Tunisian olive oil production faces challenges at home and abroad

Friday 04/12/2015
A woman harvests olives in the village of Mornag, near Tunis, on November 6th. The olive harvest season in Tunisia begins in late October.

Tunis - Tunisia’s 2015 olive oil harvest will not be at the level of the previous crop, which had made the North African country the second largest producer of olive oil in the world. However, this year’s production is still expected to keep Tunisia among the world’s top exporters.
“This year’s olive oil harvest is not as good as the one of last season but it is not catastrophic either,” said Abdelmajid Azzar, chairman of the farmers’ UTAP union.
“There is a decline in some olive oil producing regions and rise in other areas. That puts olive oil production this year at around 200,000 tonnes.”
Tunisia’s olive oil exports account for 40% of its agricultural exports and 10% of total exports. That represents about 70% of all the olive oil the country produces.
Between 60-70% of Tunisia’s olive oil is exported to the European Union. Tunisian olive oil is also sold to more than 60 markets around the world, including the United States, Canada, France, Russia, China and a few Arab countries.
Tunisia in 2014 was second in global olive oil output when its yields reached 300,000 tonnes, a more than fourfold increase from the 70,000 tonnes harvested in 2013. Spain’s production has been estimated at more than 600,000 tonnes, making it the top world producer.
Spain and Italy together represent 70% of the world’s olive oil output but both countries have suffered relatively poor harvests recently because of weather conditions and olive fly infestations. Tunisia, on the other hand, has had exceptionally good yields.
As a result, olive oil prices soared, surpassing global inflation rate for packaged foods by 3.7% in 2014 when Oil World reported that the price of Spanish extra virgin olive oil hit its highest level since April 2006 — $4,272 a tonne.
“A very good olive oil production from the olive oil producing of (southern Tunisian) region Medenine has offset the fall in other traditional producing areas to give the country a not bad harvest this year,” said Azzar without estimating olive oil exports.
Tunisia, which has 80 million olive trees covering 1.8 million hectares — about one-third of its agricultural land — alternates bumper and poor harvests as most of its groves are not irrigated and rainfall can be inconsistent.
About 30,000 producers earn at least part of their revenues from olive production going through more than 1,700 mills.
The unexploited potential of the sector is high but Tunisian olive sector still faces many challenges. In great part, tree cultivation and olive gathering and processing rely on traditional methods. Non-mechanised harvest operations guarantee employment for thousands of Tunisians but can damage the quality of the final product.
About 75% of Tunisian olive oil is exported in bulk. Italian and Spanish importers covet Tunisia’s relatively low-cost and easily blendable product, which they bottle and sell worldwide under Italian and Spanish labels. With the low international profile of its olive oil, Tunisia misses on the added value of bottled exports.
According to official Tunisian figures, the difference between the price of bulk and bottled olive oil is about 25% and the country has yet to find ways to recover that margin.
Experts also say quality protocols and modernisation of the production process are needed in order protect the quality of a production that is almost totally biological.
To help Tunisia weather the adverse economic fallout of terrorist incidents of March and June, the European Union raised its annual duty-free quota for the import of Tunisian olive oil from 57,600 to 92,000 tonnes for a two-year period, starting January 2016. Although the move was welcomed in Tunisia as a needed gesture, it was strongly criticised by European olive oil producers. Lamine Ghanmi is a veteran former Reuters journalist. He has covered North Africa for decades and is based in Tunis.
Aldo Pesce is a freelance writer based in Italy. He reported from Bari, Italy.