May 16, 2019

An idea, know-how and a dose of courage turn a region’s challenges into a source of value creation. Ahlem Chortani and Mohamed El Arbi saw an opportunity in the valorization of palm by-products and created their businesses in southwestern Tunisia, thanks to the support of Mashrou3i.

Renowned for the production of dates, the region’s main economic activity, Djerid is now successfully exploiting its palm tree by-products. It’s a business model that is working for Ahlem Chortani and Mohamed El Arbi, two entrepreneurs from Kebili and Tozeur respectively. They both started businesses specialized in oases waste recycling, thanks to business coaching and technical assistance from Mashrou3i, a project launched in Tunisia by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) and funded by USAID, the Italian Cooperation and the HP Foundation.

With nine years experience in interior design as well as a degree in Interior Architecture and a master’s in Design Research, Ahlem Chortani founded IMA Design, a company specialized in the creation of decorative objects made from palm tree waste, that she sells mainly to individuals.

Mohamed El Arbi, on the other hand, is an agronomist specialized in organic farming. After several years of professional experience in the organic certification of dates, he founded Oasis Services, a business transforming palm tree waste into certified organic fertilizer, which enriches soil structure and improves productivity.

Waste from palm trees is often not properly treated in regions like Kebili and Tozeur. Difficult to transform, it is usually abandoned, becoming a refuge for insects and arachnids that threaten the survival of the oasis. Farmers in the southern regions of Tunisia face the challenge of managing this waste and lack the tools to do so. To get rid of the waste it is often burned, which creates another problem: the release of toxic substances into the air and groundwater. Obviously burning waste harms people’s health and the environment, which has forced the local community to find more eco-friendly solutions.

Mashrou3i to the rescue of the oasis

It is in this context that these two entrepreneurs managed to put their projects on track, thanks to business coaching and technical assistance provided by the project Mashrou3i, the fruit of a public-private partnership supported by the Tunisian government and financed by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the Italian Cooperation, the HP Foundation and UNIDO.

Ahlem took her courage in both hands and decided to launch her business for decorative objects made from recycled palm waste. Of course, like many budding entrepreneurs, she faced difficulties in the presentation and marketing of her creations. Challenges Ahlem overcame after taking part in a Mashrou3i entrepreneurial training workshop in HP LIFE e-Learning. Thanks to business coaching from experts, she was able to develop a marketing and sales strategy, to carry out a profitability analysis and to promote her creations through frequent participation in trade fairs.

“The HP LIFE program of Mashrou3i has been very useful to me. It offers solutions adapted to the needs of aspiring entrepreneurs to help them develop their business and ensure its viability. Through these trainings, I learned to value my unique creations, to manage my project, to look for new markets, to choose the right partners to work with…”, explained Ahlem Chortani. “Mashrou3i has helped me a lot and now demand for my creations and sales are growing,” she added.

Through the treatment, recycling and transformation of palm waste into organic fertilizers, Mohamed El Arbi has developed a business that significantly reduces palm diseases and improves both productivity and quality of soil. The economic study of Oasis Services was completed in 2011, but the business only saw the light of day in 2015 and started production in January 2018. Having obtained certifications conforming with European and American standards, Mohamed El Arbi already produces nearly 500 tons of organic fertilizer annually and plans to reach a production potential of up to 5000 tons in the years to come.

Increasingly aware of the importance of using compost obtained from palm waste to preserve the oases and ensure the production of organic dates in accordance with international standards of export markets, farmers in the region have finally understood the imperative of using organic fertilizer from palm waste. Benefiting from technical assistance provided by the experts of Mashrou3i, Mohamed took advantage of a tailored plan for the marketing his products.

“It’s only after starting the production phase that I could benefit from a specific program for the marketing of my products. Mashrou3i’s experts visited my production site and I spoke with other entrepreneurs working in the same sector, explained Mohamed El Arbi. “Mashrou3i also proposed new ideas for improving sales and supported in the marketing of my products to organic farmers,” he added.

Adding value to the region of Djerid

Through IMA Design and Oasis Services, Ahlem and Mohamed seek to value the wealth of the oases by transforming its waste into beautiful, unique products, that are healthy and beneficial.

“Whenever I saw waste from palm trees abandoned on the ground I always thought, why not use it to
create decorative objects that embellish homes and protect the oases? This inspired my idea to create a workshop specialized in waste recycling of palm trees,” revealed Ahlem.

With plans to diversify her products, in the future Ahlem also hopes to reach new export markets with her innovative furniture designs. Likewise, Mohamed has succeeded in improving the image of a region which is largely known for the production and export of dates. Oasis Services also plays a key role in the local economy, providing jobs for 50 people for waste collection in addition to 7 employees and 2 engineers Mohamed has hired directly.

“Through the recycling of palm waste and its transformation into organic fertilizers, I contribute to the improvement of the quality of dates for export, which makes a positive contribution in terms of foreign currency,” explained Mohamed. “One of the main problems we have in Tunisia today is the fertilization of crops, date palms and greenhouse crops …And by producing such fertilizers we put good, certified products with real value added into the hands of farmers, which are essential for the soil and the production of organic fruits and vegetables.”

Not short of ambition, the same vision has driven Mohamed El Arbi to design two other companies specialized in the production of organic dates and organic greenhouse crops. In the coming years he plans to use his solid and liquid organic fertilizers made of palm waste to reinforce these two other big projects.

Finding new markets outside Tunisia is a real challenge for Mohamed. Interest from Algeria, Libya and Qatar for Oasis Services’s organic fertilizer are signs of the beginning of international success.