Text: Kristiina Markkanen
A team of Finnish and Tunisian researchers is developing a local potato cultivation method to tackle drought, high costs and salty soil in Tunisia.
Researcher Radhia Gargouri-Bouzid is on a mission. She wants to develop, improve and distribute a local potato variety that can be grown in her home country of Tunisia. In addition to being heat and drought tolerant, it can also cope with soil salinisation. A variety like this could have the potential to save the livelihoods of many small-scale farmers, decrease cultivation costs and improve the everyday lives of Tunisians.
Potato is a staple crop in Tunisia. It is farmed extensively and is used in large quantities in local cuisine. As fresh water is expensive and there is not much of it, farmers have to rely on irrigation, which increases soil salinity. The salinisation of arable land is a major problem in Tunisia, particularly for small farms in the poorer regions, of which there are many.
Gargouri-Bouzid is helped in her task by senior researcher Veli-Matti Rokka from the Natural Resources Institute Finland, with a team of around ten Finnish researchers. Rokka met Gargouri-Bouzid, currently a professor at the University of Sfax, ten years ago when she invited Rokka to a workshop in Tunisia.
They began a correspondence that finally led to a three-year project, Development in potato cultivation in Tunisia – Towards environmentally friendly sustainable potato production, financed by the Finnish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The purpose of the joint project by the Natural Resources Institute Finland and the University of Sfax is to build up a production system for Tunisian seed potatoes using a local potato variety. The project takes place between 2015 and 2017.
Finland opens doors
A key objective of the collaboration between the Natural Resources Institute Finland and the University of Sfax is to use a completely self-produced and improved potato variety to bring hope to the Tunisian potato-growing areas ravaged by climate change and salinisation.
As the climate warms up, more water evaporates and rainfall diminishes, increasingly causing droughts during the growing season. As the rate of evaporation increases, soil salinisation will also become more widespread.
The project implementation requires money, training for the Tunisians in areas such as production and cultivation techniques, as well as help with equipment purchases. At the start, none of these existed and the research project did not carry enough clout to win grants from the private sector. Due to the lack of resources, doors were closed in Gargouri-Bouzid’s face.
“We have tried to initiate collaboration with individual Tunisian partners, inviting them to distribute our improved potatoes to farmers across the country because we couldn’t do it ourselves. Until now, we have not been able to find partners,” says Gargouri-Bouzid.
Doors that appeared locked were soon opened with the help of practical skills and financial support from Finland. Finnish professional skills have proven irreplaceable in the development of Tunisian infrastructure. Last year, Tunisian postgraduate students came to Finland to study meristem culture, micropropagation and mini-tuber production methods, among other areas of potato cultivation. They were also trained in other techniques of cellular tissue cultivation and methods of storing the materials for extended periods.
“Now that we have a Finnish partner and funding from the Finnish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the attitudes of potential Tunisian partners have completely changed. The Tunisian Ministry of Agriculture and the embassies of both countries are very interested in our project and its progress,” says Gargouri-Bouzid.
First steps towards the goal
So far, we have arranged training in seed-potato production in Tunisia, increased the material for improving potatoes, and carried out the first field tests in Tunisia. They have not had to start from scratch, as Gargouri-Bouzid’s team have been developing an improved Tunisian potato variety for a long time.
“Our next target is to register the variety. Approximately half of the potatoes cultivated in Tunisia are imported. By producing our own seed potatoes we will be helping Tunisian growers, particularly in the west of Tunisia, where farming remains the main source of livelihood,” Gargouri-Bouzid continues.
Much has been achieved but there is still plenty to do. This three-year project is only the first step towards conquering the world with a potato variety that thrives in salty conditions, but it is already offering solutions to major problems. Not a bad goal for a partnership that began ten years ago with a one-week visit.