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Best Practices on Indigenous Knowledge MOST/NUFFIC (IK-Unit)


Women’s innovations in rural livelihood systems in arid areas of Tunisia[1]



Irrigation systems, poultry, rural women


Introducing the practice

In central and southern Tunisia, women are involved in almost all activities associated with both rain-fed and irrigated farming. They are also responsible for specific tasks such as collecting firewood, managing the ovens (tabounas), fetching water, collecting traditional fodder, hoeing, weeding, irrigating, feeding and watering animals, and harvesting grains, fruits and vegetables. Some women have managed to increase production and their own cash incomes by developing innovations based on their experience in these activities.

The livelihood systems in central and southern Tunisia have changed radically in recent decades. New production systems have replaced the traditional pastoralism, which had been the dominant source of livelihood in this area for centuries. There are also increasingly closer links between the countryside and urban markets, and rural women need more cash to satisfy new needs. Women innovate not only to increase income, but also to decrease their workload. For instance, economizing on the use of water for irrigation reduces the time and energy spent on fetching water.

Married women are responsible for taking care of their homesteads and families and are in charge of certain agricultural activities. Rabbits and poultry are their major sources of cash income. Women generally innovate most actively in those areas that concern them directly. One of the women innovators who was interviewed was engaged in crop production and raising sheep and goats. Most of the women also practised some handicrafts. The area of activity in which the largest number of women were found to be innovating was in livestock keeping. Other innovations were in cropping, handicrafts, the use of medicinal plants, the efficient use of energy for charcoal-making, and improved stoves and food processing, specifically the processing of milk from sheep and goats.


Content and approach

Innovations in livestock keeping are mainly related to the feeding of sheep and goats, and the keeping of poultry, bees and rabbits. Mbirika Chokri, for example, is a 70-year-old woman living in Sidi Aich (Gafsa) who practises rain-fed farming and specializes in poultry. Her innovation consists of incubating chicken eggs in dry cattle dung. She puts the eggs with some straw in plastic bags to preserve some humidity. Each bag contains 16-20 eggs. She puts the bags in small holes dug in the manure, covers them with a piece of cardboard to protect them against damage and covers the cardboard with a thin layer of manure. Each day, she opens the bags to check the temperature of the eggs and to turn and aerate them. From day 20 the eggs start to hatch. She puts the chicks into a box to protect them from the cold and feeds them couscous, vegetables and bread. Mbirika began experimenting in 1995 when one of her chickens, whose eggs were about to hatch, suddenly died. She decided to put the eggs into a pile of dried cattle dung. After some days the eggs hatched, to her delight. She decided to use manure again in the same way to hatch eggs. Mbirika has now mastered this technique and produces numerous chicks.

Handicrafts include making carpets and other products out of wool, and weaving mats and other household items out of alfa grass (Stipa tenacissima). Women innovators in this area are found in all age groups and in all regions. Specific innovations involve producing woollen mats and extracting natural dyes from leaves, roots and bark.

The innovations related to crops included fig pollination techniques and the use of plastic bottles for the water-efficient irrigation of melons. For example, Rgaya Zammouri in Zammour village (Médenine), who is over 70 years old, uses 1.5-litre plastic bottles to irrigate watermelons and melons. She buries each bottle in the soil with the cork downwards. In the cork she has made tiny holes with a needle so that water is released immediately beside the plant. She fills the bottles with water from a cistern fed by run-off rainwater. The water infiltrates slowly near the plant roots and thus escapes the evaporation that is so rapid in this region. She started this innovative practice in the 1997-98 growing season. She used to carry the water from the cistern to the field in a bucket, but now the Indigenous Soil and Water Conservation (ISWC) programme has supplied her with a water tap and a rubber hose to facilitate her work.

The role of indigenous knowledge

Several women said that their innovations grew out of their own ideas and creativity, or were a chance discovery. Most innovations by women–such as those involving handicrafts and medicines–are rooted in local knowledge but adapted (in design, materials or use) to the new socio-economic context. Generally, women’s innovations–like the bottles for localized irrigation or for incubating eggs in manure–are simple, practical and low-cost and therefore have good potential for widespread dissemination. 

Transfer of knowledge

At the outset of the second Indigenous Soil and Water Conservation programme (ISWC-2) in central and southern Tunisia, training was given in various regions. This was meant to raise awareness of the innovation taking place among farmers, both men and women, and to place specific innovators in the spotlight. Local cultural norms do not usually permit male researchers and development agents from outside the area to talk with village women. As the ISWC team at the Institut des Régions Arides (IRA) was composed at the time exclusively of men, the help of professional women was enlisted for the identification of women’s innovations. Some of these professionals were from technical agencies and local institutions, but most were teachers and students returning to their villages for the long summer holidays.

Some innovations are quickly known to all female members of the community. Others remain known only to specialists. One innovator, Mbirika Chokri, did not share her knowledge and experience with her neighbours, but she did agree to ISWC-Tunisia’s request that she present her innovation on the radio (in a regional programme called ‘Agriculture and Innovation’) and later also on television.


Achievements and results

The innovations described here are examples of how women innovate in their own specific areas of activity. Some women have managed with their innovations to increase production and their own cash incomes, and to decrease their own workload.

More and more Tunisian researchers and development agents, as well as policy-makers at regional and national level, are coming to recognize the innovative capacities of rural women.

In 1999 and 2000, researchers and several women began collaborating on experiments to develop their innovations further. The challenge is to improve and expand this approach within Tunisia and beyond. Already, some of the innovations have been replicated in Tunisia.


Source of inspiration

The experiences of these women could be an example for other women in Tunisia and beyond. Because women’s innovations are generally simple, practical and low-cost, they have good potential for spreading.

If you think that this case could be useful in a different context than the one described here, please get in touch first with the contact person listed below (Administrative data). Intellectual property rights could be an issue.


Additional remarks and information

Women’s innovations have been documented in the Agriculture and Innovation programme of Gafsa regional radio and also on television.


Administrative data

Contact person

Chris Reij

International Cooperation Centre

Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam

De Boelelaan 1105

1081 HV Amsterdam

The Netherlands

Tel.: +31 20 4449078

Fax: +31 20 4449095

E-mail: cp.reij@dienst.vu.nl


Other partner(s) involved in the practice

Ann Waters-Bayer

ETC Ecoculture

P.O. Box 64

3830 AB Leusden

The Netherlands

Tel.: +31 33 4943086

Fax: +31 33 4940791

E-mail: ann.waters-bayer@etcnl.nl; waters-bayer@web.de


Person(s) who have described this Best Practice

Noureddine Nasr

Institut des Régions Arides (IRA)


Bellachheb Chahbani

Institut des Régions Arides (IRA)


Radhia Kamel

Institut des Régions Arides (IRA)



[1] This case is an adapted version of an article published in: ‘Farmer Innovation in Africa. A source of Inspiration for Agricultural Development’. Chris Reij & Ann Waters-Bayer (eds.), 2001Publisher: EARTHSCAN, Earthscan Publications Ltd, London (UK) / Sterling, VA, USA. www.earthscan.co.uk


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