Women in rural Tunisia mix hot sauce with business

A group of women farmers in Menzel Mhiri near Kerouan in rural central Tunisia banded together in 2013 to form a cooperative and marketed their harissa under the “Errim” trade name. (AFP)
Updated 06 December 2017

Women in rural Tunisia mix hot sauce with business

MENZEL MHIRI, Tunisia: These Tunisian women have some sauce, pooling their resources and a seasoned culinary expertise handed down the centuries from mother to daughter.
Their secret? Harissa — the spicy hot pepper paste used to add zing to dishes traditionally prepared in North Africa’s Maghreb region.
These days, when Najoua Dhiflaoui prepares harissa, it is no longer just for her family. She and another 150 women are now making money by producing and even exporting their ancestral savoir faire.
Harissa, made from sun-dried chili peppers, freshly prepared spices and olive oil to both preserve and soften its heat, is added to most dishes in restaurants in Tunisia, and is also popular abroad.
In 2013, a group of women farmers in Menzel Mhiri near Kerouan in rural central Tunisia banded together to form a cooperative they dubbed “Tahadi” — Arabic for “challenge.”
Dhiflaoui and her co-workers certainly rose to it.
They went “door-to-door to convince others to join them, to combine their knowledge and sell their products together,” the dynamic fortysomething said.
The women were able to take advantage of an official project to support local produce and were given training in the technical, hygienic and commercial aspects of their venture.
For the past two years, they have marketed their harissa under the “Errim” trade name. That’s Arabic for small gazelle, also a symbol of feminine beauty.
“It’s a way of representing the Tunisian woman — hard-working, authentic and fiery,” said Dhiflaoui with a smile, her forehead beaded with sweat from both the heat and the peppers.
Tahadi now has 164 people working for it, and is one of the first firms in Tunisia to work exclusively with local rural women under a rotational system — its members work according to a flexible schedule.
In a spotless white laboratory lined with machinery that grinds, kneads and fills, the gloved women wash and prepare locally harvested ingredients to make the red paste.
Women play a key role in the Tunisian economy, said Farouk Ben Salah of PAMPAT, a UN, Swiss and Tunisian project aimed at getting rural products such as harissa onto the market.
“The main thing is to create working conditions for them as soon as possible,” he said.

The harissa makers are paid “slightly more than the agricultural wage, around 15 dinars” (€5) per working day, said Ben Salah.
Others work from home, performing essential tasks for the project and generating some income by cleaning and drying peppers on the roofs of their houses.
Dhiflaoui is full of enthusiasm. “This work allows women a certain financial autonomy,” she said, boosting their confidence and enabling them “to move forward.”
Since the launch of the cooperative, the farmers “have encouraged each other to make their mark. No longer do you have to be a teacher or doctor, now they too can work and feel they have a place in society.”
Women in rural Tunisia are particularly affected by gender discrimination and lack of job security.
While female unemployment is 22.5 percent at a national level, the rate exceeds 35 percent in rural provinces, according to a 2015 report by the National Institute of Statistics.
Dhiflaoui said that many of the women who now work at Tahadi used to labor in the fields in “terrible conditions” or “waited until their husbands brought money home.”
Their new role has “made them bloom” and given them “liberty,” she added.
“There’s a big difference between a woman with her own monthly salary and a woman who relies on a husband,” said Chelbia Dhiflaoui, Najoua’s cousin who also works at Tahadi.
“She feels a sense of responsibility, she sets goals she can reach — and she’s working to improve her living conditions.”
Ben Salah said PAMPAT could help Tahadi diversify its production to give the cooperative more opportunities to employ women who live in rural areas.
Errim Harissa is already making a name for itself.
Sold in gourmet food stores nationally, it can also be found in Switzerland and Germany, and orders have been dispatched to France and Italy.
Talks are also underway to export the delicacy to Canada.


Coronavirus outbreak places cruise ships in the dock

Updated 20 min 36 sec ago

Coronavirus outbreak places cruise ships in the dock

  • Industry defenders deny liners are overcrowded and say that given the high numbers of passengers illnesses are rare

HONG KONG: Deadly viruses, chickenpox outbreaks and mass cases of the runs: Sometimes luxury cruise ship holidays are not the trips of a lifetime elderly passengers had hoped for.

Cruise-goers have fallen sick en masse in the past, their predicament on the high seas coming into sharp focus because the holidays can cost thousands of dollars and are often marketed as trips of a lifetime.

“Cruise ships are very prone to outbreaks of common cold and the vomiting virus,” said John Oxford, professor of virology at Queen Mary University of London.

“Invariably the ships are overcrowded and with so many passengers, hygiene levels can slip.”

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) logged eight outbreaks aboard cruise ships last year of the highly contagious norovirus, which causes vomiting and diarrhea — hardly the stuff of a dream holiday.

Measles, E. coli, chickenpox and salmonella poisoning have all broken out on cruises in recent years.

“Unfortunately, the more elderly demographic found on a typical liner are more likely to be susceptible to anything which might present a serious health challenge,” cautioned Dr. Simon Clarke, an associate professor at the University of Reading, in Britain.

With global concerns mounting about the threat of the new coronavirus, an elderly Japanese man and woman died on Thursday having been on the virus-stricken Diamond Princess.

The vessel, moored in Yokohama, was by far the biggest coronavirus cluster outside Wuhan, in China. Some have pointed the finger at Japan’s authorities for how they handled the 14-day quarantine of hundreds of passengers.

For now, US authorities have recommended that travelers “reconsider” cruises to or in Asia, citing the risk of coronavirus-linked travel restrictions and quarantines.

Stewart Chiron, a leading industry expert in the US, said cruise ships are nothing like the hotbed of viruses that they are painted out to be and cruise lines take “extensive precautions to keep ships clean.”

“When viruses are introduced, cruise lines have various protocols and procedures to clean ships and prevent further spreading of the virus,” he added.

He said the image of thousands of people crammed together on board — ripe conditions for the spread of illness — is wide of the mark. “Cruise ships are much larger than most people realize. There’s plenty of space for passengers to spread out in to have enjoyable, healthy experiences.” 

He cited CDC figures to show that of the more than 31 million people who holidayed on cruise ships last year, there were 1,038 cases of norovirus, or 0.003 percent.

Chiron and other experts say that the cruise industry has successfully shrugged off past negative headlines and will bounce back once the coronavirus  outbreak passes.

Cruise Lines International Association, the world’s largest cruise industry trade organization, says 17.8 million people took an ocean cruise in 2009, compared with last year’s 31 million, demonstrating its growing popularity.

About half of all passengers are from North America and analysts say they are unlikely to be perturbed by events on vessels in Asia.

“As with previous crises, there may be new-booking slowdowns as people get caught up in news cycles,” said Chiron. “Once this period concludes, there will be a surge of bookings and booking patterns will return to normal.”

Tara C. Smith, professor of epidemiology at Kent State University in Ohio, is not so convinced.

“Granted, I could become ill via any type of travel or even via a staycation with my kindergartener,” said Smith, who trained in microbiology and infectious diseases. “But cruise ships take those risks of background infection and amplify them due to the constant shared quarters of travelers on board.”

Smith conceded that coronavirus was an “extreme example” and said that most cruise passengers will experience no problems at all.

“But personally, I’d rather not take the risk,” she said.

“One never knows what infections might enter on a cruise ship and it’s a location where you’re trapped with all your fellow passengers. It just doesn’t sound like a fun vacation to me.”