UNESCO Social and Human Sciences
You are in the MOST Phase I website (1994-2003).
The MOST Phase II website is available at: www.unesco.org/shs/most.

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


Innovators in land husbandry in arid areas of Tunisia[1]



Fruit trees, natural resources, resource management, water conservation


Introducing the practice

Major socio-economic changes over the last four decades have led to a decline in farming in the mountainous parts of central and southern Tunisia and to the gradual abandonment of the  jessour and other traditional techniques of harvesting rainwater. In these arid areas, farmers and scientists are carrying out joint experiments designed to reduce the labour required to maintain the  jessour. In the process, they are encouraging each other to innovate in order to increase the productivity of rain-fed agriculture.

In nearly two-thirds of Tunisia, mainly in the centre and south of the country, average annual rainfall is less than 200 mm. Here, except in the irrigation schemes and oases, agriculture would be impossible without water harvesting. One of the most widely used traditional techniques to harvest water is the  jessour, an ancient system of collecting run-off from long slopes. The system is used in agriculture in the mountainous regions of North Africa to this day. Farmers build earthen dams (tabias) across the valley floors to trap the run-off water and silt. Although the entire system is called jessour, the word refers in fact only to the cultivated valley floor.

In the arid, mountainous regions of southern Tunisia, two major rural livelihood systems have traditionally coexisted. One involves sedentary farming by agropastoralists in the Matmata mountain range, and the other nomadic and transhumance herding of camels, sheep and goats in the adjacent plains between the mountains and the Mediterranean Sea. Sedentary farming in the mountains is traditionally based on olive, fig and palm trees growing in the  jessours, in combination with cereal and legume crops sown in years of good rainfall. Agriculture in this arid region involves high risks on account of the very low amount and high variability of rainfall. The infrequent but heavy rainstorms cause considerable damage to the tabias and much labour must be invested in repairing them.

Three major socio-economic changes over the last four decades have had a profound impact on the rural livelihood systems both in the mountains and in the plains. The first is that many men migrated to urban centres in northern Tunisia or Europe to seek employment. This increased and diversified sources of income for the families in rural Tunisia. The second is the enormous boom in the tourist sector along the coast of central and southern Tunisia, which generated demand not only for labour but also for fresh vegetables and fruit. The third is the descent of sedentary farmers into the plains. The government invested heavily in water-harvesting systems in the plains, not only to reduce the risk of damage by floodwater to infrastructure in the coastal zones, but also to replenish the groundwater. At the same time, this created opportunities for agriculture based on harvested water. The descent into the plains had two other effects, however: it led to the abandonment of  jessours in the most isolated mountain valleys, and it reduced the grazing resources available to the pastoralists. Communal grazing lands were increasingly transformed into private, cultivated land. At the same time, livestock numbers grew, further increasing the pressure on the dwindling grazing resources.

Because of the high labour inputs, low productivity and high risk associated with farming in the mountainous areas, many young men have abandoned it. They prefer jobs in trade and commerce or the tourist sector. Under these circumstances, it is a major challenge to make farming more remunerative and attractive to young people. The decline in interest in farming is most strongly felt in the immediate vicinity of tourist centres, such as Matmata, and in isolated valleys. Extended families have disintegrated into smaller nuclear families, so less labour is available at household level. The use of machinery in mountainous terrain is difficult and costly. The challenge is to reduce the maintenance requirements of the jessours and to increase the productivity of farming based on rainwater harvesting.


Content and approach

The best practice reported here began when a small number of scientists began to take a closer look at the innovations being developed or introduced by the people who continue to practise agriculture in the region. The practice is aimed at achieving technological change that could reduce the farmers’ workload and improve the image of farming.

The practice is in fact a programme in Tunisia: the Indigenous Soil and Water Conservation programme (ISWC-2). Researchers have studied indigenous techniques of soil and water conservation and are working on ways to improve them. The testing of new techniques on farmers’ fields has led to joint observations by scientists and farmers and to intense discussions between them. In some cases, the farmers and/or their neighbours have been encouraged to improve still further on the scientists’ improvements. These changes have, in turn, stimulated new ideas among the scientists.

Agricultural diversification and innovation

In response to the growing demand from urban areas and the tourist sector for products such as apples, pears, peaches, plums, apricots, grapes, and almonds, some male farmers had begun to diversify the species of fruit trees planted in the  jessours. Some farmers now have more than ten species of fruit trees in their fields–a radical change from the traditional olives, figs and palms. It is not unusual to find several varieties of each species (early maturing to late maturing varieties), chosen by farmers with a view to spreading the risk of harvest failure.

Some farmers are very skilled in grafting fruit trees, even grafting different species on one tree. For instance, combinations of apples and pears and of peaches and plums can be found. Farmers also graft onto the roots of trees that allow the young plants to grow in the shade. The greatest surprise to development agents has been the use of the  jujubier (Ziziphus lotus) for this purpose. Development agents used to regard this as a ‘useless’ species and the small trees were systematically uprooted in the plains of central Tunisia. The farmer-innovators who graft fruit trees onto the roots of the  jujubier regard this plant as an indicator for reasonable levels of soil moisture and soil fertility.

Another interesting innovation was the construction of a concrete dam by a farmer in a region where such dams had never been built before. He also constructed small sediment traps in the catchment to reduce the silting of the dam, in which he had invested considerable money. He used the water behind the dam for supplementary irrigation to grow a wide range of fruit trees and some vegetables.

Béchir Nasri Jamii, a farmer in Gasr Jaouamaa village (Médenine), is one of the farmers engaged in more than one innovation. He introduced various species of fruit trees, is very skilled at grafting, provides supplementary irrigation for his trees using water stored in a cistern, has adopted and adapted a water-saving technique that was being tested by a scientist in a neighbouring farmer’s field, and has changed the design of local beehives, thus increasing honey production substantially. Béchir’s father was the first person in the village to introduce new species of fruit trees. He worked as a cook for the Bey (king) of Tunis and, during his visits to his village in the 1940s and 1950s, he brought home a wide range of seedlings. In those days, the villagers reportedly thought it was ridiculous to grow these types of trees. The son, who worked as a painter in France for ten years, has continued to build on his father’s knowledge and skills. The growing demand for fresh fruit in the cities has led to a veritable explosion in fruit-tree diversification in the village, all of which began with an innovation introduced by a sole farmer. The first peaches to arrive on the Médinine market each year are from Gasr Jaouamaa and they fetch a good price.

Improving the jessours

Traditional water-harvesting techniques such as the  jessours must overcome numerous technical and socio-economic constraints. One major technical constraint concerns the high ratio between the catchment and the cultivated area (5:100). Large catchments guarantee adequate run-off in years of low and average rainfall, but occasional instances of heavy rainfall cause floods which can damage all the tabias in a valley. Because the infiltration capacity of loess soils is limited, the run-off water can stagnate for weeks in the jessours, causing damage to both trees and annual crops. A researcher at the Institut des Régions Aride (IRA) developed a technology to evacuate excess water. This was tested in a farmer’s field in the village of Béni-Khédache. To avoid destruction of the spillways and of the dam during both normal and exceptional overflow, the lateral spillway was replaced by two joined tubes: one vertical and one subhorizontal. The drainage system consists of a basin and a floater. The initial results were not as positive as the scientist had hoped. The farmer Béchir Nasri, who had observed the initial experiment, suggested some improvements and these are now being tested.

One of the techniques to increase the efficiency of water use in the jessours is the ‘buried stone pocket’ for the localized, underground irrigation of fruit trees. The original idea introduced by the researcher was as follows: the bottom and lower edges of a planting pit (1x1x1m) are lined with stones (limestone, sandstone, lime crust, etc.) laid in three or four layers with two or three sides covered with plastic sheeting to prevent soil from entering the spaces between the stones. When the pit is filled again with soil, a T-shaped plastic tube (3-7 cm diameter and 80 cm length) is fixed vertically between the stones near the fourth side of the pit. Water flows by gravity through a rubber hose from a cistern higher up the slope to a tap near the pits. Another rubber hose connects the tap to the plastic tube in each ‘stone pocket’ in order to irrigate the fruit-tree seedlings planted in it. This technology leads to faster growth of the individual fruit trees, while using very little water. Farmers who have tested it have observed substantial increases in fruit production.

The farmers have not simply adopted this technology; they have been active in adapting and improving it to fit their own circumstances. Their tendency has been to reduce the depth and breadth of the ‘pocket’ originally introduced by the scientist. At a depth of about 40 cm, some farmers have laid out a small circle of stones, leaving an opening in the centre. They insert a plastic pipe vertically between the stones, cover the stones with soil, plant a tree seedling in the centre of the pit and give it water through the plastic pipe rather than by submersing the soil around the tree. One farmer decided to put the plastic pipe closer to the tree so that he could continue to plough the land around it. Another farmer modified the ‘buried stone pocket’ technique so that it could be used for growing watermelons. The scientists are observing and learning from these farmers’ experiments.

Several farmer-innovators have now started on their own initiative to record the details of their experiments in a notebook. This allows them to compare their experiments with a control plot in their own fields.

Joint experimentation

In the second half of 1999, a small number of scientists, extension agents and farmers started to carry out some joint experiments. Some of the scientists had already been trying for many years to find ways to reduce the maintenance requirements of traditional techniques such as  jessours, as well as to test technologies to economize on water use. Whenever possible, they had used local techniques as starting points. Since the ISWC-Tunisia programme started, experiments have been carried out jointly by scientists and farmers based on the latter’s technique. These have included:

·           Using plastic bottles to irrigate individual plants (watermelons in 1999, potatoes in 2000).

·           Economizing on the use of water in greenhouses.

·           Building cisterns to store water for the supplementary irrigation (by gravity) of fruit trees and vegetables.

One particularly promising experiment is taking place in the foothills close to Gafsa (average rainfall 140 mm). It involves the temporary storage of water in a small concrete dam on a large piece of marginal land that a farmer had bought ten years earlier. He built the dam in order to see how he could use water-harvesting techniques. Once the dam is full of water, this is pumped to a large cistern constructed downslope close to his arable fields. Storing the water in a cistern avoids evaporation. This water is then used for supplementary irrigation of olives and almonds planted behind tabias. The local Regional Centre for Agricultural Development (CRDA), which is monitoring the results of this experiment, has already received requests from several other farmers interested in developing similar systems on their farms.

An experiment to economize on water use in greenhouses is being carried out in the Mareth area. A farmer is comparing irrigation by submersion with drip irrigation that uses a buried water distributor made of plastic for each individual plant. The first indications are that this technology reduces the water needs substantially. This is of great importance to farmers who buy piped water to grow crops in greenhouses. The scientists and development agents involved in this trial expect that this third technology will reduce the water requirements for crops by two-thirds.


The role of indigenous knowledge

The practice is based in the community and is consistent with the socio-cultural values and meaning systems of the people living in the community. The farmers involved in the experiments are well known in the community and other farmers who want to try the innovations in their fields ask them for advice and information. The local Regional Centre for Agricultural Development (CRDA) monitors all the experiments carried out in the ISWC-Tunisia programme.

Transfer of knowledge

In 1998 and early 1999, ISWC-Tunisia conducted four visits to farmer-innovators in Sned, Béni-Khédache and Mareth. Some 20 farmers, researchers and extension agents participated in each visit. The visits inspired some of the farmers to try out what they had seen on the innovators’ farms. A camera team from national television accompanied one such visit. After seeing the new techniques on television, other farmers also began to try them out. Béchir Nasri reported that farmers who had seen his improved version of the ‘buried stone pockets’ on television had tried to make such pockets themselves and had invited him to come to their farms to see if they had done it well.


Achievements and results

In the ISWC-2 programme in Tunisia, researchers have studied indigenous techniques of soil and water conservation and are working on ways to improve them. The testing of new techniques on farmers’ fields has led to joint observations by scientists and farmers and to intense discussions between them.

The programme has inspired many farmers and triggered their own creative capacities. Their innovative techniques increase the efficiency with which water can be used in the jessours, and serve as examples for other farmers in the arid region.

The results are sustainable (increased efficiency of water use), cost-effective (low input through simple solutions and techniques which are not very costly), and locally manageable (farmers could adopt the innovations in their fields relatively easily).

Strengths and weaknesses

Through the ISWC-Tunisia programme, researchers, development agents and policy-makers have become more aware of farmer-innovators and their innovations. New links have been created between these different stakeholder groups. Development agents and even policy-makers are following with interest the process of identifying innovations, experimenting jointly, and spreading the results.

The joint experimentation has triggered not only cooperation but also competition between scientists and farmers. The best example is the case of Béchir Nasri. During the first half year of the ISWC-Tunisia programme, he simply observed what researchers and a neighbouring farmer were trying out together on an experimental plot. Then, one day, he approached the researchers to tell them that he had found a solution to their problem of pumping water out of a cistern without silt blocking the rubber hose. From then on, he produced a range of innovations, including a mechanical timer to control the duration and the quantity of water use for supplementary irrigation, a tool for threshing cereals, and a technique for feeding honeybees. The programme had obviously triggered Béchir’s creative capacities, which he is now developing fully.

The practice does not have any obvious weaknesses. The intention in the next phase of ISWC programme is to intensify the farmer-innovation approach and to expand it to other parts of central and southern Tunisia as well as to other parts of the country. One way to achieve this will be to strengthen the links that have already been established with the Presidential Pilot Project on Agricultural Extension, which is being implemented under the responsibility of the National Farmer’s Union.


Source of inspiration

It would be possible to transfer the practice, but there certainly would be conditions and prerequisites to consider if the knowledge were used in other regions of Africa. The practice has already been replicated in the arid region of Tunisia.

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

Tunisian national television made a documentary on the innovations, and a paper about innovators in land husbandry in arid areas in Tunisia was submitted to the Tenth International Soil Conservation Organizations (ISCO) Conference, 23-29 May 1999, Indiana, USA.

In recognition of the work Béchir Nasri’shad had done, he was invited to join the Tunisian delegation to the regional Francophone workshop on Farmer Innovation in Land Husbandry, which was held in Cameroon in November 1999. He was also given the opportunity to present his innovations at an International Fair on Agricultural Technology held in Tunis in June 2000.


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

ETC Ecoculture

Ann Waters-Bayer

P.O. Box 64

3830 AB Leusden

The Netherlands

Tel.: +31 33 4943086

Fax: +31 33 4940791

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


Person(s) who have described this Best Practice

Chris Reij

International Cooperation Centre

Vrije Universiteit


The Netherlands


Noureddine Nasr

Institut des Régions Arides (IRA), Tunisia


Bellachheb Chahbani

Institut des Régions Arides (IRA), Tunisia


[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.), 2001. Publisher: EARTHSCAN, Earthscan Publications Ltd, London (UK) / Sterling, VA, USA. www.earthscan.co.uk


To MOST Clearing House Best Practices on Poverty and Social Exclusion

To MOST/CIRAN Database of Best Practices on Indigenous Knowledge

To MOST Clearing House Homepage