Rainfall helping, Tunisian minister sees ‘good’ crops this year

Sunday 23/04/2017
Crucial sector. Tunisian Minister of Agriculture Samir Bettaieb speaking to The Arab Weekly. (Khaoula Ben Amara)

Tunis - Tunisia, shaking off a lengthy drought that led to the country’s first cuts in drinking water in 60 years, expected bumper harvests of grains and olive oil this year, its agricul­ture minister said, good news for the country’s severely challenged economy.

“After two years of severe drought, the situation looks relatively good this year. We prepared very well for the agriculture season. We worked hard in preparing very well all the sides of the agricultural campaign this year,” Tunisian Minister of Agriculture Samir Bettaieb said.

“The rainfall helped us. The levels of rain were better than in the previous year. We expect a good grain harvest and an excellent olive oil crop.”

Bettaieb said: “We will come close to the exceptional record of olive oil exports of 2015 even if we will not exactly match that record.”

Agriculture is central to the Tunisian economy, accounting for 12-16% of its gross domestic product. The farming sector provides jobs for 22% of the country’s labour force, mostly women.

Tunisia’s key crop exports are olive oil, dates and citrus.

Bettaieb gave no figures on the expected grain harvest but described the harvest for the 2016- 17 period as “good.” Farmers and experts estimate that cereal output will include 1.5 million tonnes of wheat and barley, about 15% higher than in 2016.

Farmers in the main grain-producing areas of northern Beja, El Kef and Siliana said crop production would have set a record this season if not for the lack of rainfall during February and the first three weeks of March, when cereal plants needed irrigation to develop and produce good yields.

Tunisia relies heavily on grain imports, mainly wheat, even in good production years. For 2015- 16, the country’s cereal import needs were 3.6 million tonnes, 20% higher than the previous year and 15% more than the 5-year average.

Despite the country’s high import dependency, changes in international grain prices do not fully translate into changes in domestic prices, mainly due to government subsidies.

If Bettaieb’s expectations for “excellent” olive oil output year and an increase in the sale and export of dates are met, Tunisia’s trade gap would be eased.

“Date exports from October 1, 2016, to April 18, 2017, rose to 76,000 tonnes versus 66,000 tonnes last year and to 13.5% in value to [$174 million]. This means it is a very good season,” Bettaieb said.

Tunisia’s trade deficit increased 57% in the January-March period over the previous year to $1.67 billion due to soaring imports, data from the government-run National Institute of Statistics indicated.

Tunisia’s olive oil exports represent 40% of its agricultural exports and 10% of total exports.

Tunisia will not experience limits on drinking water this summer but the relatively good weather this year is no cure for the country’s structural weakness.

“The main problem for Tunisia’s agriculture is the limited size of most farms and this is an obstacle to upgrading and modernising agriculture,” said Bettaieb, pointing out that there are challenges to making the farming sector attractive to young people from underdeveloped regions, where increasingly restive populations claim access to the same opportunities as the relatively well-off coastal regions.

“The other problem is the rising number of ageing farmers, with their average age at 59 years, as youth are reluctant to take over. Youth want modernised agriculture and see themselves better in the processing segment of agriculture,” he said.

“Our main focus is to work in these areas of interests to develop and transform agriculture into a more attractive and productive sector.”

Bettaieb, who is a leader of the socialist-leaning Al Massar (Social Democratic Path) party, said: “We came with a vision to transform and develop agriculture, which had been, in the past, like a subsidiary of the Trade Ministry as it had the main goal to fill the needs of consumers for agricultural products.”

Al Massar is part of the national unity government coalition led by Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, who is a farming expert by training.

“Our priority is to achieve this goal but we need to develop our natural resources such as the quality of farming land and water,” said Bettaieb.

Bettaieb sought to reassure Tunisians about the supply of drinking water.

“Summer last year was very difficult as Tunisia experienced its first crisis of water supply. Supply of drinking water was cut in some regions for the first time because the system of water supply that had been built since independence (in 1956) gave the sentiment to Tunisians that the country is rich in water,” he said.

“When we had that water cut, it felt like a shame but we have a system in water management that is sound and solid. That system reached its limits.”

To prevent a repeat of water cuts, authorities worked to bolster water supply by repairing leaks, drilling wells and setting up small mobile desalination plants in larger coastal cities.

The government plans to expand water resources by constructing larger desalination units in Sfax, Gabes and Djerba in the coming period, Bettaieb added.