On the road to Zelfen, Tunisia, fields of prickly pear trees stretch as far as the eye can see: this plant is a "godsend" for this deprived region thanks to the anti-wrinkle oil that is extracted from it, which is very popular in cosmetics.
"Here is the capital of the prickly pear," says Mohamed Rochdi Bannani proudly. It is one of the first in Tunisia to have invested in the processing of the seeds of the fruits of this cactus, to produce the precious and expensive oil - 350 euros per liter - increasingly sought after internationally for its anti-aging properties.
Owner of 420 hectares of certified organic fair trade prickly pear trees in Zelfen (central west), he produces 2,000 liters per year of oil from fig seeds, 95% of which is exported.
"This fruit has changed my life and that of the region. It has created wealth in an area where the prickly pear was a symbol of poverty," confided to AFP Mr. Bannani, 52, surveying his field at the end of the harvest period.
Zelfen, in the heart of the governorate of Kasserine characterized by a poverty rate of 33% and 20% unemployment, has found with this fruit a source of local development.
About 30,000 hectares, including 3,000 hectares of organic fig trees, are cultivated in this small town bordering Algeria.
The sector employs more than 5,000 people, according to Boubaker Raddaoui, in charge of the sector for the Market Access Project for Agri-Food and Terroir Products (PAMPAT), supported by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO).
Tunisia ranks fifth in the world in terms of area cultivated prickly pear for commercial purposes with 117,771 ha, behind Brazil, Mexico, Ethiopia and Morocco.
The North African country,
Nearly 8,000 liters were exported in 2021 for a turnover of 5 million euros, according to PAMPAT, which, since 2013, trains producers and helps them to organize in professional circuits.
"Exports jumped by 50% between 2019 and 2021, which shows us the attractiveness of the sector and the increase in demand from one year to another," Raddaoui said.
The dynamism of the sector is such that the country has gone from five processing companies (mainly focused on oil) in the early 2000s to 55 in 2021, including 11 in the region of Zelfen, organized into cooperatives.
"Before, everyone wanted to leave (the region). Today, it is history thanks to the oil," says Hamza Rochdi, a young farmer who cultivates the 40 hectares of family land.
"Thanks to the growing interest in this fruit, our working conditions have improved," says Hanane Messaoudi, who has been picking figs for seven years and is now paid the minimum wage (nearly 500 dinars per month, about 150 euros).
"Not very demanding"
The prickly pear has the added advantage of not fearing the arid soil, for a country where water is becoming rarer, as in the entire region.
Tunisia has fallen well below the threshold of water shortage, estimated at 1,700 m3 per capita, with only 428 m3 per capita per year, according to the latest official figures dating from 2004.
"The prickly pear is undemanding, adapts to several types of soil and consumes little water. It is an ecological boon," said Raddaoui.
In the footsteps of Zelfen, other regions are interested in this culture, like Nabeul (northeast) and Kairouan (center).
This craze has its limits, however, because of difficulties in entering very dynamic markets such as Japan or South Korea.
For the moment, Mohamed Rochdi Bannani transforms only 20% of his annual production (20,000 tons of fruit) into oil because of "marketing problems. "The markets are not 100% open," he regrets.
In addition, even if it is sold at a high price in the form of cosmetics, "the oil of prickly pear is expensive to produce," notes Salim Benmiled, who created in 2020 a processing plant in Thala, near Zelfen.