Organic agriculture is relatively new in Tunisia, initiated in the 1980s through the private sector and only slowly developing up until the late 1990s. However, given the potential of this segment for Tunisia’s economy as a whole, it has benefitted from increasing attention from industry authorities since the early 2000s, which has led to much faster growth; organic-cultivated land expanded from 300 ha in 1997 to 500,000 ha in 2017. That year, the sector comprised over 3300 players and exported more than 50,000 tonnes of organic products to 60 different countries, for a total value of about TD350m (€134m). Notwithstanding recent achievements, Tunisia’s organic farming segment has potential for further growth and development.
Tunisia ranks second to Uganda in the continent in terms of land surface dedicated to organic farming. It is also the second-largest African exporter of organic products, with 80% of its production sent abroad. Tunisia’s organic production totalled 35,287 tonnes in 2016, with olive oil comprising 74% and dates making up 22%. Europe – or more specifically, Italy, France and Spain – claimed the majority of exports, followed by the US.
As with traditional olive oil crops, organic olive oil experienced fluctuating production growth, rising from 10,700 tonnes in 2014 to 60,000 tonnes in 2015, before decreasing slightly in 2016 due to the effects of drought, to stand at 30,000 tonnes in 2017. Nevertheless, Tunisia boasts a significant comparative advantage, being the only African country that has been granted the European Commission certificate of conformity to international standards for organics, including its system of quality control and development. Additionally, Tunisian exporters can obtain approval to sell their products as organic in the US market.
Given the sector’s potential, the state has developed a series of policies to boost organic production and exports. Organic agriculture is part of the Tunisia 2020 strategy, via the creation of five pilot zones specialised in organic farming, along with the development of bio-tourism clusters in all 24 governorates to promote the sector and support exports.
In the same vein, the 2016 Investment Law has granted several fiscal advantages specifically tailored to organics, including an investment premium for a period of five years and financial support for the purchase of equipment necessary for organic production. Government authorities are also partnering with private sector operators, deemed essential to the development of the segment’s potential. In May 2017 three memoranda of understanding (MoUs) were signed on a wide range of issues, including the development of exports of organic products to China, Russia, the US and Canada. One of the MOUs was signed with the state-organised Agricultural Development Group in Nefza, which outlined the goal of opening the first dairy and organic cheesemaking school in Tunisia.
Despite recent growth trends and efforts to promote organic farming in Tunisia, production remains below potential, representing 1% of the global organic market. However, according to the Ministry of Agriculture, organic-cultivated land could be quadrupled to 2m ha. The opportunity for the Tunisian agriculture sector is significant, not least because organic products are sold at a higher price compared to traditional agriculture goods; organic olive oil, for instance, is sold, on average, at a price 30% higher than traditional olive oil.
The government aims to broaden organic production to new segments by 2020, including crops, livestock and aquaculture. As a testament to its potential, an increasing number of foreign investors are turning to the Tunisian market. Fresh Del Monte, the world’s largest distributor of fruits and vegetables, announced in 2017 that it intends to invest in the country’s organic farming market and open an office in Tunis to target European and North African markets, looking specifically at early-season raisins and winter-time vegetables.