A scorching-hot chili paste, harissa is one of the most famous culinary products of Tunisia, and is sometimes dubbed as “the national condiment of Tunisia”. It is traditionally drizzled over a host of North African and Middle Eastern cuisines, such as meat or fish stew, couscous, soups, vegetables and salads.
The production of harissa dates back to the 17th century, and today, recipes vary between countries and regions, but it is widely accepted that the Tunisian recipe is the most authentic one. The country is also the biggest exporter of harissa. It is estimated that the harissa value chain, which covers chili pepper farmers, collection centres, small-scale producers and industrial companies, creates employment for around 25,000 people in Tunisia. Harissa has become the second most important export product of the country’s canned food sector, both in terms of value and quantity.
The spicy and aromatic paste has long gained fame on international market, especially in Europe. But popularity also attracts imitation. Many foreign merchants tout their hot sauces as "harissa” on the international market, in spite of their products only remotely resembling the original one.
But in the recent two years, original Tunisian harissa sold on the international market can be easily distinguished by a special logo which reads “Food Quality Label Tunisia” on the package. With this label, customers can be guaranteed of an authentic Tunisian harrisa recipe, made from fresh, quality ingredients. In addition, this label ensures food safety because behind it, a food traceability system has been set up along the whole supply chain.
This improvement was made possible thanks to the technical assistance provided by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO). Since 2014, with funding worth a total of CHF 5 million (around EUR 4,6 million) from the Swiss State Secretariat of Economic Affairs (SECO), UNIDO, together with the Ministry of Industry and the Ministry of Agriculture of Tunisia, has been implementing a project (called PAMPAT in French acronym) to protect and promote the geographical indication of Tunisia’s harissa and two other products, figs and prickly pears, thereby ensuring that local producers reap the full benefit of their national agro-food products.
Within the framework of the project, a voluntary labelling standard, “Food Quality Label Tunisia” was created, and a relevant certificating and control system was set up by UNIDO, the Ministry of Industry and the Tunisian Group for Canned Food Products (GICA). Companies interested in certifying their agro-food products under this food quality label must meet stringent product specifications and undergo a double check from the managing body of the label, GICA and an external certification institute. This enables them to sell their products at a premium price on the international market thanks to the recognition of the quality label and geographical indication.
To-date, five Tunisian companies (SICAM, JOUDA, COMOCAP, CARTHAGE FOOD and STICAP), which account for one third of total industrial harissa production in the country, are producing harissa with the certified label.
“By complying with the requirements of the quality label and geographical indication, the companies have improved their competitiveness on the export market, and the Tunisian harissa has been positioned on a higher-end market, which increases the revenues and employment opportunities along the value chains,” says Fabio Russo, who manages the project at UNIDO.
As the certified harissa production requires the use of special peppers, this also brings an income increase for pepper farmers. In 2015, farmers growing chilies for the labelled harissa experienced a price increase of 17 per cent, compared to standard chili sales.
The project also focuses on supporting young entrepreneurs, women and small producers from disadvantaged regions. For example, it has been supporting the operation of a female cooperative - the only one of its kind in Tunisia. The cooperative consists of over 160 rural women workers and produces harissa based on an ancestral recipe, using special sun-dried chili peppers.
Currently, UNIDO is assisting the cooperative in gaining a foothold on the niche market for its high-quality product. The cooperative´s members used to produce harissa at home only for family consumption, today they have made it into a business and started exporting their harissa to the Swiss market, under the cooperative´s registered trademark “ERRIM”.
“We are convinced that rural women can achieve big goals by working together within a cooperative. There is a big market for traditional products of regional origin, but for individuals to start such a business is difficult. We are grateful that UNIDO has supported us in every regard, including management, production and market access. Today, our cooperative receives visits from groups of women who are inspired by our success,” said Najoua Dhiflaoui, president of the women cooperative.
The project also introduced a collective marketing approach to position the Tunisian product on the foreign market. Together with the Ministry of Industry and other national institutes, the Tunisian harissa has been promoted under one label during many international food events in several countries, including in the U.S.A. (Fancy Food Show New York), Germany (ANUGA Cologne and the International Street Food Festival Cologne), Russia (World Food Moscow), France (SIAL Paris and European Tradefair Strasbourg), Italy (EXPO Milan), Spain (Alimentaria Barcelona), and Switzerland (Swiss Competition of Local Food Products).
Similarly, other agro-food value chains have also benefitted from the food quality labels and collective promotion strategies. For example, the project helped fig producers from a village in the northwestern region set up a cooperative to sell their products under the geographical indication, “Fig of Djebba”. With this indication, farmers have been able to sell their figs at a price 80 per cent higher than standard figs.
By ZHONG Xingfei
For more information on the project, please contact:
UNIDO Senior Industrial Development Officer