Turning Tunisia’s magnificent olives into liquid gold


Globally-recognized food quality certification set to boost revenues for local olive oil producers

The Investment Centre of FAO and the EBRD are supporting Tunisia in restructuring and modernizing its olive oil industry to boost its international reputation and make Tunisian olive oil a more common sight in food shops around the globe. ©FAO/ Riccardo de Luca

24/11/2023

Olive production dates back thousands of years and continues to play a vital role in Tunisia's economy to this day, with olive groves covering about a third of the North African country's arable land. However, while Tunisia ranks third among the top exporters of olive oil in the world, most of its oil is sold in bulk.

That is now changing.

The Investment Centre of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) are supporting efforts by the Tunisian government to restructure and modernize the industry to boost its international reputation and make Tunisian olive oil a common sight on supermarket shelves and food shops around the globe.

Since 2013, FAO and EBRD have been actively supporting the improvement of quality and efficiency standards in Tunisia's olive oil sector. The long-term vision is for Tunisia to play a more significant role in international olive oil markets. To support the country in achieving this, FAO and EBRD – with funding from the European Union and other donors – initiated activities to strengthen Tunisian olive oil's competitiveness and recognition. That includes working with more than 100 small- and medium-sized companies to improve their food safety and quality standards.

In this context, FAO and the EBRD closely supported two olive oil companies in obtaining the rigorous British Retail Consortium (BRC) certification – one of the highest levels of food safety and quality certifications accepted globally.

Olive oil production in Tunisia surged to around 350 000 tonnes in the 2019-2020 harvest but has since fallen mainly due to climate conditions, with projections pointing to around 180 000 tonnes for the 2022-2023 harvest. Given the Tunisian government’s ambitions of stabilizing production and increasing the quality of the country's olive oil, such certification can open doors to new markets and add value to a producer’s olive oil.

Boosting market recognition

High-quality Tunisian olive oil, which is made from local varieties, such as the robust, spicy Chetoui olive or the delicate, almond-flavoured Chemlali one, has already been winning international acclaim and prestigious awards for years. However, the lack of globally recognized food safety certification prevents many smaller companies from entering high-end export markets.

Obtaining the BRC certification is expensive and challenging, requiring highly detailed knowledge and rigorous application, as well as trained personnel and suitable infrastructure. But given the current demand by buyers for quality and safety assurances, certification can strengthen a company’s credibility and recognition and help them stay competitive in a crowded market.

FAO and the EBRD supported olive oil companies in obtaining the British Retail Consortium food safety and quality certification. This certification can strengthen a company’s credibility, recognition and competitiveness. ©EBRD/ Dermot Doorley

Raising quality, from the field to the shelf

FAO and the EBRD have been supporting efforts by local producers to raise the quality and profile of their olive oils, from the field to the shop shelf. This includes applying food safety and quality standards at every stage of the production chain, from better cultivation and harvesting techniques to the timely transportation of olives, as well as proper processing, storage and packaging. Certification of these standards is crucial for exports.

Mohamed Amine Sifaoui, head of Bizerta Agri Industry – one of the companies supported by the FAO-EBRD project – says discussions with several prospective clients would halt once they “mentioned their BRC requirement.”

To help Bizerta Agri obtain BRC certification, FAO and the EBRD conducted seminars, workshops and one-on-one technical training on BRC food safety rules and principles. The project also assisted with inspections and the auditing process.

Now that Bizerta Agri Industry is in the final stages of BRC certification, the company anticipates more consistent orders and higher volumes for themselves and their suppliers.

“In two years, we expect to have at least 20 percent, even 30 percent, additional revenues due to the BRC certification,” Sifaoui says. “The certification also assures our current clients that we have met the highest global food safety and quality standards, while in parallel enabling access to exports for our small- and medium-sized olive oil producers.”  

For Sifaoui, the process also “upgraded the mindset” of his company’s employees and raised awareness about the relevance of evaluating and selecting the right olive oil suppliers, one of which is Domaine Fendri.

“I was born into olive oil,” says owner Slim Fendri, whose family has been producing olive oil since the 19th century. By improving production practices and investing in modern equipment, “we have made enormous progress in terms of quality since 2017, making Tunisian varieties like Chemlali known to the world,” he says. 

While smaller suppliers, such as Domaine Fendri, often choose not to obtain BRC certification themselves, they benefit from working with larger companies, like Bizerta Agri, which have more capacity to undertake this process.

BRC certification “is a must for anyone who wants to sell their bottled oil to chain stores, small or large,” Fendri says.

The support from FAO and the EBRD to Tunisia falls under a broader push to help countries across the southern and eastern Mediterranean develop more resilient, inclusive and sustainable olive oil industries. This involves everything from training on better pruning techniques and marketing, to helping private companies work with the public sector to shape a shared vision for the industry.

The support from FAO and the EBRD to Tunisia falls under a broader push to help countries across the southern and eastern Mediterranean develop more resilient, inclusive and sustainable olive oil industries. ©Domaine Fendri

A tree of economic and historical importance

Olive trees in these countries are not just of economic importance but a revered part of their heritage.

Tunisia's history with olives dates to pre-Roman times, and its oldest tree, named Zaytounet Lakarit, sprawls across an area of 2 000 square metres and is estimated to be around 2 500 years old.

“These trees are also a source of inspiration,” says Fendri.

“In my family, we greatly respect the olive tree and the olive oil it produces, and our search for quality never stops,” he notes. “We are constantly learning from this magnificent tree.”


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