Libya is turning to olive oil -- the green gold of the Mediterranean -- to compete with its North Africa neighbours, conquer European markets and diversify its hydrocarbon-dependent economy.
"Libya has decided to promote the quality of its olive production to make its olive oil more competitive and increase exports to Europe," an official of the export promotion centre in Tripoli told AFP.
"The centre's new strategy involves all stakeholders in the production chain of the olive tree, particularly the private sector to boost its productivity and conquer foreign markets," said Taher al-Zweibek.
Libya ranks as the world's 12th largest olive oil producer, accounting for 0.25 percent of global production, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).
The North African nation lags well behind the world's top producer Spain (43 percent) and its regional neighbours Morocco (4th, 10.6 percent), Tunisia (6th, 4.4 percent) and Algeria (8th, 1.7 percent).
It has 8 million olive trees and produces 160,000 tons of olives for 32,000 tons of oil, according to figures provided by the country's agriculture ministry.Libya, a desert country with an area of 1.76 million square kilometres (680,000 sq miles), has 3.6 million hectares (8.9 million acres) of arable land, just two percent of the total area of the country.
But the olive tree, a traditional crop of the Mediterranean region which easily tolerates spells of drought, is a perfect fit for the arid Libyan climate.
The North African nation is currently experimenting with a new kind of olive imported from Spain, the Arbequina, which is famous for its highly aromatic fruit, said agriculture ministry official Saad al-Kunni.
Introduced in Europe during the 17th century, this variety is mostly grown in Spanish Catalonia.
"After an experiment that yielded encouraging results, some 1,900 hectares were planted with this variety in two agricultural projects," added Kunni.Libya, which relies exclusively on the export of hydrocarbons for its revenues, has failed to diversify its economy despite sectors with enormous potential for development such as tourism and fisheries.
Both the former regime of Moamer Kadhafi, who was toppled and killed last year, and the new authorities have repeatedly expressed the desire to diversify Libya's revenues without implementing specific strategies.
Speaking on the sidelines of a Tripoli exhibition of Libyan dates and olives, Zweibek noted that the new strategy also focuses on improving the packaging of finished products to make them more attractive.
"A national label will be created and used to identify Libyan products in order to facilitate marketing while establishing a relationship of trust with the consumer," he said.
The new authorities, Zweibek added, are trying to break away from the policies of the Kadhafi regime, during which bureaucracy prevented the promotion of any exports other than hydrocarbons.
Until now, the exportation of olive oil was the initiative of a few individual farmers and owners of olive presses.
Zweibek stressed that the state "will become more involved in assisting the whole production chain, from making the choice of which variety to plant to the transformation of the packaging process."
"The centre will also conduct studies on the European market and ensure the collection of data for the benefit of Libyan exporters to help them conquer these markets," he said.