Breeding dairy sheep: A family legacy in Tunisia’s rural areas
Béja: Growing up in a rural area in one of the poorest parts of Tunisia, Mohamed Ali Gaidi cultivated his passion for sheep farming: “It’s a part of me, like breathing,” he says.
This passion was not haphazard. Mohamed comes from a long line of farmers specialising in breeding dairy sheep for cheese production. He learned everything from his grandfather: from keeping the animals healthy to preparing the best cheese recipes.
When his grandfather died, the family was not able to keep the sheep herd, and they suddenly lost their main source of livelihood. It pained Mohamed deeply and he wanted to recover the herds, but at 24 years old, he wasn’t in an economic situation to do so.
Facing poverty and a lack of opportunity, Mohamed decided to move to Tunis, the capital city, to be a construction worker from his small town in the Béja region of northwestern Tunisia. This is a well-known crossroads for many young women and men from rural areas like Béja. Many of them don’t have access to quality education, decent employment opportunities, resources or essential services. Moving to urban areas to look for employment opportunities often seems the answer.
Mohamed worked hard in construction to save money and, after six years in the capital, he went back to his town to fulfil his dream: rebuilding his family’s dairy sheep business and carrying forward his grandfather’s legacy. For Mohamed, milk production meant carrying on a family legacy.
Back in Béja, Mohamed got certified in cheese production and bought a herd so he could finally start to produce his own milk. He focused on breeding the Sicilian-Sardinian variety of sheep, typical of the area where he lives. This variety was brought to Tunisia from southern Italy at the beginning of the twentieth century. Yet over time, the variety has weakened due to poor breeding techniques. Today, the breed is in danger of disappearing as the number of herds decreases by the day.
Mohamed understands the importance of safeguarding this race through good breeding techniques. “My area has a cultural and agricultural heritage that is unfortunately about to disappear. There are only a few of us left who have preserved it,” he explains.
Along with safeguarding this breed, his other priority is keeping up the quality of the milk, and he has a good reputation for it. He works in partnership with his childhood friend Fadi Hamzaoui, who runs a small cheese factory and restaurant where local products are used.
Fadi is like family to Mohamed. He has always encouraged him to improve and expand his business. He supported Mohamed in facing daily challenges, like getting the milk to the processing factory. In Béja, like in many other poor rural areas, roads don’t often connect isolated houses like Mohamed’s. In this hilly area, Mohamed has to rely on his donkey to carry the milk painstakingly up a dirt road to the dairy farm. But every day, Fadi is there, halfway, waiting for him in his car to pick him up.
He also motivated Mohamed to join him in applying to the “Agri-accelerator Hub”, an initiative launched by FAO together with the Tunisian Agricultural Investment Promotion Agency and the National Agricultural Research Institute of Tunisia. This initiative supports young people in establishing sustainable small- and medium-sized enterprises through responsible investments in agriculture and food systems. These would support the sustainable conservation of natural resources, benefitting the environment and the livelihoods of people in rural communities, with a focus on those in vulnerable situations.
Mohamed and Fadi were trained, together with more than a hundred young agri-entrepreneurs between 18 and 40 years, in how to design and implement their projects. The Hub, implemented as part of the sub-programme “Leveraging global instruments and knowledge products” funded by FAO’s Flexible Voluntary Contribution, helped young investors to refine their business plans through coaching and one-on-one incubation services.
Eighteen projects were selected to receive hands-on coaching. A further ten were selected to receive material support. Mohamed’s was one of these. He was awarded with equipment for milk production that will help him to better preserve and transport the milk to the processing facility, maintaining the highest food safety standards despite the limited road network.
His participation in the Hub was a decisive factor in improving his project and making his business more successful. He already had notions of environmentally friendly practices and the importance of healthy food, but the programme taught him more about farming methods that respect the land and the environment.
Now, Mohamed takes his sheep out to graze at dusk. This is his favourite part of the day, walking with his sheep and observing them to see if they are in good health. He then goes back to his home, which he shares with his parents and his sister in his small town in the Béja region.
With new confidence, Mohamed put into practice what he had learned. He has developed his own formula to feed the sheep using only natural ingredients. Furthermore, he has designed new packaging for the cheese, using a straw base instead of plastic.
Thanks to his success, other young farmers in his area see Mohamed as a leader and come to him for advice. And he is always willing to help them by sharing his knowledge and experience, knowing this is key to the empowerment of his community and the development of his beloved land.