Marwa Kanzari is in the middle of giving me a tour of her nine hundred-hectare farm in Zaghouan, Tunisia, when she abruptly halts the truck and leaps out. She runs to an elderly female farm worker plucking olives and gives her a quick kiss on the cheek before returning to the vehicle.
“My father bought the farm the year I was born,” she tells me. “Some of these people are like family to me.”
Kanzari, who has a masters degree in finance, grew up alongside this farm, which she eventually turned into the home of Kanzari Olive Oil, the line of organic extra virgin olive oils she founded in 2016.
Olive oil production in Tunisia has existed since Roman times, but it has only become particularly big business within the last two years. The product currently represents more than fifty percent of Tunisia’s food exports, earning it the nickname “liquid gold” locally.
Many entrepreneurs in Tunisia, like Kanzari, are entering the growing industry hoping to capitalize on its current moment in the spotlight. At the most recent World Olive Oil Competition in New York, producers in Tunisia won a record eleven awards.
However, Tunisia’s olive oil movement has predominantly been led by men. “It’s not easy [being a woman in the olive oil industry],” says Samia Belkhiria, co-owner and general manager of Ruspina, an olive oil company based in Sfax, Tunisia. “The people who supply the olives, the people working in the mills, the buyers—all of them are usually men,” she says.
According to a recent report by the International Finance Corporation, only eighteen to twenty-three percent of businesses in Tunisia are owned by women. Those women, particularly in the agricultural field, have commonly experienced a number of barriers to entry. Men have long been considered better-suited for the farming industry, due in part to the arduous work and long hours.
“You need to work twenty-four hours during the harvest and milling season,” says Kanzari. “It’s tiring, but women can handle it just as well, if not better than, men.” Kanzari estimates about eighty percent of her company is made up of women, not only in administration and engineering, but also in the field.
Under Islamic law, there is an additional roadblock to female business ownership, as women inherit smaller shares of land than their male relatives in Tunisia. Without the collateral, it can be difficult for women to get business loans or obtain the land upon which to build a farm.
However Tunisia has some of the most progressive laws protecting women’s rights in the region. Domestic violence is criminalized under the penal code, and Article 21 of the Tunisian constitution states: “All male and female citizens have the same rights and duties. They are equal before the law without discrimination.”
Since 1956, education in Tunisia has been mandatory until the age of sixteen, which means women in the country are more educated than ever before. A report by UNICEF estimates that forty-two percent of women are enrolled in tertiary education, compared to only twenty-seven percent of men.
Salma Grati is a Tunisian native who is applying that education to a career in olive oil. After spending almost twenty years as an engineer for an agricultural company researching flavor, shelf stability, and food storage options, she decided to start her own.
Last year, Grati founded La Perle D’or, a line of organic olive oil produced in Bizerte, Tunisia. On her thirty-hectare farm she currently has four hundred olive trees with thousands more in the works.
Grati says her background in science, and her position as a teacher at Institut Supérieur de Biotechnologie de Sidi Thabet, has helped speed up the launch of her company. “Normally it takes a lot of time to start and test the quality of olive oil, but I work in a lab and I can get analysis directly,” she says.
This year Grati installed a rainwater collection system on the grounds and is currently experimenting with medicinal plants as well as essential oils. “I try to apply my scientific knowledge to everything I produce,” she says.
Grati says she’s noticed some of her male colleagues don’t always take her seriously, however. “Some don’t believe in me, because they think men can do it better,” she says. “But I think a woman can excel at any field when she’s proud of what she’s doing.”
Similarly, Abir Rabhi, founder of Cillium Olive Oil, finds it can be a challenge to convince men in the industry that she’s in charge. “When I meet some people, they think I’m working with the company, not that I’m an owner,” she says.
In addition to growing her own olives, Rabhi works with small farmers across Tunisia to grow olives for her operation. She created a small organization that teaches farmers organic practices and advanced growing techniques. “It helps them be able to grow, make more money, and be more environmentally responsible,” she says.
That collaborative spirit is one that Rabhi is hoping to replicate elsewhere in the industry. “Maybe I’ll start an association for women in olive oil,” she says. “There aren’t too many of us, and it might help us stand out.”