Journey in the heart of the Mediterranean Sea: Tunisia, on the track of Stipa Tenacissima – Alfa fibre
Upon my arrival at the Carthage airport in Tunis, I am welcomed by Marzio Maiocchi, the founder of ATI ENGINEERING, a company that specialises in management and business start-up. Maiocchi who was previously an important player in the Alliance Project, in Calabria, has invited me to discover this new Tunisia with the hope that it will become an example for other Nations in the Mediterranean Sea by playing the role of trait d’union among continents situated on the Mediterranean shores.
I have come primarily to meet the artist and artisan women of the inland, but also to make acquaintance with the scientific world, the Administrators of Universities and the Government executives. The communities of the Governorates of Kasserine, Gafsa, Kairouan, Zaghouan have a ancient tradition of crafting art out of a Mediterranean shrub, called Alfa or Stippa Tenacissima, which they do not want to lose.
Alfa grows in dry, remote regions in the South-West of Tunisia, up to the Algerian border, covering more than 4 million hectares. In the rural communities it is appreciated as a barrier against desertification and it has historically been used as fibre to create baskets, wickers and, more recently, paper pulp. The processes adopted by these traditional artisans have a high environmental impact, consuming scarce water and energy resources.
My pioneering action for the valorisation of the Spartium Junceum, which combines art and “green” frontier technologies, could be of use in this territory. In fact, the Spartium Junceum, grows on arid and rocky terrains and has been known since ancient times by the Mediterranean populations.
On our way to Monastir (المـنسـتير), where I was hosted overnight by Marzio, we attended our first meeting with theDean of the Athenaeum of Monastir, Prof. Abdalwheb DOGUI.
I wrote to him before my arrival to explain the reason for my travels: to find partners who would help the Artes Institute to attract public and private investments in North Africa and Sub Saharian Africa with thegoal of creating and reinforcing a solid infrastructural network of industrial research entities. Such research entities would focus on fields of knowledge that would guarantee economic growth of the country, preserve natural and environmental resources, and allow the country to become a leading actor in the bio-economy era.
I have been conducting this task for more than a decade and, starting a few years ago, I could count on the support of the network, nzymes4future, which gathers together European Laboratories, Research Centres and Universities leaders in the field of green, industrial and environmental biotechnologies.
The main objective is to develop programs that would allow Mediterranean and Sub Saharan countries to become aware counterparts to Multilateral Funds and be able to negotiate the allocation of resources according to the African continent’s vision of sustainable development. Ultimately our goal is to achieve the valorisation of natural and cultural original resources of the territory, especially of inland and rural areas.
Although it was not easy to find time to meet within our full schedules, both Prof. DOGUI and I understood the importance of this opportunity. We met in Sousse (سوسة) in an informal atmosphere and we got straight to the point, coming to a quick understanding. We concluded the meeting with the intention of implementing the project idea to create synergy between the work already done in Tunisia and the networks mobilised by Artes in the field of bio-economy.
We arrived very late at Villa Abir; the Mediterranean Sea and the elegant environment calmed and reenergised me.
THE TRAVEL FROM MONASTIR, TOWARDS THE INLAND
The trip towards the inland regions starts on Tuesday April 22nd at 6,30 am. We move from Villa Abir, our base in Monastir to Kairouan (القيروان), around 73 km south-west, which is the fourth among Islam sacred cities, known for the carpet craft and the quality of its olives. After another 100 Km we arrive at Sbeitla ( سبيطلة), an impressive memorial of the common roots shared by the different regions that face the Mediterranean Sea.
Afterwards we head towards Kasserine (القصرين) driving 30 km on a road flanked by arid and uncultivated land, rarely interrupted by irrigated plots of land for olive plantation.
We are getting closer to the area where, in January 2011, the revolution (SIDI BOUZID) began. We arrive at the industrial plant SNCPA, (Société Nationale de Cellulose et de papier Alfa). We are guided by the General Director and by the Head of the Research Laboratories, and we walk through the entire manufacturing process, climbing up, in slight fear of our own safety, to the top of the plant. We are told that the many other plants located in adjacent areas are similar but that the one we are visiting utilises exclusively Alfa to manufacture paper pulp. The production is exported mainly to Japan, even though Japanese buyers have never come close to this remote region of Tunisia nor to the plant. The particular paper obtained by the transformation of Alfa apparently has properties of elevated permeability and very high absorptive capacities.
The process utilises soda, chlorine at very high temperature. The following day at the seminar in Gafsa , after Artes presented the Alliance and Ginestra Valley_nzymes4future projects, we had a long talk with the director about the great interest that these experiences could present for these territories. We will talk about new models of rural development based on the creation of infrastructures for advanced research, specialising in environmental and industrial biotechnologies and the revival of ancient arts and crafts.
The plant employs 200 workers, and clearly does not meet standards that would guarantee the safety of workers and of the environment. It appears to be in a state of decay.
To bring together expertise and financial resources in this territory would set a great example that could allow for further production of non-polluting enterprises. By creating links between the world of agriculture, science, technology, art and design, we hope to generate an environment conducive to the creation of new jobs.
THE SEMINAR AND THE ART EXIBITION WITH ALFA FIBRE.
After the visit to the plant, we continue towards Gafsa (قفصة), 112 Km southwards of Kasserine, in order to arrive in time for the seminar opening, scheduled for the following day.
We take a short break at the hotel, and we are ready for the opening of a design tapestry exhibition at the Maison de la Culture, created with Alfa fibre by the artist Samira Missaoui. We are in the presence of the Dean of the University of Gafsa, a team of professors from the Science Faculty and members of the local government.
The day after Wednesday, April 23rd, at the end of the seminar we take a tour in the research labs and we have a traditional Tunisian meal at the University cafeteria.
The major topic of the seminar is the shrub of Alfa that is, (similar to the Spartium Junceum in Calabria in Italy), a resource which seems to have a symbolic meaning connected not only to the hope of economic improvement and a better quality of life but also to the social identity of the population in this inland area bordering Algeria.
The Alliance Project, the story of my long and strenuous work to unite ancient traditions with advanced research for the sustainable development of marginal regions such as Calabria, creates interest and stirs new energy.
I conclude with the wish to create a team to carry out the project, thus transforming the idea into reality.
Two young students, PhDs at the faculty of Science, stop me and leave me their contact cards, with a note on top: “for participating in Alliance”. When we join the committee at the end of the seminar, I look at the young students sitting in the first row and I invite them to raise their hands. We need their help in the commission.
THE CRAFTSMANSHIP NATIONAL FAIR AND THE MEETING WITH MINISTRIES’ GENERAL DIRECTIONS
We have no time to lose, we leave the hotel a day before we are scheduled to leave in order to prepare the visits and meetings at the Craftsmanship National Fair, which will take place in Tunis on Friday, April 25th. This is an excellent occasion to experience the value of the artistic heritage of this country. On this occasion, we have the chance to meet the highest executives of the Ministry of Commerce and Craftsmanship who have been solicited by the officials we encountered in Gafsa to participate.
That same day we also have a meeting at the Ministry of High Education and Research with Prof. Slim CHOURA, Advisor in Charge of the National Observatory for Science and Technology and a mechanical engineer who, in perfect English, introduces us to a member of his team, Dr. Kochle Malek, Director of the Bilateral Cooperation with the EU who speaks perfect Italian and five other languages.
We establish an understanding of common visions and areas for possible cooperation; we talk about Tunisia, a territory of three continents, and about the unique role that it could play in the integration of North and Sub Saharan Africa.
PÔLE DE COMPÉITIVITÉ DE SOUSSE
On Saturday 26th of April we attend a seminar in the Pépinière at ENISo (Ecole Nationale d’Ingénieurs de Sousse), an “incubator” for more than 100 start-ups. During the seminar we are presented with entrepreneurial projects in the field of home automation. In the late morning we have a conversation with Prof. Zoubeir Tourki, the young and determined president of the National Engineering School of Sousse. We talk about his priorities: to institute training for home automation, science and advanced technologies, as well as methods and educational content that would guarantee the most effective way to connect university education and the entrepreneurial world. We also agreed upon fields in which we could cooperate as well as upon a short-term plan.
We finally enjoy a walk in the touristic port of Monastir, discussing our return to Bologna and how we can give value to the many encounters and experiences of our first visit to Tunisia.