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A little water goes a long way for Tunisian olives, August 2018

15 August, 2018

At no extra cost, Tunisian olive growers are able to increase the yields and the quality of their oil. “What is this magical fairy dust they’re sprinkling on their trees?” you might ask. The answer is water.

By making better use of water, the yields and quality of olive oils can be substantially enhanced.

Last year, at a conference organised by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), local producers heard how Italian olive yields could be increased by up to 15 percent through irrigation techniques.

Keen for Tunisian growers to make similar gains, a series of water efficiency training sessions were held under the scorching sun of Sfax and Kairouan regions in Tunisia in July.

With so many people in Tunisia reliant on olive growing and oil production for their livelihoods, it’s essential that the sector becomes more efficient, especially in a country undermined by water scarcity.

Water underground

The training sessions focused on the advantages of deficit irrigation – a technique in which irrigation is applied at certain stages of a crop’s development to increase yields. If, for instance, water is applied to trees only during the most sensitive phenological phases, significant increases can be seen in the weight of the olives and, in turn, on oil quantity. 

Over sixty Tunisian olive growers were given practical tips tailored to their unique context by university professors and experts from the Tunisian Institut de l'Olivier and the Ministry of Agriculture.

Both Sfax and Kairouan regions have localised irrigation systems with deep aquifers enabling access to water, and according to Lisa Paglietti, an FAO economist, “It is essential to learn how to manage this non-renewable groundwater sparingly and sustainably whilst maximizing yields and quality and minimizing production costs.”

The participants learned that, contrastingly, persistent irrigation leads to only a minor increase in oil yields but can adversely reduce oil quality. “It seems counterintuitive, but not having full water availability creates favourable conditions for quality oils,” said Paglietti.

Tahar Fourati, a farmer from Sfax, is eager to see results: “Olive trees are tolerant to water stress and able to survive in extreme conditions, but even so, normally our orchards yield small quantities of olives. We’re hoping that, using these new techniques, we’ll see an increase in the quantity and quality of our oils.”

Demonstrating best practices

A pilot project conducted by FAO, the EBRD and the Institut de l’Olivier in two mills, tested the impact of other minor measures, including harvesting time, transportation and storage techniques on oils. The results were remarkable, signalling great increases in the quality of oil, demonstrating the effectiveness of training.

The best practices have since been developed into a series of posters (on production, processing and transportation and storage) in both French and Arabic and distributed to Tunisian growers by olive oil associations and government.

A broader strategy

The EBRD and FAO have also been supporting the sector through the olive oil policy dialogue-working group (WG), which aims to share best practices and build capacity among its members. The WG has recently submitted its strategic and operational plan to the Tunisian government, detailing it’s suggestions to strengthen existing markets and develop new ones.

According to Natalia Zhukova, Director, Head of Agribusiness, “With the development of high quality and value-added products, such as organic extra virgin olive oil, Tunisian oil will become more competitive at home and abroad. This will certainly help producers and processors achieve higher prices, and we are committed to building on the work done so far to ensure the sector’s long-term sustainability.”

Alongside technical assistance, the EBRD has invested approximately EUR 45 million in the olive oil sector in the southern and eastern Mediterranean region over the last 6 years.

Read the EBRD and FAO’s value chain analysis of the Tunisian olive oil sector in French and recently released in Arabic here.

Read how EBRD and FAO support sustainable olive oil production in Tunisia here and in Arabic here

Read about Tunisian olive oil: branching out here

Read about Raising the profile of Tunisian olive oil here and in Arabic here.