Green shoots in the desert

Sustainable dates and the future of Tunisia

October 2014 saw Tunisia’s first fully democratic elections in decades. While the economic benefits have yet to materialise, dates and agriculture in general could be a key tool in boosting Tunisia’s economy and development.

Sustainable dates 02

Valuable agricultural export

Grown in Ancient Egypt, and cited in both the Bible and the Koran, dates have been a constant in the cuisine and history of the Middle East and North Africa.

In Tunisia, they are one of the country’s most valuable agricultural exports, particularly the much sought after Deglet Nour variety.

But smallholder producers in Tunisia face obstacles: lack of irrigation, low yields, disease, seasonality of demand and limited financing.

Lack of development in rural areas

The October 2014 democratic elections were the outcome of a process set in motion by the 2011 revolution, which led to the overthrow of President Ben Ali after nearly twenty-five years of autocratic stagnation.

Characterised by corruption, nepotism and a complete absence of reform, the Ben Ali years saw little in the way of development, especially in rural areas.

Restoring the economy

Despite a sharp decline in political violence, structural issues (including high unemployment and crumbling infrastructure) present considerable barriers to progress.

Consequently agriculture – which represents one fifth of employment and one tenth of GDP, rising to 50% in rural areas – will be crucial in restoring the economy and raising living standards after years of neglect.

Sustainable solution

One Tunisian producer – Beni Ghreb – may represent a small example of a sustainable solution.

In the years leading up to Beni Ghreb’s foundation, life for the village of Hazoua had become progressively more difficult.

Founded in 2002, Beni Ghreb is an exporter of dates based in Hazoua, a village next to the border with Algeria and 250km from the coast.

Of the 800 families in Hazoua, Beni Ghreb works with 360, collecting and processing dates exclusively from a group of smallholder farmers called the Groupement de Développement de l’Agriculture Bio-Dynamique (GDABD).

“From the 1960s onward water. Water access was increasingly degraded by big projects in the region, and the quality and volume of our output declined.”, explained Sadok Saidi, Beni Ghreb CEO.

Disinterested government

With little help from a disinterested government, farmers saw their revenues plummet, while local youths left in droves, many of them attempting the infamous crossing to Lampedusa.

After many years of operating (including ten with Fairtrade certification), Beni Ghreb has used its position as a producer of high quality, organic dates to increase the price received by its farmers by 50%.

Successful irrigation system

Beni Ghreb has also introduced a new irrigation system that provides water every three days – no mean feat with less than 50mm of rain per year.

Average date weights for the group now stand at 12g (compared to the standard weight of 8g), while volumes have grown from 189 MT in 2010/11 to 380 MT in 2012/13.

Farmer Mohammed Ben Bechi Saidi said: “With the irrigation system, I have been able to do in six months what I have been trying to achieve in 15 years.” 

Coupled with other projects, ranging from compost stations to mosquito nets, to protect the dates, Beni Ghreb has been able to boost local employment and production.

Coping with supply and demand

Nevertheless, Beni Ghreb still faces the challenge of coping with seasonality of supply and demand.

Although the two broadly correspond (the harvest season runs from October to December, with demand peaking at Christmas), the gap between paying farmers early (to help with the cost of harvesting) and payment from buyers on delivery can hamper producer organizations.

Sustainable dates

Limited financing

With domestic banking still relatively underdeveloped, financing is very limited.

“Commercially it can be hard for us to find buyers to purchase the product straightaway,” said Sadok Saidi. “If we can’t pay farmers up front, they will go to middlemen elsewhere, even if that means getting a lower price.”

Short-term financing to cover working capital requirements

responsAbility has been working with Beni Ghreb since 2012, and in the sustainable agri-business sector since 2003.

“The funding from responsAbility-managed funds gave us the chance to buy from an additional 30 to 40 farmers at higher prices than they would have received elsewhere – this funding has brought hope for many of the region’s farmers,” says Sadok Saidi.

Transforming the local economy

In May 2014, on National Agricultural Day, Hazoua hosted the Minister of Agriculture, and another sixty visitors from major national and international institutions. They heard how Beni Ghreb had helped to transform the local economy.

In the past, the state consumed everything. Now the government is paying more attention to private initiatives like Beni Ghreb and is starting to understand the power of small enterprises, especially co-operative agricultural organizations.

Successful transition

The agreement on a new constitution, coupled with the formation of a caretaker government, has led many to hope that Tunisia will be able to achieve a successful transition to democratic government. 

“The revolution has created hope, even if mistakes have been made,” said Sadok Saidi. “Before, we could not speak, we were only allowed to applaud. Now we have a national dialogue; now we are communicating.”

The source for all information mentioned herein is responsAbility Investments AG unless not mentioned otherwise.