September 24, 2023

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When the COVID pandemic decimated the Tunisian tourism industry, Saber Zouani lost his job as a server. As a result, he decided to try something new and established a permaculture farm.

He now produces all of the food he requires and has emerged as a pioneer of the ecological farming method that is gaining popularity everywhere, even in his native North Africa.

Many are hopeful that it will assist Tunisia in coping with the effects of climate change and help it wean itself off of its dependence on international supply chains, particularly grain and fertilizer imports from war-torn Russia and Ukraine.

Zouani, 37, proudly displayed his three-hectare (seven-acre) farm in Cap Negro, his hometown in western France, where it was put up to resemble natural ecosystems in accordance with theories made famous by Australian ecologists in the 1970s.

As an alternative to industrial agriculture, permaculture seeks to preserve the soil’s natural structure, operate in harmony with the environment, and avoid using artificial inputs like pesticides and chemical fertilizers.

A recent biotechnology graduate named Zouani responded, “No, these are not weeds,” referring to nettles and dandelions that were growing erratically all around his rows of onions, peppers, and radishes.

He said that after harvesting his crops, he returns any extra green matter to the soil to reduce evaporation in an effort to maintain the soil as damp as a forest floor soaked in dew.

‘Create living soil’

These techniques are particularly helpful in Tunisia, where a record-breaking drought has dried out the countryside and left water reserves at critically low levels this spring.

Zouani collects precious rainwater on his farm in a pond and uses it carefully to irrigate his plants, all of which he has produced from his own seeds.

Additionally, Zouani raises poultry, lambs, goats, and cows, composting their waste to produce soil that is loaded with nitrogen-rich fertilizer.

“We need to create living soil, attract earthworms, fungi, and all the nutrients for our plants and trees,” Zouani added.

He said that permaculture “returns to our roots, to the traditional methods used by our grandparents” by drawing on farming practices and expertise from earlier eras.

According to Zouani, he makes about 300 dinars ($100) a month selling agricultural products, with enough extra to support himself, his brother, and his aging parents.

He plans to create “a decent income” in two or three years and convert his property, which he has dubbed “Om Hnia” in memory of his late grandmother, into a restaurant and ultimately a rural eco-lodge.

The Tunisian Association of Permaculture provided Zouani with early training and then financial support for essential equipment as he got started more than two years ago.

According to the group’s president Rim Mathlouthi, the “Plant Your Farm” initiative seeks to establish 50 micro-farms over five years, of which about 30 are now operational.

‘Bring back biodiversity’

The objective, according to Mathlouthi, is to “show the authorities and other farmers that permaculture is a successful and effective agricultural system that restores biodiversity when the soil is depleted by plowing and chemical inputs.”

She said that the program, which is supported by Switzerland and other countries, extends to Tunisia’s scorchingly desert regions and attempts to persuade unemployed young people to farm abandoned family land.

A scenario “where the Tunisian farmer loses money because he is constantly spending, for a very small yield, on seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides” is another something that the initiative seeks to address, according to Mathlouthi.

Additionally, permaculture hopes to assist Tunisia in coping with the severe drought that has severely hurt a part of the country’s agriculture devoted to water-intensive grains like wheat and barley.

Agro-ecology and permaculture are two examples of alternatives that might be promoted during times of crisis, according to Mathlouthi.

The group has promoted farmers’ markets and developed a “citizen food” label in order to assist Tunisia’s young eco-farmers in marketing their organic goods and disseminating information about permaculture.

Families gathered to a recent session at a school in Bizerte, a city in northern Senegal, where they learned about sustainable agricultural practices and tried some of the delicious food.

Salem Laghouati, a 44-year-old father of three, said, “These are healthy products.” Knowing what you’re consuming is crucial.

A 49-year-old schoolteacher named Maissa Haddad expressed her pride in “educating children on permaculture” and in imparting to them its “benefits for our planet and our lifestyle.”

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