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March 23, 2016

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

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Photo CC-BY-NC-SA: Tarek Marzougui

Emma Ben-Haouala Bernegger has established her own brand of organic products in Tunisia, reviving traditional methods.

Emma was born and raised in Switzerland to a couple of small mountain farmers. To provide food for her family, her mother cultivated a vegetable garden where she harvested cereals, potatoes, vegetables, nuts, pears, apples, apricots and plums that she dried or preserved in jars.

In the Tunisian dialect, the word ‘Oula’ refers to the preparation of food reserves from one’s own production. In Switzerland, this method that was widespread during the 1960s is endangered today. People prefer to go to the supermarket. However, when I moved to Tunisia, I noticed that the tradition of Oula was still practiced by many families," says Emma Ben-Haouala Bernegger. 

Nature and body reunited

It is in the south of Switzerland that Emma met her Tunisian husband who, like her, grew up in a rural environment. "At that time, I also discovered Rudolf Steiner’s ideas. He was the founder of the anthroposophic society and had a wide knowledge in many fields such as medicine, philosophy and nutrition. His precepts were the foundations of an agrarian reform based on organic farming and on the dynamics of the unity of body and nature. Today we speak rather of biodynamic agriculture. With this knowledge, I developed a passion for natural and balanced nutrition," Emma adds.

When her husband wanted to return to Tunisia, Emma joined him with their children. "Little by little, I started to adapt to my new cultural environment, and I started to establish connections between my origins and Tunisian culture. At first, I wanted to dedicate myself only to my family. To fill my free time I managed a haberdashery. Then, I rediscovered the tradition of developing and conditioning cereals and vegetables of great nutritional value”, Emma remembers.

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Photo CC-BY-NC-SA: Tarek Marzougui

Great personal commitment

It all started when she helped her husband in a project to produce fresh pasta. She insisted on integrating production into a larger ecological logic. The couple produced whole wheat couscous and experimented with various flavors. Emma then added products made from oats, barley and milled cereal grains. In addition to the stores in her immediate vicinity, the supermarket chain Monoprix and a small shop in El Manar started to show interest in her products. But success was ultimately due to Emma’s perseverance, to the organic certification of products and producers, to the specification of the products’ origin on the labels and to having developed traditional production processes.

Today, Emma’s company is named Napolis and employs 25 people on a full-time basis. Before joining the company, the majority of these individuals, who live in Emma’s region, were unemployed. Emma took care of the training that she considers fundamental to her company’s growth. She then worked hard on developing the employees’ sense of belonging and loyalty to the company. She has also invited German advisers and experts to organize vocational training courses.

For Emma, the international organic market is perverted by commercialism. That is why she has no plans to export her company’s products. For now, her primary objective is to maintain the quality of her products. To this end, she is working on developing closer cooperation with farmers in the region. Emma regrets the lack of manpower – despite hundreds of thousands of unemployed people in Tunisia. That there can still be a shortage of qualified workers is due, in her opinion, to the bad image of agricultural activity held by the local population.

Emma Ben-Haouala Bernegger has no intention of giving up. "When I first arrived in Tunisia, I heard the word bismillah. It means that we must rely on God. Personally, I interpret it in the sense of the Arab proverb: "In the evening, they make sure that their camels are well tied before entrusting them to God", she concludes.

Tags: building resilient food systems, organic farming, traditional knowledge