring well, such as prickly pears and aloe, pomegranates, tomatoes, melons, pickles, aro­­­­matic herbs, essentials oils or cereals. The Tunisian trademark “Maltaise” orange and the pomegranate of Gabès are parti­­­cularly in demand on new markets. The market for prickly-pear-based products such as extract oil and cosmetics is grow­­ing by 15 per cent yearly, according to the leading Tunisian provider. “Some of my products generate the five-fold of the added-value in comparison to common prickly-pears”, he adds. Other newcomers in organic production are honey, chicken and sheep.

Organic farming in Tunisia has a leverage effect on the whole agricultural chain. It benefits to the stakeholders involved, bringing added-value and stability to producers and labourers. It also triggers research and innovation, for example in terms of product range, fertilization and irrigation methods. Its positive effects on the environment also enable Tunisia to walk the path of sustainability in the in­­terest of future generations- the paramount stakeholder.

In close cooperation with all relevant ins­­titutions, the German-Tunisian Cham­­­­­ber of Industry and Commerce (AHK Tunisie) is dedicated to supporting the Tunisian organic producers in their export activities to Germany, for example through counselling, targeted marketing and PR acti­­vities and assistance on specific interna­­­­­tional trade fairs, such as Anuga Organic or Biofach. For more information, please contact Mrs Souad Maknine Mami (s.mami@ahktunis.org), in charge of the food-­­processing sector at the Chamber.

Souad-Mami-KopieThe author was born in 1978. Souad Mami holds a Research Master in econom­ics of tourism and sustainable development and a Master in hotel and tourism management. She has been Mana­­ger of Food-processing sector at the Tu­­ni­­sian-German Chamber of Industry and Commerce (AHK Tunisia) since 2012.