October 20, 2020
TAKELSA — Mahmoud Bouassida has a worried look on his face as he tastes his oranges. In recent days, torrential rains have fallen on his 12-hectare orchard in Takelsa, on the northeastern tip of Tunisia, where he grows different varieties of the citrus, including sanguine, sweet oranges and clementines.
Rainfall is welcome, but in reasonable doses. "We had a dry spell just before, so with the rain, the fruit can get too much water and explode from the inside," says Bouassida, who gave up a career in the oil industry 10 years ago to buy a piece of land and start cultivating oranges. "It's like a thirsty human being who will rush on a bottle of water and drink too quickly, and then have a stomach ache afterwards."
The farmer learned just about everything he knows on the job. But he also relies on technology. Sensors installed in irrigation pipes and in the soil, and a wireless box connected to software from the agrotechnology (agritech, for short) startup Ezzayra help him manage the farm.
The system enables Bouassida to regulate soil salinity and inject the mineral salts that may or may not be necessary in relation to rainfall. His farm is connected to a station that automates the irrigation and fertilization processes thanks to the information sent by the software. The program is also able to identify drip leaks, which are difficult to see with the naked eye.
"Every year, we have to adapt to the consequences of climate change in a citrus crop that consumes a lot of water," Bouassida explains. "With this system, instead of having workers who spend their time opening and closing the valves, everything is calculated and established by the computer. And I can add parameters if necessary. That way the workers are redirected to other tasks."
Yasser Bououd, 42, is one of the founders of Ezzayra. He comes from a family of farmers in the region but lived in Canada before returning, in his words, to spend five year "with his feet in the mud." The idea was to work on the family farm while also developing his startup, together with two associates.
Ezzayra, launched in 2016, is an integrated management solution to better run farms like Bouassida's and reduce costs related to waste. It serves as a response to challenges that Bououd himself observed in the field.
"In Tunisia, we do agriculture in a traditional way, with know-how that's passed from one person to the next. But in the last 30 years, the conditions have all changed," he says. The country is ranked among the most affected in the world by the risk of water shortages.
"Our system makes it possible as well to reduce the use of pesticides with a precise dosage," Bououd adds. "The idea is also to offer product traceability for the consumer with data collection."
Many area farmers are reluctant, nevertheless, to change their approach, especially for something so seemingly high-tech. So far, though, the profitability of the system has convinced some 60 customers. And the company's turnover, approximately 100,000 euros in 2019, is expected to double this year.
"Take a 1,000-hectare citrus fruit farm that consumes between 5,000 and 8,000 dinars (between 1,500 and 2,400 euros) of water per hectare per year," Bououd explains. "If you optimize even just 100 dinars per hectare, the farmer earns at least 100,000 dinars (nearly 31,000 euros) per year with a 30% gain thanks to better labor management."
Room for growth
In a country where agriculture represents between 9 and 11% of GDP and nearly 15% of employment, adapting to climatic hazards and modernizing the sector have become necessities. All the more so as forecasts predict longer droughts, a five-fold decrease in water resources and an increase in fires over the next decade.
The health crisis, in the meantime, has helped put the agricultural and food processing sector back at the center of the Tunisian economy. The industry was in demand during quarantine to meet the needs of Tunisian households and is now fairing better than tourism, which has taken a huge hit due to the pandemic.
The question now is whether digital technology will help to remobilize a generation that had lost interest in agriculture because of its lack of profitability and the debt that older generations piled up.
This is precisely what 36-year-old Ahmed Achballah is trying to do with MooMe, a startup that collects data on dairy cows and that he and two other young entrepreneurs launched just last year.
Like Bououd, Achballah was born into a family of farmers. A graduate in applied sciences, he worked with other engineers to try to solve recurring problems in Tunisian cattle farming such as poor fertility and difficulty in detecting diseases early on. Their tool is a connected cow collar, equipped with a small sensor that analyzes the level of rumination and movements, particularly to identify diseases such as mastitis or lameness, but also to assess fertility.
"The most important thing for a farmer is to know when to do artificial insemination," says Achballah. "This data allows us to alert the person in advance."
On the farms in the northwest where he tested his product, black collars have replaced the bells on animals' necks. MooMe boxes installed in barns collect the data, which is translated into algorithms and spreadsheets in Tunis and then sent back to the platform, which the farmer has access to.
The average age of most farmers in Tunisia is 50. And so rather than pitch his product directly to the farmers themselves, Achballah often speaks first with their children, who tend to be more open to new technologies. He also has a lot of contact with veterinarians. The MooMe cow collars sell for about 62 euros. Customers also pay for monthly subscription packages.
Tunisia officially has about 90,000 engineers. But among them, 10,000 are unemployed and some 2,000 leave each year to work abroad. That, say people like Bououd and Achballah, is another reason the country would do well to invest in agritech — as a potential source of new engineering jobs that then has the benefit of lifting other sectors of the economy as well.
Brothers Ahmed Hamouda and Mohamed Amine agree, and decided, through a platform called Nabda.tn, to start making videos to document the efforts being made by Tunisia's agritech entrepreneurs.
"We started by showing the impact of startups in agritech through their co-creation approach with farmers, because it directly affects young people who come from rural areas and who discredit the work of the land," says Hamouda.
Another young Tunisian, Syrine Baghdadi, is also trying to encourage the sector's growth by targeting what she calls the "agripreneurs' of tomorrow. During the lockdown, the 27-year-old agricultural engineer worked with partners to form the BioAgrihelpers startup to train people in organic and sustainable agriculture. "The idea is to educate, but also to be able to exchange within a community still to be built," Baghdadi says.
Agritech is only in its infancy in Tunisia. But it appears to have great potential, especially for investors interested in the country. The Tunisian-French startup NextProtein, which produces food from fly larvae, managed to raise more than 10 million euros in the spring. Khaled Helioui, one of the investors, sees this success as a boost for the rest of the tech ecosystem, which should focus on quality rather than quantity, he believes.
"It's no coincidence that one of the startups that raised the most funds in the country is in the agritech sector," Helioui says. "The issues that agritech addresses, such as the risk of famine or lack of water, are increasingly prevalent."
Globally, agritech is less attractive than fintech or security. But it has been experiencing a legitimate boom in recent years, a dynamic the health crisis has only reinforced. In Tunisia, a dozen agritech startups are now active in the sector. They're benefiting, furthermore, from an initiative known as the StartupAct, a legal framework pushed by entrepreneurs and adopted by the Tunisian government in 2018.
Still, as Yehia Houry, executive director at the regional, Tunis-based startup accelerator program Flat6Labs, explains, certain legal obstacles remain, along with some logistical and administrative barriers to entry.
The other challenge, of course, is the one that Ezzayra's Yasser Bououd knows all too well: convincing farmers, stuck in their traditional ways, to try something new and innovative. The hardest part, in other words, is changing mentalities.
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With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.
Laure Gautherin and Carl-Johan Karlsson
October 26, 2021
When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.
And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.
Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan
The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan
According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.
In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.
The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.
Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.
View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA
Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!
The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.
Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.
Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain
Old Belchite, Spain
Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…
That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.
Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.
If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.
Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan
Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan
The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.
The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.
Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."
Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.
Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden
The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden
After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).
Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.
Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia
Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia
During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.
Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.
Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy
Poveglia Island, Italy
Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).
During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.
In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.
Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.
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