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Tunisia olive oil exporters lament missed opportunities

March 12, 2024 at 4:04 pm

Farmers harvest olives, albeit late, despite the decrease in production due to drought in Tunis, Tunisia on November 21, 2023. [Yassine Gaidi – Anadolu Agency]

Award-winning Tunisian olive oil producer, Mustapha Mtiraoui, could make far more money by exporting his produce in labelled bottles, rather than shipping it in bulk, Reuters reports.

But basic problems inside Tunisia’s olive oil sector, including access to financing, a shortage of bottling plants and the dominant position of a handful of bigger producers, makes that impossible, he says.

The difficulties faced by Mtiraoui and many other Tunisian producers should concern policy makers, anxious to bring in more foreign currency from exports as the government navigates a crisis in public finances.

Tunisia is already one of the top three olive oil exporters, with revenue hitting a record $1.3 billion last year, thanks to rising prices despite a 6 per cent fall in sales volumes.

But around 90 per cent of Tunisia’s average 220,000 tonnes-a-year olive oil output is exported unbottled, with most sold to European countries which blend it and re-export under Spanish or Italian brands, at higher prices.

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“The olive oil we produce has won several international awards but I had to sell my raw product to an Italian-Tunisian export company,” said Mtiraoui, whose olive press is in the central Tunisian town of Bouhajla.

Tunisia lacks enough bottling plants for olive oil, said Mtiraoui, and priority goes to the largest companies. Raising money to expand his operations or build a plant or necessary storage facilities himself is difficult.

“Selling bottled olive oil is more profitable but more complicated because we can’t get the preferential loans obtained by major competitors from local banks,” he said.

His comments were echoed by Mohamed Nasraoui, the head of Olive Oil Union, who called for preferential loans for the sector and for the government to help improve storage facilities to help even out the peaks and troughs of the harvest.

Mtiraoui says he produces around 40 tonnes of olive oil a day over the five-month production season, equating to around 6,000 tonnes of olive oil a year.

He sells the olive oil for around 26 dinars ($8.41) a litre. A Tunisian Agriculture Ministry official said he believed bottled olive oil would yield 30 per cent -50 per cent more profit after the cost of bottling.

Plans for output 

Small and medium sized olive oil producers, like Mtiraoui, also struggle with what they see as excessive bureaucracy and slowness in moving their product through Tunisia’s main port – a problem faced by many exporters.

The World Bank said, two years ago, that the average turnaround time for containers at Rades port was 18 days, around three times as long as ports in Morocco.

“Olive oil is an economic pillar and a wasted wealth that could save us billions of dinars annually,” Mtiraoui said.

Officials say Tunisia has ambitious plans to increase output of bottled olive oil.

TAP state news agency said last year the agriculture ministry planned to renew older olive groves with new varieties.

Moez Ben Amor, an official at the state Oil Office, said Tunisia had a special fund to help smaller olive oil producers export bottled produce and market it internationally. It has raised customs duty on bulk olive oil exports from 1 per cent to 2 per cent to fund this, he said.

Meanwhile, Tunisia is marketing its olive oil outside Europe in North America, south and East Asia, South America and Gulf States, he said.

Alert – a Tunisian civil society organisation focused on economic issues – says the market is dominated by the 10 per cent of exporters that control 70 per cent of foreign sales.

Banks provide capital and loans more easily to these companies, said Houssem Saad of Alert. He estimated that Tunisia’s 2023 revenue could have reached 8 billion dinars ($2.6 billion) if the olive oil sector had been better developed.

Saad described the industry as a “lost opportunity” for the economy.

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