Interview: Abdelmajid Ezzar
What risks would be created for Tunisian farmers after the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) with the EU is ratified?
ABDELMAJID EZZAR: The DCFTA would for the first time open up Tunisia’s agricultural sector to direct competition with its European counterpart. It is important to note that the vast majority of Tunisian farmers cultivate between five and 10 ha. Most Tunisian farmers lack the scale, structure and support necessary to compete internationally. Given the agricultural sector’s lack of competitiveness, the DCFTA would create risks ranging from a decrease in the profitability of the sector to the disappearance of an entire class of professionals. Tunisian agricultural products are not economically viable and activity is unsustainable unless the government provides subsidies. The agricultural sector’s weaknesses make it necessary for the EU to help Tunisia modernise by providing technical, financial and developmental support for the industry.
Indeed, it is unreasonable to demand that countries from the global South restructure their agriculture sectors in such a short time when it took Europe decades to do so. Achieving free trade between the EU and Tunisia can only be done after implementing a five-to-10-year modernisation programme, during which impact studies can guide reforms related to irrigation, training, infrastructure and the strengthening of farming cooperatives.
Who would be among the beneficiaries after the implementation of the DCFTA?
EZZAR: One main beneficiary would be the Tunisian consumer, who would have access to a more abundant and diverse supply of food products. However, the benefits to consumers would depend on the value of the dinar against the euro. Another winner could potentially be some Tunisian agro-industrial companies, such as those in the olive oil sector. Nevertheless, the precise level of competitiveness of these products would be further understood by undertaking comprehensive economic impact studies.
How can the government reinforce the competitiveness of farmers and significantly modernise agro-industrial companies?
EZZAR: Government intervention is essential when it comes to improving the ability of farmers to compete. The agricultural sector needs both public and private investment. Until now, it has not benefited from a modernisation programme. Such a programme should focus on improving parameters affecting the profitability of the sector, such as management, cultivation techniques, marketing, quality, labelling and the promotion of products. For example, one challenge relates to land fragmentation. Tunisian tradition discourages the selling of family land, which makes it difficult to aggregate properties that allow for economies of scale. Reinforcing the competitiveness of the Tunisian economy has become a national objective, and any sectoral strategy should take into account the medium and long term.
What other measures would help Tunisia increase its agricultural exports?
EZZAR: The Tunisian market has an oversupply of agricultural goods and foreign markets are the only outlet for this excess supply, which is why promoting exports is so crucial – not only to traditional networks, but also to new markets like Sub-Saharan Africa and Russia. First, the government can boost productivity – and thereby exports – by improving the country’s transport infrastructure. Tunisia must revamp and further develop logistics networks connecting the country. Second, the government should offer fiscal incentives and subsidies to encourage farmers to respect European norms. Third, the marketing of agricultural products is one of the sector’s weak links, and improving that would significantly boost exports.
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