July 30 - Aug 5, 20

In all over the world Dates have great importance as a staple food and as dessert and are health food. Dates have found way into sweets, confectionery, chocolates, bakery products, preservatives, salads, sauces, and breakfast cereals. It is also used in bulk, in industries. Currently, Pakistan has produced around 300 varieties of dates. Begam Jangi of Baluchistan, Aseel of Sindh and Dhakki of Dera Ismail Khan are the varieties which are much sought after the world over due to their exotic taste, but due to lack of processing and packaging facilities these highly valuable varieties do not fetch their real worth in the export market. Unfortunately, in Pakistan Dates are only used in the holy month of Ramadan as a Sunnah.

The date fruit is marketed all over the world as a high-value confectionery and fruit crop and remains an extremely important subsistence crop in the most of the desert regions. According to the Pakistan Agricultural and Research Council, 4.9 million tonnes of dates are grown per year in more than 40 countries around the world. Iran is the biggest in terms of production at 60 per cent, followed by Egypt at 12 per cent, Iraq at 11 per cent, Saudi Arabia at nine per cent with Pakistan at 7 per cent taking the fifth position in the world date production.

Dates palm production is about 535,000-600,000 metric tons. Of the various varieties grown here, 85 per cent is Aseel and Karbalai. Other varieties are Fasli, Muzawati, Hillawi, Begum Jangi, Dashtiari, Sabzo, Jaan Swore, Kehraba, Rabai and Dhakki. Pakistan's environment is ideal for date cultivation. Varieties of dates are in high demand in Asian and European countries which can earn Pakistan sizeable foreign exchange provided its full potential is exploited. Though we are the fifth largest producer of dates, however, we stand at sixth or seventh place among date exporting countries on value-basis. Despite knowing the fact that the in present era use of dates in confectioneries are common, preparing date sweets, jams, chocolates, and other products. Even the damaged crop is used for medicinal purposes. Date oil is also fit for use in cosmetics.

Indisputably, the area and production of dates have enhanced significantly, in Pakistan, during the last 30 years. Date production in Pakistan surged from 148,000 metric tonnes in 1969-70 to 233,700 metric tonnes in 1982-83. It stood at 290,000 metric tonnes in 1995 and increased to 579,900 metric tonnes in 1999-2000, and stood at 625,000 metric tonnes in now almost spread over 98,000 hectares across Pakistan.

The main areas where dates are produced in the country are: Khairpur Mirs, Therhi, Babarloi, Piryaloi, Garrhi Mori, Pir Jo Goth, Rohri and Pano Aqil in Sindh; Turbat and Panjgur in Balochistan; Dera Ismail Khan and Bannu in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and Muzaffar Garh and Jhang in southern districts of the Punjab. The total annual production of dates in Pakistan is about 0.54 million tons with contribution of at Sindh 0.28 million tonnes, Balochistan 0.175 million tonnes, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa 0.05 million tonnes and Punjab 0.039 million tonnes, respectively.

Sindh contributes a major share in country's date production. The fruit is grown in Khairpur, Rohri, Benazirabad and Naushehro Feroze districts. Aseel and Karball are the popular varieties of dates in Sindh. Sindh's Aseel date has 65 per cent sugar content and is in demand in France and Germany for their use in bakeries. But the main hurdle in enhancing their export is the lack of processing and storage facilities. Dry date or Choara is exported to India on a large scale, where it is widely used on occasions of religious rituals by the Hindu community.

A number of special types of dates of Baluchistan are well known for their quality and production generally in the world and especially in Pakistan. Makran Division had acquired tremendous importance in the field of date's production, but is facing lack of packaging and processing facilities for exports. Pakistani dates, particularly those cultivated in Makran Division, ripe in early July and are harvested by the end of July or early August. Two-thirds of Pakistan's total annual date's production was produced in Baluchistan province and if it was exported to the international market, foreign exchange worth $250 million could be earned. But one-thirds of the whole production in Baluchistan is wasted. The rest one-third is sold in Karachi on comparatively cheaper rate. Shortage of storage and processing facilities is the reason for meagre export of dates from Pakistan. No doubt the construction of road-to-market roads is need of the hour to increase the export of dates as well as other agricultural commodities.

Pakistan entered the international date trade by sheer chance in early 1980s when Iran and Iraq went to war, and became the number one date exporting nation in the world by selling over 78,000 tons of dates in 2004. But, unfortunately it gets the lowest per unit value for its fruit $36 per metric ton (MT).

Exporters increased this commodity by 9.87 percent to Rs 4.098 billion during the first nine months of fiscal year 2010-11. During this period, the exports of dried dates increased by 4.41, by growing from Rs 3.453 billion to Rs 3.606 billion. Similarly, the exports of fresh dates increased from Rs 276.519 million to Rs 492.496 million, showing an increase of 78.10 percent. The over all exports of fresh dates stood at 6,257,961 kilograms in 2010-11 against the exports of 4,853,391 kilograms in 2009-10, showing an increase of 28.93 percent.

The inability of our fruits to compete in the expensive markets of the world is because of non-availability of infrastructures like hi-tech labs for issuing various certificates for health and environmental safety, non-coinciding of our fruits with the tastes and preferences of with high-price markets, expensive refrigerated transport facility, costly good quality packing material and other inputs needed in processing, and non-availability of credit on easy terms and conditions. All these factors not only affect quality but also result in confining our exports to cheaper markets of the world.

Pakistan has not been able to exploit the full potential of the fruit in the international market for lack of investment in post-harvest facilities which can help improve its quality. The growers adopt manual practices to dehydrate the fruit after its harvest, which is not up to mark. Side by side date producing areas need advanced processing and preserving facilities. There is also a need of superior branding and training of growers to enhance production and export of the fruit.

The gap between potential and actual yields is also very wide. This yield gap is the result of poor management practices and post-harvest losses. It has been found that the majority of growers do not follow the recommendations for an effective use of fertilizer, sprays, and timely irrigation. Post-harvest problems include improper handling, immature fruit harvesting, and inadequate transport and storage facilities. Post-harvest losses were estimated at about 20 to 40 percent of the total date production in Pakistan.

Dates usually mature in mid-July, though some varieties reach the market in June. It is always the monsoon season that synchronises with the crop's harvest which damages the fully ripe dates. To save the crop from monsoon's effect, farmers collect hard, unripe dates and boil them, which are called choara. The half-ripe date is dried under the sun. Because of rains farmers do not wait for the rest of the crop to mature and harvest it. The fruit is often dried in unhygienic conditions as it is spread on straw mats for drying under sunlight. Currently the production of dry dates exceeds the production of fresh dates (fully ripe dates) because the growers have to boil them for fear of being damaged in monsoon rains.

Date-growers also faced post-harvest problems like non-existence of processing and dehydration facilities. According to growers, the Research Station at Kot Diji of Sindh Agriculture Department was of no help to them. Government should set up cold storage facilities in major cities of Punjab and Sindh to increase the shelf life of not only date's but also for other fruits and vegetables for increase its export to world markets. In paper government had plans to establish Dates Processing Institute at Khairpur, yet, the timeline and budget allocation for the completion of project not mentioned.

Even, farmers want to grow Deglet Nour of Egypt and Amber of Saudi Arabia in Sindh as the soil and climatic condition of Khairpur district is suitable for production of these varieties. For this, they are seeking government help. Research Station officials remained least bothered about the problem. The Sindh Horticulture Research Institute (SHRI) in Mirpurkhas, which administratively controls the research station at Kot Diji, also did not strive to offer any help to the growers. In other countries dates syrup is produced but in Pakistan no research is carried out in this regard.

It's a high time that Pakistan explores its full export potential and export its product in these aspects.

Segment-wise focus International date market mainly comprises two segments (a) Dates as table fruit (b) Dates for industrial use. With distinct taste, excellent appearance, longer shelf-life and attractive prices, Aseel, Karbali, Mazawati and Dhaki varieties of dates can compete as table fruit in the lucrative date market in Europe (including Russia and Turkey), North America and Australia. If professionally promoted, dates as table fruit could fetch $2,500-3,000 per ton.

Along this, there is quite a sizeable market for industrial grade dates. Balochistan's Begum Jangi, Rabai, Kehraba, and Turbat-mix, Sindh's Fasli, Aseel and Khairpur's Punjmell could have a good demand in international market for industrial dates. There is a need for carefully planned programme to promote export of the industrial grade dates.

A newly emerging and important segment in date palm industry is high value-added date products. Such products include date syrup, date paste, date spread, date honey, date sparkling juice, date vinegar and date ethanol. Raw material for these products is low-grade and damaged dates, so Pakistan can also used its damage dates by exporting them as a raw material.

All we want is to government should show its seriousness, producing dates is a labour intensive job, which generates considerable employment in the growing areas. To improve the quality of dates and also the yield of the fruit per tree, farmers engage labourers at the beginning of every calendar year to cut down unnecessary fronds and for dethroning of the trees. Processing, packaging and sale of dates also provide meaningful employment to many people. One can say by giving attention in this field government can generate not only foreign exchange but provide employment too their youth.