Future regained in Tunisia

Determined partnerships can stabilize communities and reduce incentives to migrate

In Tunisia, FAO’s Rural Mobility Youth project has opened up opportunities for micro-enterprise to keep people rooted in their communities. ©Nikos Economopoulos/Magnum Photos for FAO


Sonia Mhamdi had made the mental move across the Mediterranean. Soon, she would be there in the flesh – assuming she survived the sea journey. True, she would be leaving her three children behind. But as it was, her presence at their side kept them neither warm nor fed. Her exile would. If she was to put bread on the table, it would have to be remotely.

Typical of the semi-rural clusters that dot the far hinterland of Tunis, Sonia’s town had two names but few opportunities. Known as either Amdoun or Zahret Medien, it had long been a place young people moved out of rather than into – whether two hours up the road to the capital or further beyond.

Over the last decade or so, Tunisia has developed an active civil society and political scene. Education levels are relatively high. But economic growth has struggled to take off. Joblessness cuts deep. Remittances from outward migration make up nearly 5 percent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

Yet Sonia’s own migration story is one that does not get told – because it did not happen. It is a story of co-ordinated partnerships offering people the choice to stay, when circumstances conspire to drive them out.

When FAO caught up with Sonia, she had 20 dinars to her name – at less than USD 8, it was hardly the stuff of venture capital. To suggest that her ambition to be an entrepreneur had failed would be misleading: so implausible was the idea that she had never actually formed it. And yet, with surprising alacrity, that is what Sonia became. A businesswoman. A spice merchant.

Thanks to the project, Sonia Mhamdi has swapped grinding poverty for grinding spices. Other beneficiaries have received livestock and been trained to become organic farmers. ©Nikos Economopoulos/Magnum Photos for FAO

FAO tapped into assistance from the Italian Development Cooperation to provide Sonia with spices, a grinder and lessons in business management. Before long, with her husband, sister and sister-in-law, she had begun selling aromatics and dried fruit. She put herself through further training, learning how to produce traditional foods commercially – then set up a network of agricultural suppliers, most of whom were women. Not “women holding a degree,” she insists, speaking through the fragrant waft from her store, “but poor women who are really in need. Their only degrees are their arms and their hands.”

By last year, as she swapped grinding poverty for grinding spices, departure was no longer Sonia’s default option.

Her story tells us, for one thing, that even modest seed funding and investment in knowledge transfer may change the course of multiple lives. The Rural Youth Mobility project of which Sonia was a part unfolded across Tunisia and Ethiopia: by the time it wrapped up after three years, at a cost of USD 2.5 million, it had created more than 600 jobs in both countries.

Sonia’s case confirms that in the absence of conflict or civil strife, entrepreneurship may blossom in seemingly barren conditions. It also reminds us that rural women are a largely untapped resource, with the potential to transform food supply chains and local economies. The speed and breadth of Sonia’s changing fortunes should leave us optimistic – though certainly not complacent – about the world’s ability to deliver the 2030 Agenda.

Sonia and her husband – partners in life, partners in business. ©Nikos Economopoulos/Magnum Photos for FAO

The virtues of partnerships are not new: they are the very substance of international co-operation. In the specific case of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), they are also an operational necessity. When migration is a last resort, it can slice through the heart of family life, inflame policy debates in destination countries and affect the economics of both place of origin and place of arrival.

One way to manage it is through global governance instruments. Another may well be through the conjunction of an Italian-funded spice grinder, of FAO-designed training, and of the ability of women like Sonia to bring others into the virtuous cycle of income generation, food security and economic progress. 

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1. No poverty, 5. Gender equality, 10. Reduced inequalities, 17. Partnership for the goals