Libya’s ‘green gold’ olive industry hit by export ban

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A Libyan man sorts olives in the town of Tarhuna (80 kms) south of Tripoli, on November 11, 2018. (AFP)
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Libyans inspect the production of olive oil in the Libyan town of Tarhuna (80 kms) south of Tripoli, on November 11, 2018. (AFP)
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Libyan children help harvesting olives in the town of Tarhuna (80 kms) south of Tripoli, on November 11, 2018. (AFP)
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Libyans inspect the production of olive oil in the Libyan town of Tarhuna (80 kms) south of Tripoli, on November 11, 2018. (AFP)
Updated 27 December 2018

Libya’s ‘green gold’ olive industry hit by export ban

  • Exports of Libya’s most emblematic products — namely dates, honey and olive oil — have been halted since 2017
  • Only two percent of Libya’s 1.7 million square kilometers is arable land, in a country famed for vast swathes of desert

TARHUNA, Libya: Stretching as far as the eye can see, groves of gnarled olive trees in northwest Libya have proudly withstood the country’s devastating conflicts.
But the industry of extracting olive oil, often dubbed “green gold,” is now under threat after Libyan authorities halted exports in a bid to “protect” local produce.
Libya has depended heavily on exports of its ample crude oil reserves since the 2011 fall of longtime ruler Muammar Qaddafi.
The North African nation, mired in bitter internal conflicts since Qaddafi’s ouster, has failed to diversify its economy despite the enormous potential of its tourism and fisheries industries. Authorities repeatedly express their desire to develop the promising olive oil industry. But in Tarhuna, farmers and workers at olive presses view such pledges with skepticism. “We constantly have problems getting spare parts, which are getting expensive because of the collapse of the dinar against the dollar, but also because of the cost of the oil extraction process,” said Zahri Al-Bahri, owner of a press in Tarhuna. On his farm, olives heavy with oil are harvested by hand in order not to damage the trees.
Laid out on huge sheets, the ripened crop is transported in flour sacks to the presses where their rich, redolent oil is carefully extracted.
“There is enough production in Libya,” said Bahri. “I don’t understand why we can’t export anymore.” Exports of Libya’s most emblematic products — namely dates, honey and olive oil — have been halted since 2017. A decree at the time said the suspension would be “temporary” to meet domestic market needs.
But no date has yet been set to resume exports. Justifying the ban, an official in the agriculture ministry said produce had been “exported in bulk at low prices and without adding value for the Libyan economy,” leaving domestic demand for oil to be met by expensive imports.
Frustrated farmers continue to grapple with a dearth of specialized bottling and packaging plants, leaving them unable to climb the value chain.

Although olive trees have grown on the Libyan coast for centuries, most of the current groves were planted by Italian settlers in the 1930s.
“My farm has existed for almost 90 years when Italians occupied Libya and brought the land back to life,” Ali Al-Nuri, a farm owner in Tarhuna, told AFP, posing proudly in a grove. Libya, the 11th largest olive producer in the world, grows around 150,000 tons of the crop annually.
But only 20 percent is turned into oil, well behind neighbors Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization.
Nuri emphasises the industry requires more attention and resources to prosper, beginning with better irrigation in this desert region, as well as state help to ensure quality control and set up bottling factories. And while cheaper, imported alternatives to olive oil — such as corn oil — have become part of Libyan cuisine, “olive oil remains (the) paramount” choice among householders, Nuri said.
Olive trees, he recalled, had “saved” Libyans during lean periods before the discovery of crude oil in the late 1950s. The olive tree was a “nourishing mother,” he maintained.
Among the hundreds of olive trees on Nuri’s vast farm, there is a particularly rare variety — white olives. Originating in Tuscany in northern Italy, the tree — known as olea leucocarpa — grows olives that keep their light color even when ripe. But Tarhuna only has five or six specimens, planted by the Italians.
In the absence of scalable production, the white olives — sweet, with a low acidic content and a distinct scent — are mixed with their bog-standard cousins to produce oil.

Only two percent of Libya’s 1.7 million square kilometers (650,000 square miles) is arable land, in a country famed for vast swathes of desert.
It boasts more than eight million olive trees, according to the agriculture ministry. To the east of Tarhuna lies the Msallata region known for its centuries-old olive trees that yield distinct sweet and strong-tasting oil. But it has been hit by urbanization in recent decades. Cutting down olive trees had been strictly forbidden before Qaddafi came to power in 1969, said Mokhtar Ali, whose farm includes 600-year-old specimens. And the chaos that has engulfed the country since Qaddafi’s fall has further diminished the stock of trees.
Nowadays “olive trees are torn up with impunity to make charcoal or to replace with concrete,” Ali said.
But he remains optimistic, seeing a silver lining in attempts by several farmers to preserve the country’s heritage, by either planting native species or importing new trees from Spain.


Egypt’s creative solutions to the plastic menace

Updated 24 August 2019

Egypt’s creative solutions to the plastic menace

  • Egyptian social startups are taking alternative approaches to fostering awareness and reducing waste
  • While initiatives around the world are taking action to combat this problem, some Egyptian projects are doing it more creatively

CAIRO: Global plastics production reached 348 million tons in 2017, rising from 335 million tons in 2016, according to Plastics Europe. 

Critically, most plastic waste is not properly managed: Around 55 percent of it was landfilled or discarded in 2015. These numbers are extremely concerning because plastic products take anything from 450 to 1,000 years to decompose, and the effects on the environment, especially on marine and human life, are catastrophic.

While initiatives around the world are taking action to combat this problem, some Egyptian projects are doing it more creatively.

“We’re the first website in the Middle East and North Africa that trades waste,” said Alaa Afifi, founder and CEO of Bekia. “People can get rid of any waste at their disposal — plastic, paper and cooking oil — and exchange it for over 65 products on our website.”

Products for trading include rice, tea, pasta, cooking oil, subway tickets and school supplies.

Bekia was launched in Cairo in 2017. Initially, the business model did not prove successful.

“We used to rent a car and go to certain locations every 40 days to collect waste from people,” Afifi, 26, explained. “We then created a website and started encouraging people to use it.”

After the website was launched, people could wait at home for someone to collect the waste. “Instead of 40 days, we now could visit people within a week.”

To use Bekia’s services, people need to log onto the website and specify what they want to discard. They are assigned points based on the waste they are offering, and these points can be used in one of three ways: Donated to people in need, saved for later, or exchanged for products. As for the collected waste, it is given to specialized recycling companies for processing.

“We want to have 50,000 customers over the next two years who regularly use our service to get rid of their waste,” Afifi said.  

Trying to spread environmental awareness has not been easy. “We had a lot of trouble with initial investment at first, and we got through with an investment that was far from enough. The second problem we faced was spreading this culture among people — in the first couple of months, we received no orders,” Afifi said.

The team soldiered on and slowly built a client base, currently serving 7,000 customers. In terms of what lies ahead for Bekia, he said: “We’re expanding from 22 to 30 areas in Cairo this year. We’re launching an app very soon and a new website with better features.”

Go Clean, another Egyptian recycling startup dedicated to raising environmental awareness, works under the patronage of the Ministry of Environment. “We started in 2017 by recycling waste from factories, and then by February 2019 we started expanding,” said founder and CEO Mohammed Hamdy, 30.

The Cairo-based company collects recyclables from virtually all places, including households, schools, universities, restaurants, cafes, companies and embassies. The customers separate the items into categories and then fill out a registration form. Alternatively, they can make contact through WhatsApp or Facebook. A driver is then dispatched to collect the waste, carrying a scale to weigh it. 

“The client can be paid in cash for the weight of their recyclables, or they can make a donation to a special needs school in Cairo,” Hamdy explained. There is also the option of trading the waste for dishwashing soap, with more household products to be added in the future.

Trying to cover a country with 100 million people was never going to be easy, and Go Clean faced some logistical problems. It overcame them by hiring more drivers and getting more trucks. There was another challenge along the way: “We had to figure out a way to train the drivers, from showing them how to use GPS and deal with clients,” said Hamdy.

“We want to spread awareness about the environment everywhere. We go to schools, universities, companies and even factories to give sessions about the importance of recycling and how dangerous plastic is. We’re currently covering 20 locations across Cairo and all of Alexandria. We want to cover all of Egypt in the future,” he added.

With a new app on the way, Hamdy said things are looking positive for the social startup, and people are becoming invested in the initiative. “We started out with seven orders per day, and now we get over 100.”