As she slogs through her green fields, Jalila Tamallah’s calf-high rubber boots become muddied during the damp Tunisian winter. Here in the Oued Ellil, outside the capital of Tunis, she grows gladiolas, roses, narcissus, lilacs, iris, chrysanthemum and other flora.
Over two decades, the bespectacled Tamallah has gone from a school dropout to laborer to now head of a flower production business with her husband. She’s a bona fide businesswoman, spewing the figures of import costs and revenue and employee compensation, while tracking her inventory and planting schedules. But she’s also on the ground, getting her hands dirty for the harvest. In building her enterprise, Tamallah has also reached out to outside resources, including receiving loans from Enda Inter-Arabe, the micro financing institution in Tunisia. She says she’s proud at the profits her efforts have fetched and hopes to sow a better future for her two daughters and son.
The beautiful bouquet one finds at a florist starts, in Tamallah’s case, in a large, dank shed. Crates littered with dozens of loose bulbs are stacked on shelves. The brown bulbs are mostly brought from the Netherlands. “We don’t have them in Tunisia. You have to import them,” Tamallah says.
A hearty and vivacious woman, clad in jeans and a long navy work shirt, her patterned orange headscarf stands out much like her bright buds. Awaking at 5 a.m. every day, Tamallah directs her handful of workers on planting, watering and fertilizing tasks in the roughly 10 acres on which she operates.
“It’s not about the size of the land, but the quality of your products,” she says, noting that flower-growing in Tunisia is generally done on such moderate-sized plots, rather than massive plantations. For comparison, she cites a larger company that works nearby on eight hectacres, or nearly 20 acres.
Tamallah and her husband have divided their business duties: “My work ends here,” on the farm, she says. Her husband then goes on the road, distributing the flowers to three weekly markets and customers across the country. They also make arrangements for special occasions like wedding receptions.
Tamallah speaks expertly about all aspects of the flower-growing cycle. Yet things weren’t always so familiar. Tamallah comes from a family of day laborers. When her mother fell ill, she left school in the sixth grade to help support her three younger siblings. Later at 16, she and a group of girls left their town when they heard there was a flower farm in the region in need of workers. “We came here and we learned little by little. Now, I am the manager,” she says. The man running the farm would become her husband. Being a farmer was not something she’d envisioned for herself, but it’s become her life’s work. “I like this. I hadn’t imagined that but when I knew my husband, I went for it,” she says.
Together, the couple built their business with their evident team spirit. Among the avenues they pursued to expand their operations, they heard about the Enda micro financing branch in their locality and applied for assistance. As with most beneficiaries, their initial loans were small, about a few hundred dinars or so. Then as the loans are paid back, clients are able to take out larger amounts. With that money, Tamallah and her husband have invested in nurseries and the costly foreign seeds.
Tamallah says summertime is their most profitable season as well as around holidays. They’ve grown the business incrementally and have branched out into raising sheep and cows. She lists each expenditure and investment with detail that wells from a deep sense of ownership. “We work according to our budget. We do not make things difficult for ourselves,” she says.
Tamallah is pleased with their success over the years, smiling widely. “We surely are making profits,” she says. There are multiple material signs of how the money has helped. “When I came to work here, for example, I met my husband and we got married, he did not have a car, he used to rent cars,” she says. “Now we have a big one.” Back from the road, her husband opens the trunk door of their large white van, displaying bundles of purple-petaled blooms. They’ve also bought a tractor, machines and other equipment and related farming products.
Even with their hard work and progress, it’s not easy. At the top of the list, Tamallah notes that the land they farm is not, in fact, theirs. They’ve been long renting from a property owner. “I have been here for 20 years but the landlord could ask for his land back at any moment,” she says. Another problem as she and her 40-year-old husband age, she says, is that it becomes more difficult for those above 50 years old to acquire banks loans. She says she’d like to see greater investment in projects such as hers so that they can expand even more.
Chickens, turkeys, a tiny yelping dog and other farm animals scramble about the dirt driveway before Tamallah’s home. Blustery winds tear past the rows of pink blossoms surfacing from the grassy fields. Her children are also outside, with plenty of room to play. “I would like to provide for my kids, so they can have a future,” she says, adding that she wants them to continue their studies. “I want them to live well and to have a good future. I don’t want them to have a hard life, as my husband and I did. That’s the future and that’s what makes me work.”
To that end, with the profit from her business, she’s bought a small parcel of her own property. “I would love to have a building on that land,” she says. And so she tarries on.
But after all these years, can flowers still be beautiful? Has she tired of them? “Oh no, I’ve always loved flowers. I adore them.”