Arab Women in Olive Oil
From the Arabian Gulf to the Atlantic Ocean, Middle Eastern women are gradually gaining greater equality in the workspace. But when that workspace is an olive farm, or the olive oil production scene more broadly, things start to get more interesting.
Founded in Jordan in early 2020 by Nehaya Al-Muhaisen, an agricultural engineer and former manager of the olive sector in the Jordanian Ministry of Agriculture, the Arab Women in Olive Oil Network is a platform that supports women in the olive oil industry in all of the olive oil producing Arab countries. The network is based in Jordan, one of the top 10 exporters of olive oil in the world, according to a study by the International Labor Organization.
The network has gradually expanded to include representatives and numerous active members in all of the olive oil-producing Arab countries. Members meet online every week for an educational workshop on different olive oil-related topics, and to coordinate their work in their respective countries.
We joined one of these meetings, which turned into a lively discussion about the challenges faced by women in the olive oil sector all over the Arab world. Although we had initially expected to see a pattern in the issues Arab women face when carving out space for themselves in the industry, we were shocked by how diverse – and sometimes contradictory – the challenges were in their different countries.
“Jordan is one country where women in the olive sector tend to be adequately educated about the field and are able to produce high quality oil,” says one of the network members in Jordan. “However, the high production costs in the country make it difficult for them to compete.”
Despite the high caliber of the women in the sector, they are still not involved at levels befitting their capabilities. This is what inspired Nehaya to build a strategy to foment women’s inclusion in the olive sector, founding the network with the goal of extending this strategy in different Arab olive-oil producing countries.
“Women in Jordan are highly valued as harvesters, given their ability to be gentler with the trees, which keeps them healthier,” explains Nehaya. “We really don’t want the men involved in that part at all,” she laughs. But while women are valued in detailed tasks like harvesting, their role in functions that require working late hours and heavy labor, like milling, tends to be seen as unnecessary.
“We respect our cultural values,” says Nehaya. “We think women can definitely be in quality control or mill labs, but heavy milling work is not something we’re particularly trying to push hard for.”
Over on the southern coast of the Mediterranean, women’s inclusion in the Tunisian olive sector is not an issue; on the contrary, it’s mostly women who are involved in olive farming and harvesting. The problem is that there aren’t enough decent means of transportation to take them to the farms.
Sawssen M’rad, the network’s Tunisian representative, explains that female farm workers usually have to squeeze into the back of a pickup truck, far beyond the vehicle’s capacity. There have been accidents in which numerous women (and the children they have to bring along) have died. In order to provide for themselves and their families, these women are forced to accept unsafe, inhumane working conditions.
But Sawssen emphasises that the challenges faced by Tunisian women in the olive oil sector vary greatly depending on their role in the supply chain. These challenges, incidentally, were the very first inspiration for Clever Harvest. We wanted to find a solution to empower those farmers and everyone in the supply chain.
A middle ground between these two corners of the Mediterranean, Egyptian women in olive oil face a little bit of every problem seen in other countries, as well as additional challenges that are specific to Egypt. “The production costs of olive oil in Egypt are high, and this is reflected accordingly in the demand by the end consumer,” says researcher and Egyptian representative in the Arab Women in Olive Oil Network Amany Mohamed. Amany explains that the price of olive oil in Egypt can be 4 times the price of other oils, which affects the choice made by the end consumer – no matter how educated they are about its benefits.
A researcher at heart, Amany also points to climate change, which has led to a major decline in the olive crops in Egypt this year. This drop in production is reflected in a further increase in the price of the oil, which in turn affects the inclusion of women who are already struggling to compete in the market.
Another environmental factor that affects the olive oil industry as a whole is the “alternate bearing” phenomenon, the tendency of some fruit trees to produce a bumper crop one year, and a much lower than average crop the following year. The olive tree is widely known for its strong tendency towards alternate (or biennial) bearing, which severely affects the yield from year to year in many olive oil-producing countries.
While the network’s members in most countries come from a practical background in farming and policymaking, the Egyptian branch mostly consists of researchers who analyse these environmental and agricultural issues and develop proposals for solutions.
Surprisingly, there is not a remarkable difference in Libya between the prices of olive oil and other oils such as sunflower. This means that olive oil is much more in demand by the end consumer than other types of oil.
“Even when prices increased recently due to the war in the country, the increase in the price of olive oil was equal to that of other types of oil, which gave the end consumer the ability to make a free choice,” says Layla Ahmed, ex-official in the Libyan Ministry of Agriculture and representative of Libya in the network. “The consumer largely tends to favor olive oil, as it is really popular in the Libyan kitchen.”
Layla estimates that about 70% of the labor force in olive harvesting in Libya is dependent on women. As in Tunisia, women in Libya don’t face obstacles to being involved as olive farmers.
“Our main problem is education,” she remarks, adding that the (mainly female) farmers who work in olive farming and harvesting lack the basic knowledge on how to take care of the fragile seedlings, to differentiate between the diverse types of olive seeds, and to decide on the proper agricultural and irrigation methods based on the olive cultivar and the environment.
As a part of her work in the network, Layla travelled to Tunisia to learn more about olive oil production techniques. Like other country representatives in the network, Layla perceives Tunisia to be the best example in the region, both in the adequate involvement of women and in advances in the production process.
Using her experience and network as an ex-government official, Layla is currently working on a proposal to develop olive oil production techniques, especially when it comes to the milling stage. The latter is an area that she describes as being one where women tend to be completely absent.
Algeria’s strong socio-cultural traditions mean that women face two main hurdles in their involvement in the industry: limited inclusion in family businesses, and barriers to economic independence and land ownership. “Women’s inclusion in the farming scene outside of family farms is still very limited,” says Safya Ali, the Algerian representative.
“The problem in family farms is that women can rarely become independent landowners, so they have to work under the management of a male family member; there is a major issue with male-entitlement when it comes to land heritage that has been going on for generations.” According to Safya, the majority of Algerian olive farms are family businesses.
In addition to the issues of inclusion and ownership rights, women in Algeria struggle with being educated enough about farming and marketing in a way that makes their products competitive in the male-dominated market. In Algeria, therefore, the network focuses its efforts on empowering women through intensive workshop programs.
The second main focus for the network in Algeria is marketing, which they support through promoting the success stories of women they work with – simultaneously promoting the network’s efforts in Algeria. The network is currently very proud to be promoting the story of the first female Algerian miller in the industry.
The Power of Alliance
In the Arab world, it might seem that harvesting olives is a traditionally “feminine” role, while milling is reserved for men. But we’ve found that gender in all other roles largely varies according to factors unique to that country, ranging from socioeconomic status and war to national GDP, climate and consumer demand. The full inclusion of women in this field is set to be a long-term process, but the active alliance of these women – and the exchange of resources that this facilitates – has the power to put them into the fast lane.
Are you a woman facing any of these challenges? We got you. Sign up for Clever Harvest and coordinate your production for an excellent product and full traceability!