From sand to potatoes: how Algeria has galvanized its agricultural sector

As part of its agricultural strategy, Algeria is committed to cultivating the desert.

Hundreds of thousands of hectares of land are now economically active in the Algerian Sahara. In a few decades, these sand dunes gave way to new market garden plots.

This is a game-changer for the region of El Oued, which has become one of the main vegetable producers in the country.

“It’s a way for us to encourage economic activity and develop agriculture in the El Oued region,” explains Aladine Meknassi, a potato farmer. “Our ambition is to export our production abroad. I salute all the farmers who have succeeded in providing the best potato production in the country, a quality product recognized throughout the world.

Algeria exploits the sun all year round to its advantage. With these vegetable gardens, it allows farmers to produce not only potatoes but also tomatoes, peanuts and onions, in the off-season.

Without the use of sophisticated technology, the Algerian desert would remain dry and inactive. Instead, state-of-the-art sprinklers draw water from groundwater to hydrate the terrain. The palm branches on the borders create a kind of microclimate inside.

Adlene Mathallah, director of agricultural services in the wilaya of El Oued, explains that farming has become much easier, but also more conscientious.

“Here almost all the farms are connected to electricity. They use modern water-saving technologies to preserve the groundwater table. Very few pesticides are used. sustainable agriculture.”

Nicknamed “the city of a thousand domes”, agriculture is an ancestral practice in El Oued. Known as Ghout, the traditional technique is a practice protected by Unesco.

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Dates are another huge industry in Algeria. The date palm is often planted just above the water table, in pits dug between the dunes. The dates are then harvested by hand.

The pheniculture evolved, in particular by deepening to find water. The Daoiua estate, for example, uses drip-irrigated pipes ranging from 300 to 2,000 meters deep under the sand, to produce 35,000 date palms and 25,000 olive trees.

Modern technology is also used for harvesting. According to agricultural engineer Dalia Djaboub, new machines allow the estate to process up to 80 trees per day.

“When you’re faster, you make more money. That’s exactly what mechanization has done while maintaining sustainable agriculture and preserving the oasis and its ecosystem.”

The estate produces some 1,800 tons of dates per year. They are processed on site in the factory which employs 350 permanent staff and 200 seasonal workers.

A delicacy for many, dates are exported in various forms, such as fresh dates, pitted dates or even date paste. It is exported worldwide, with consistently high demand.

To advance

For its food security, Algeria also relies on large cultivated green spaces further north.

According to the UN, the country has the lowest malnutrition rate in Africa and aims to attract foreign investment to improve exports.

One of the objectives is to avoid importing half of the wheat consumed in the country.

As the reforms progress, the sector is structured. Now, start-ups are working to develop smart farming solutions and are looking for partnerships.

“Today we really have Algerian start-ups trying to innovate, trying to create smart farming solutions or others. We have a real challenge to make them mature to a much stronger stage and create a business,” says Fazil Bouaiache, an agricultural technology expert with Filaha Innove Foundation.

These new technologies will be essential to preserve groundwater and thus strengthen the sustainability of Saharan agriculture.

Lana T. Arthur