A new crop of Tunisian engineers are coming up with clever ways to help farmers streamline their operations and adjust to a changing climate.
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.