From 0 to 90% in Nine Months

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Setting up a new value chain for almonds from Tunisia in just nine months was no easy task. But the deed is done. Well, almost.

Almonds from Tunisia

How does one go about looking for a new almond producer in Tunisia? What does it take to build a new value chain from Tunisia to Northern Europe?

The first question is easier to answer than one might think. You sift through a list of producers that are certified organic and contact them to find out more about the background and conditions. We then take a closer look at those who comply with our internal guidelines.

Building a value chain, on the other hand, is a lot more work. You may be wondering why we narrowed our search in the first place.

Tunisian almonds at gebana

It was a huge disappointment to see our previous almond project come to an end after years of struggling to get the organic certification. Due to the political situation, our local partner could no longer guarantee contact with the farmers. Though almonds are not a local specialty, our Tunisian almonds had always generated a lot of enthusiasm. That’s why it was clear to us that we wanted to source them from Tunisia again.

At the beginning of last year, we began our search for a new producer. We came across Skander Hamzaoui, a native of Tunisia with Dutch roots. He had studied and worked in various places around the world, but after 12 years, he returned to Tunisia to organically farm his family’s land in the mountains of Thala. He has always felt a strong connection to nature. It wasn’t long before he had a vision of generating more value for the local population through organic farming in this remote and – for Mediterranean conditions – harsh mountain landscape.

Starting a company

We contacted Skander Hamzaoui,met him shortly thereafter, and decided to work with him. Skander Hamzaoui was supposed to find more local almond producers who would sell us their organic almonds, coordinate the establishment of an export company and begin processing and exporting the almonds. We guided him, put all of our know-how at his disposal and financed the entire project.

It was a bold plan considering we hardly knew each other. Yet we are always anchored by our company principles, so we initially take risks in order to build sustainable companies.

And so the plan was set in motion. Negotiations with the farming families began and the export company Skaya was founded. We rented a small factory and some machinery to process the almonds. We sought out workers who knew about almond processing. The company had to be certified organic, and many things needed to be organised, notably the transport of goods from the farmers to the factory, the packaging material and the export.

Skander's almonds from Tunisia


All this may sound simple enough, but it was a lot of work – and a lot of paid training. The biggest problem was that we had obviously incorrectly estimated the quantities.

Shortly after the nut processing was underway, we noticed that the quantity of waste generated was well beyond what we had calculated. Some research made it clear that we had been making false assumptions and that this much waste was quite normal.

We were also too late to buy the almonds. In the region, it is customary to purchase the almonds while they are in bloom on a per-tree basis. In other words, you look at the blossoms on a tree and decide how much you are willing to pay for them when harvest time comes.

But another problem came up much earlier, one that was more difficult to solve. "One of the biggest challenges was trust between Skander Hamzaoui and the farming families, but also between Skander Hamzaoui and gebana," says Christophe Toitot, COO of gebana. Building trust takes time. Skander Hamzaoui first had to make a name for himself locally with his company Skaya. Only then could he set up an effective network with other organic almond farmers and process the quantities that had been planned.

As for trust between gebana and Skander Hamzaoui, that also requires time and patience. On multiple occasions over the past few months, there has been uncertainty and tension. Was it a mistake to invest in a Tunisian almond supply chain? Both sides wondered if they were really with the right partner.

The missing 10%

But at the end of 2017, only nine months after the start of the project, the first export took place. Instead of the 9 tonnes we had hoped for, only 6 tonnes of almonds left Tunisia for Europe. Still, it was a mission accomplished!

The time has come to deal with the missing 10%. As an organic farmer, Skander Hamzaoui knows everything about almonds, but he is just starting to understand the value chain, i.e. the entire journey of the almonds from farmer to export.

We also want the farmers to process some of the almonds themselves for the next harvest. Not all of them are offering to do so, but it is currently more cost-effective for us to buy shelled nuts at a higher price than to crack them ourselves. Furthermore, more added value remains with the farmers, and we can get larger quantities. This year, we already want to increase to 30 tonnes of almonds so that we can not only sell via gebana through direct sales, but also through European retailers – thus building a sustainable and long-term value chain.

You can read an interview with organic farmer here (in German).

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