Voir la version complète : Algeria struggles to wean economy off oil and gas

14/12/2009, 10h49
Algeria struggles to wean economy off oil and gas

2009-12-14 0857

By Lamine Chikhi TOLGA, Algeria (Reuters) - Algerian farmer Gholam Attia plucks an almost translucent deglet nour, or "finger of light," date from one of the palm trees growing in his plantation, and voices his anger. "My dates are delicious, they taste like caramel. I want to export but the bureaucracy is too burdensome," he said. "Look at the Tunisians, they are exporting dates to the entire world. Why not us?" This farmer's frustration is typical of the problem with Algeria's economy: for years, attempts to diversify away from oil and gas exports have foundered on red tape and a government that is out of tune with the needs of business. It is a problem in urgent need of a solution. Energy exports bring in cash but leave the economy vulnerable to fluctuations in world oil prices and do not create jobs for the millions of young people out of work. A spate of violent street protests in the past few months across the country of 35 million people highlighted the threat to stability from the army of unemployed young men. Date production -- centred on the Tolga region about 450 km (280 miles) southeast of Algiers -- is just the sort of industry that could offer a solution. In a country where oil and gas account for 97 percent of exports and other domestic industries have withered away after decades of neglect, dates are one of the handful of products that can find a market abroad. Algerian farmers mostly produce the deglet nour variety, a delicately flavoured fruit that commands a premium over common dates in European supermarkets, especially during peak buying periods at Christmas and the New Year. TINY EXPORTS Algeria is the world's second biggest producer of deglet nour dates, after its neighbour, Tunisia. Between them the two produce 90 percent of the world's exports of this variety, according to the United Nations' agriculture agency. Growing them requires special weather conditions, found only in the Tolga region and a handful of other places, and expertise possessed only by farmers, like those in Tolga, whose families have been growing dates for generations. Yet Algerian exports are tiny. Despite producing 500,000 tonnes of dates a year, Algeria exports only 10,000 tonnes with a value of $50 million, Agriculture Ministry figures show. Energy exports, by comparison, were worth a record $76 billion last year. Algeria could charge more for its date exports if it processed them itself, but it does not have enough factories. Most of its dates go in bulk to the French city of Marseilles where they are packaged into boxes and shipped to supermarkets. "We don't know how to export," Youcef Ghemri, president of the Algerian Union of Date Exporters, told Reuters. He blamed the government. Algerian dates are twice the price of their Tunisian rivals, he said, at least in part because the inefficient bureaucracy pays farmers' subsidies two years late. Algerian farmers lose out on marketing as well, he said, because unlike other countries, their government does not help them attend international trade fairs. "If the government is serious about diversifying exports, it must show it by helping us to enter new markets," said Ghemri, who exports dates to Libya, Italy and Spain. "STONE AGE" Government officials in the Tolga region said they were doing their best with the resources they had. The state is "encouraging the farmers to produce better and the exporters to sell more," said Fethi Lahlali, the top Agriculture Ministry official in the region. He said the government recognised the need to diversify. "One day, we will have no oil and gas to feed us," he said. Sitting behind a grey metal desk at her office in Tolga, the regional centre, Rachida Chebicheb is part of the government's drive to promote date exports. It is her job to track the local date harvest. The statistics she compiles will help agronomists understand how next year's yield can be improved. But she faces a lack of resources that is typical of Algerian government efforts to promote economic growth outside the oil and gas industry. "Very often we ask the farmers to send us a car so we can visit their palm plantations and do our job. Our statistics lack precision," Chebicheb told Reuters. She had another problem too: though her office has a computer, when she needs date harvest statistics on paper she takes out her pen and writes them down. "The administration did not include in our budget the prices of the printer and the ink cartridges," she said. "This is why we are still in the Stone Age here." 2009-12-14 0857