N. African olive farmers press European giants

TUNIS/RABAT – The world’s growing taste for olive oil is giving new life to parts of rural North Africa, where the golden liquid has been a staple since ancient times. However, drought, archaic production methods and poor marketing are a challenge for local producers facing growing competition as more countries slip into the olive oil market. Tunisia and Morocco lack the big energy reserves of their OPEC-member neighbors Algeria and Libya and their dry, hot climates make olive oil a promising alternative export. All but 5 percent of the world’s olive trees grow around the Mediterranean. Spain dominates the industry from its power base in Martos, followed by Italy and Greece. After heavy investment in modern machinery, the quality of Tunisian olive oil has improved and industry officials in Spain say it now fetches prices similar to their own. Attempts by North Africa to narrow the gap have been welcomed by European producers unable to press enough olive oil to meet world demand as growing middle classes from Brazil to Russia acquire a taste. Tunisians, rich or poor, have honed their expertise over centuries, smothering their food in olive oil and using it in medicines, beauty products and soaps or rubbed in as a moisturiser. »I’ve kept my health, as I drink a glass of olive oil every morning and my wife uses it for every meal,» said 90-year-old Hamed, a sprightly former night security guard from Tunis. Men shake the trees More than 500,000 families rely on the olive oil business in the country of 10 million, where 56 million olive trees grow on 1.6 million hectares (4 million acres). The olive harvest between November and February sets the rhythm of the rural year and many Tunisians return to their native towns and villages to help gather the crop. Women sing traditional songs and exchange jokes as they pick up the olives shaken to the ground by the men. »My whole family is better off when we have a bumper olive harvest like this year,» said Haj Smida, a farmer near the eastern Tunisian town of el-Jem. Salem Rhaim, a 68-year-old olive oil producer, postponed his son’s wedding last year because of a poor crop. «I think we’ll have a good harvest this season,» said Rhaim. «If it’s as good as we hope, I’ll be ready to face the expensive wedding preparations.» For all the local know-how, Tunisian producers say a lot of good oil is still sold off cheaply on the local market because they lack the technology to make it export grade. Some complain businessmen have moved into olive oil just to benefit from tax breaks but what they produce is poor, threatening the industry’s brand image. Abdelmajid Mahjoub, who owns a century-old olive press in Tbourba, said poor packaging is also holding back exports. «We need to try harder on this so our products can compete with the Spanish, Greeks and Italians,» he said. In Morocco, the government is offering financial incentives to increase the area under olive cultivation to 1 million hectares (2.5 million acres) by 2010, from just 1,000 hectares (2,500 acres) in 1999. Part of the production will go to satisfy local demand in a country that imports 300,000 tons of vegetable oils a year. The gray-green trees have come to symbolize hope for many Moroccans threatened by drought or desertification, and are a potential alternative to lucrative but illegal cannabis growing. «The weather has changed in Morocco over the last 10 years and we’ve been thinking about plants that can save nature and be adapted to it,» said Mohamed Badraoui, who heads Morocco’s anti-desertification program. Morocco, like neighboring Algeria, has a long way to go to bring up to date technology that has changed little since the time of the Phoenicians. Some presses still use a donkey that walks in a circle dragging a stone or wooden mortar. «The world market has plenty of potential for growth because olive oil at the moment represents only 2.8 percent of the fat we consume,» said Jose Ramon Diez, olive expert at Spanish farm union ASAJA in Madrid. Spain’s olive harvest fell last year and some farmers in northern Morocco said Spanish traders had come to their villages asking to buy olives. Italy, the No 2 olive oil producer, buys some oil for re-export under the label «Imported from Italy» and has been helping the Tunisian industry to upgrade its machinery. Italian oil buyers say they want more consistent quality standards from North African producers. They also voice frustration at not being able to contact them directly, often having to go through intermediaries. Mauro Miloni, director of Italian olive oil industry group Unaprol’s economic observatory, said increasing exports from North Africa would help to balance a market dominated by Spain. «It is important to be able to buy olive oil of different origins,» he said. «I think in coming years, with the liberalization of trade, we can have even closer relations with the North African producers.»