By Ali Saeed
Seconds after the call to prayer is heard, people extend their hands towards the plate of small red, yellow or dark-brown elongated sweet fruit. Dates are a signature of every iftar (breaking of the fast) throughout the Muslim world.
The tradition of breaking the fast with a date goes back to the practice of the Prophet Mohammed (Peace Be Upon Him) and the story of The Virgin Mary. According to the Holy Quran, after delivering the Prophet Jesus, Mary was told to shake the palm tree and to eat fresh dates, symbolizing the importance of the fruit. To this day, pregnant women in Yemen and various Arab countries are recommended to eat dates immediately after childbirth.
Dates themselves have been known in the Arab world since the pre-Islamic era and have been an important staple food for the Middle East for thousands of years. The History of the region is rich of stories regarding the dates: during wars, fighters would check the camels’ dung, looking for date stone, as a way to track their enemies. Not only are they popular for eating, but the palm tree itself has also been used in a variety of ways. Houses and mosques have been built with palm leaves. Indeed, every part of the palm tree is useful including the trunk, which is used in some coastal areas of Yemen, particularly Hadramout and Tehama, as pillars for the roofs.
According to the Ministry of Agriculture, Yemenis consume approximately 80,000 tons of dates every year, and their production has almost doubled since 2005. Prices of dates vary according to variety and quality from 500 Yemeni Riyal ($2.30) to 6,000YR ($30) per kilogram.
Yemenis have different habits for dates purchasing. “People in the southern governorates generally tend to buy them throughout the year, whereas in the north, they eat them only in Ramadan,” explained Fawaz Hizam, a dates wholesaler and retailer who owns two shops in Sana’a and Aden.
While the ministry claims that the local production covers 75 percent of the market needs, Amjad Bagwigo, researcher at the Agricultural Research Authority in Al-Mukalla, disagrees stating that this can only apply in Hadramout because the dates on sale in the rest of the country are in fact imported, majority coming from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries.
Challenges to the Date Industry
This is partially due to the poor packaging of the Yemeni dates, which uses second hand plastic bags. In addition, farmers face problems storing the dates, since most of them do not have large mobile refrigerators. This impacts the quality of the dates reducing consumers demand, and sometimes forcing farmers to use the dates as food for the sheep.
“There are superior varieties of Yemeni dates but every year they remain on the palms due to the lack of harvesting mechanism and modern packaging and storing methods. So the birds are the ones eating them,” complained Hizam, who has been working in the trade of dates for over ten years in Aden and Sana’a.
Despite the existence of over one million and a half palm trees in Wadi Hajr in Hadramout Bagwigo confirmed that the dates are often wasted because of the lack of a good agricultural marketing strategy and the lower standards compared to those used in the region.
The challenge is not simply a marketing issue, farmers are also complaining about the palm trees. Some produce more than others, and hence some varieties of dates are more widely available. “Many palms particularly in Hadramout do not bear a lot of dates,” said Bagwigo. “Farmers need to replace the existing trees with other varieties with higher-production.”
Despite these challenges, hope remains for this industry to become a major source of revenues for Yemen. Hizam says that varieties of excellent quality exist in palm-farms in Hajja, which are better than the Saudi and Emirati ones.
The Hadramout Reconstruction Fund has already started distributing these desired varieties to farmers in Hadramout such as Al-Barhi and Al-Khalas, both types well known internationally.
“The environment in Yemen is ready for a huge industry, and it only requires a clear agricultural strategy to reach the desired goal,” said Bagwigo. “I hope to see one day Yemen’s dates sold in shops locally and internationally as the best international brand,” he concluded with a large smile.Français
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