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January 04, 2010

Tunisia innovates to protect date palm sector

by Sylvia Smith

Ali Fudl, who has just shinned a 50-foot-high date palm, uses his bare feet to anchor himself as he brings his sickle down to slice through a thick stem holding a huge bunch of hundreds of dates. He then carefully passes the 25 kilogramme load down to Majoub Thebet lower down the palm trunk who cries out a traditional religious verse in thanks for a bountiful harvest.

In the area around Tozeur in South West Tunisia, this annual process is being repeated in countless palm groves as the harvest gets into full swing.
Despite unexpected August rains causing damage at a crucial stage of the date's development, Samir Ben Slimane, commercial director at the Ministry of Agriculture, is confident that Tunisia will retain its runaway lead when it comes to Deglet Nour production. "Out of a total date production of 162 thousand tons, 110 thousand tons are Deglet Nour - mainly grown for export," he explains.


The translucent and succulent Deglet Nour is at the heart of the commercial date success story of this North African country.

Although Tunisia represents only about 2% of the world's production, it is the leader in terms of value of exports with 30% of the world's export total and it provides Europe with more than half of its Deglet Nour dates.

But while Christmas and the New Year see the highest consumption of dates in Europe, it is the holy month of Ramadan, when the Muslim and Arab worlds traditionally break their fast with dates, that witnesses the highest demand.
In order to supply this market, Tunisia has developed an agricultural strategy that eclipses its rival producers.


Because of Tunisian inheritance laws, large oases have been broken up into tiny plots and date production remains a small-scale enterprise whose final bulk represents the collective output of thousands of independent smallholders.

According to Najah Labcheg, agricultural engineer at the Groupe Hazoua Palm, the 148 producers who supply them with dates would not be able to export without combining their output. "Each of our farmers has an area of about one hectare with around 100 date palms," she says. "Each palm on average produces a harvest of five tonnes."

Collection centres line the roads in the area and while some of the farmers do their own picking, many leave it up to the collection centres. These are playing an ever more significant role in Tunisia's economy.

Dates contribute 16% of the total value of all exports and 5% of the value of the country's agricultural output, but preservation and storage is crucial because the Muslim calendar is based on the lunar cycle. This means that Ramadan moves forward approximately 10 days every year. With the fasting month getting earlier each year, it no longer coincides with the harvest.

Mr Slimane explains that Tunisia is taking steps to ensure supplies for the next 30-odd years. "We need to have fresh dates available for export to Malaysia and Indonesia just before Ramadan so we have trained our collectors and exporters in safe storage and preservation of fresh dates."



At the Morchani Dattes factory, lines of women dressed in identical pink uniforms and swaying like synchronised swimmers are picking out damaged dates carried along on a conveyor belt. As well as washing the dates, a high percentage of those destined for Europe are dipped in glucose, dried and then packaged into elongated oval boxes with a transparent plastic covering.

Quality controller at Morchani Dattes, Adel Benamor, says that no dates are exported in bulk. "We export in packages of 200 grams going up to 10 kilos. The European countries demand a variety of packaging so we are constantly looking for innovation."


While close supervision and the addition of glucose ensures dates will have a longer shelf life in France, Italy and other European countries, fresh dates destined for the Muslim and Arab worlds are vetted by two separate organisations. They need to be fit to be stored for up to 10 months without any preservatives. This entails collection centres ensuring that date palms are cared for all year round.

While only a small percentage are certified organic because of the cost, virtually all palms grow without pesticides or chemicals. While the government has put in new experimental plantations, Abdulmajid En Abdul Hadijh, agricultural engineer at Societe Beni Ghreb, believes that biodynamic plots give added value to farmers.

"Our biodynamic plots have three levels of growing. At the top, the canopy is the palm, then comes fruit trees - apple, pomegranate fig, apricot, lemon and even orange. Underneath at the very bottom are vegetables and forage for animals. We have been lucky enough to export biodynamic vegetable seeds. We're trying to find openings for the fruit trees such as drying fruit from the orchard".


As demand for dates reaches its end-of-year peak in Europe, dates that will eventually be sent to the Far East are being put into cold storage units.

Up at the top of his palm tree Mr Fudl says that the region's dependence on the palm, the main source of livelihood, means that everyone treats the date as a friend. "We see the entire life cycle of the palm. An older palm dies another is born. You will never find a dying palm that is not being replaced by a new one being planted. We are all aware of the importance of the date to our lives."

BBC

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