There are two types of products available in the thirty or so organic retail stores across Tunisia: processed products (soap, make-up, lotions, oils) and agricultural products (fruits, vegetables, grains). The first category can be found in abundance on store shelves, with some businesses selling them exclusively.

Farmers’ Seeds Festival. Credit: Tunisian Association of Permaculture

Lack of Diversity

Sarra S’hili, the co-manager of Elixir, an 80-hectare organic farm in Oudhna (Ben Arous), is among the rare operations which provides both types of products. Elixir produces approximately one ton of organic goods per year, a large proportion of which are fruits and vegetables. S’hili points a finger at the government’s lack of efforts targeting the domestic market.

«There is very little assistance for producers in the distribution of their products. There is also a lack of focus on raising citizens’ awareness of the environmental and health benefits associated with organically-grown goods. Finally, I don’t understand why the Ministry of Agriculture focuses exclusively on olives and dates, and fails to consider other sectors for which there is a great deal of demand. Vegetable crops, for example, do not interest them. They are not interested in diversifying production».

The lack of diversity constitutes a major problem for Tunisia’s organic sector. Samia Maamer, who supervises the General Directorate of Organic Agriculture (DGAB) which has been promoting organic within Ministry of Agriculture since 2010, explains:

«The number of operators (producers, processors and exporters) has reached 7,218. Surface area dedicated to organic production, however, has been dominated by oleoculture, specifically olive trees and the olive oil industry, which makes up 70% of the total. Dates also occupy a large proportion of this surface area. These crops are easily convertible to organic methods and represent a significant demand within the international market. This represented an opportunity for Tunisia to position itself within the international market. Surface area planted with market crops, on the other hand, remains limited, owing to limited local demand and the absence of organized distribution circuits».

Nevertheless, Maamer’s department «has been able to set up niche export markets for organic vegetables, especially geothermically grown crops».

Credit: Elixir.

A market dedicated to export

Interestingly, organic exports are doing well, in contrast with organic goods in the local market. With good reason: from the very beginning, Tunisia’s strategy for organic production was conceived for export.

Towards the end of the 1990s, Tunisia jumped onto the bandwagon of organic production as the global agro-food industry was being called into question by recurring food scandals. The use of synthetic chemical products and genetically modified organisms (GMO) was denounced from all sides for the harm inflicted upon health. A widespread attempt to break away from the chemical-intensive «conventional» agricultural practices widely adopted after World War II sought to revive healthier, more organic methods. In 1999, the Tunisian government created Law 30 concerning organic agriculture, and started to export olive oil and dates, primarily towards European countries. From the very outset, general policies were designed more to fill the government’s pockets with foreign currency earned from the country’s ancestral goods than they were to encourage farmers to adopt new ecological practices—even though this last concern exists on paper, under Law 30.

The surface area of organically-grown crops rose from only 300 hectares in 1996 to over 335 thousand hectares in 2020, making Tunisia the first country in Africa and the 29th worldwide in terms of surface area devoted to organic production. The same year, the DGAB celebrated the fact that the quantity of Tunisia’s exported organic products rose to 85 million tons, for a total value of 710 million dinars. During this time, not a single statistic was published regarding the still negligeable domestic market.

The issue of certification

Production costs are so high that producers who wish to target the local market cannot make it. The intensive cultivation that organic production involves requires a considerable workforce. Add to this the organic label certification which guarantees that a product complies with the standards established by the government. The label, granted by private laboratories, must be renewed annually.

The expenses associated with this process are explained by Bochra Gheriani, former marketing officer of an organic cosmetic brand:

There are two kinds of certifications: one for agricultural products and another for processed products. Which means that a producer must pay for two kinds of certifications per year, if his or her activities are dive

The cost of certification, while not an issue for most operators who export in large quanitities, can constitute a heavy burden for operations focused on the local market. This has especially been the case ever since the government stopped offering financial assistance to domestically-focused producers. Yosra Chaibi who is secretary general of Unobio, a union in Sidi Rezig comprised of 70 organic operators, says,

Until 2017, the government provided producers with a 70% subsidy for the cost of certification. This subsidy was cut, which put small producers at an even greater disadvantage and partly explains the difficulties they face in positioning themselves within the local market.

Samia Maamer promises the imminent return of this subsidy, «which was discreetly suspended by the 2017 investment code».

Products too expensive

Started in 2015, the Elixir farm showcases its products not in Ben Arous, but in Mutuelleville, a neighborhood of Tunis where consumers can afford produce at a price that is 20-100% more per kilo than conventionally grown fruits and vegetables. Sarra S’hili concedes that organic is not yet accessible to everyone. Sociology also remains an important factor. Much more important in Tunisia than in Western countries, as has become apparent by the emergence of organic businesses across a small handful of Tunisia’s upscale neighborhoods.

«It is first of all a niche market; secondly, it’s an urban business, based in affluent neighborhoods. And even within this category, among regular clients, there are not many Tunisians. The regulars are generally European ex-pats», observes Bochra Gheriani.

The higher prices thus contribute to product gentrification, discouraging the average consumer. But Yosra Chaibi reframes the question:

Is conventional produce being sold at its fair value? Does selling a kilo of tomatoes for only one dinar, for example, cover the farmer’s costs? I’m not so sure. We also have to think about the social aspect of a farmer’s labor, whether organic or conventional. The compensation that farmers receive for their work is very little.

Considered in this light, organic becomes an indicator of farmers’ social conditions: poorly recognized and poorly paid, their work seems to lack symbolic value from the standpoint of the general population.

Solutions underway

While admitting that national strategies have not born the anticipated results, Samia Maamer mentions that there are several new projects to come: awareness-raising campaigns, the introduction of organic products in hospitals and clinics for cancer patients. And an important event coming up in 2024: the Organic World Congress, where over 3,000 operators from the five continents will come to reflect on this issue, among others.

Until then, «everyone must lend a hand» to help encourage domestic consumption, according to Maamer, who has defended organic production from her position within the Ministry of Agriculture since the mid-1990s.

Generally speaking, consumers must be able to purchase from the market all the ingredients they need to prepare lunch. This is not currently the case, since fresh produce is still almost inexistant. There is a lack of organization. Retailers do not sign cultivation contracts with producers. They buy day-to-day, in minimal quantities, which keeps farmers in a vulnerable situation. The distribution circuit is weak. Consumers do not speak up to communicate what their needs are. This is why export to countries where this circuit is already locked in remains stronger than the local market for organic products .

Civil society is coming up with its own solutions. According to Unobio, streamlining logistics is one approach that would make products accessible throughout the large-scale distribution circuits (supermarkets and superstores). For now, organic products remain scattered, while conventional products are all available in one place, at wholesale markets. Large retail stores don’t want to deal with a bunch of separate operators. For Unobio, the solution is thus to create a centralized platform for organic products.

Regarding the cost-heavy process for organic certification, the Tunisian Permaculture Association (ATP) has developed an alternative label, based on «a participative guarantee system»:

«Certification is a bit like the PCR test. You have to do it in order to enter into the circuit. But in the end, it’s the labs who make a lot of money! So we have developed a system based on trust between producer and consumer. This system will become operative in 14 months. It will not be a private agency that ensures quality control, as is currently the case. Instead, this control will be a collaboration between consumer and producer. It will be much less expensive», explains Rim Mathlouthi, journalist and member of the ATP.

Rim Mathlouthi. Crédit : Modjo – IFT

Although it will not be recognized at the level of export, this label could contribute to reducing production costs and therefore market prices for Tunisian consumers.

Tunisia’s domestic organic market has yet to gain the recognition and attention it deserves—not only in the eyes of the government, but also producers, retailers and consumers. This point may, in fact, be to its advantage, in light of the increasing food crises, health issues and product shortages that continue to challenge the conventional market.