The Perfect Date

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The date palm features repeatedly in ancient Arabian folklore—it was where, for example, the mythical Phoenix laid an egg before setting itself alight. The tree is also mentioned across religious literature, including the Bible and the Quran, and its significance within Islam is particularly strong.

The prevalence of dates in Abrahamic religious texts makes sense, given the fruits’ role in the diets of the historic inhabitants of the Middle East. Primarily composed of carbohydrates and sugars, dates are high in calories and a good source of several nutrients, including iron, potassium and calcium. This makes them an especially valuable item in regions struggling with food insecurity. 

Dates fare well in hot, arid climates and as such are a staple in the deserts of Arabia, a region which has few other forms of indigenous agriculture. And while predominantly found in the Middle East, the date palm is cultivated around the world.

Global production of dates is concentrated in just a few countries, with the top five producers responsible for two-thirds of global production, and the top ten responsible for around 90 percent of production. Those top producers, in order, are Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Iraq, Pakistan, Sudan, Oman, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Tunisia. 

In most of these countries, especially those in the Arabian Peninsula, dates are an important part of inhabitants’ diets. The average Omani, for example, eats about 24 kilograms (about 50 lb.) of dates each year—translating to roughly 8 percent of his or her caloric intake (based on a 2,500 calorie daily diet). In the UAE, annual consumption is around 15 kilograms (about 33 lb.) per person, or approximately 5 percent of an Emirati’s caloric intake, while in Saudi Arabia annual consumption is around 8 kilograms (about 18 lb.) per person, or around 3 percent of calories. Unsurprisingly, Middle Eastern and North African consumption levels tend to be significantly higher than the global average.

Given that many Middle Eastern climates are inhospitable for most crops, dates, which thrive in such climates, are also responsible for a significant share of regional agricultural production. According to the FAO, dates accounted for 27 percent of primary crop production in both the UAE and Oman. Dates’ share of production is also significant in Saudi Arabia, Algeria, and Iraq, where they represent 13, 3 and 5 percent of agricultural production, respectively. 

Notes: Data are for 2013. Data are expressed in quantity (tonnes). Primary crops only, livestock excluded. 
Sources: Gro; FAO

Notably, the world’s largest producers of dates are not necessarily the top exporters. Pakistan, Tunisia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Egypt, the UAE, Algeria, Iraq, and France currently rank among the world’s top date exporters, by quantity.

In Iraq, dates are a particularly important export item: in 2012, three quarters of the country’s agricultural exports, in terms of value, came from dates (according to the FAO). In major exporter Tunisia, dates represent 15 percent of agricultural export value. This figure was also significant at 8 and 5 percent for Algeria and Pakistan, respectively. 

Note: Data are for 2013. Data are expressed in export value (USD). Agriculture exports includes both crops and livestock products. 
Sources: Gro; * = 2013 Comtrade figures; ** = 2012 FAO figures; 2014 Comtrade figures elsewhere

In 2013, total global date exports were valued at more than $815 million. But importantly, when looking on a country-bycountry basis, statistics around the value of date exports often say little about the quantity of dates exported.

While some countries receive a pretty penny for their dates in the world market, others are less fortunate. Pakistan, for example, is a top date exporter in terms of quantity, yet it received just around $500 per tonne for its date exports in 2013. Meanwhile, Tunisia, another top exporter, received over $2,200 per tonne for its exports that same year.


Figures are calculated using most recent data available.
Sources: Gro; * = 2013 Comtrade figures; ** = 2012 FAO figures; 2014 Comtrade figures elsewhere

Why is the disparity in value from date exports so significant? As noted earlier, the answer lies in the thousands of varieties of date palm worldwide, which produce fruits of varying color, texture, and flavor.

The taste of barhi dates has been described as similar to that of butterscotch candy; thoory dates are relatively dry and hard, and their taste described as nutty; halawi dates are soft and caramel-esque. The Medjool is a long-time favorite, once reserved for royalty given their uniquely soft texture, sweetness and complex caramel taste. The semi-dry deglet noor is another notable variety, described as having a delicate caramel taste. These last two varieties are particularly well liked and popular in the global market, and are able to consistently command higher prices.

In addition to a varietal distinction, processing capacity is important in determining the price that exporters can receive for their dates in the world market—those with access to modern and effective post-harvest processing and packaging techniques are able to ensure that when the dates arrive to the final consumer, they are of sufficiently high quality. A great deal of post-harvest processing is required to get dates from tree to end market; this processing includes fumigation, storage and refrigeration, washing, hydration or dehydration of the dates, curing and sorting.Dates then need to be graded, packaged and sometimes branded before they can be traded in accordance to whatever rules may exist between a particular set of partners.

The above process describes what needs to be done with dates so that they can be traded as whole fruits, but they can also be made into products like paste or syrup, for which the process varies.

A North African date story

While some producers fetch low prices for their poorly processed mediocre date varieties, others have modernized and optimized their date sectors to maximize export earnings. Tunisia is an example of the latter. Tunisia is currently among the world’s largest date exporters by quantity and is the top exporter by value. The country is a primary producer of the prized deglet noor variety, which comprises the majority of its date exports. Historically, Tunisia and Algeria have been almost entirely responsible for global deglet noor production, with the US and Israel also representing a small share of the market.

The preference for deglet noor dates is particularly strong in the European market. As of 2013, around one third of Tunisia’s date exports were destined for Western Europe, with France, Italy, Germany and Spain being some of the largest importers. These European importers are characterized as high-value consumers and are often, although not exclusively, seeking good-quality deglet noor dates. Tunisian dates were also sent to neighboring Morocco, as well as Russia, the US, Malaysia, Indonesia, and several other destinations around the world. Tunisia’s prominent position within the high-value date market is no doubt the secret to its success in maximizing export values. In 2013, Tunisia received $2,211 per tonne for its date exports.

Tunisia did not always hold the throne among date exporters, but rather gained the title through a concerted effort. Tunisian public policy has supported export promotion for over four decades, after the protectionist trade policies of the 1960s gave way to more export-oriented development goals through programs including fiscal incentives. These were largely funded by the government until the late 1980s, when ballooning public indebtedness encouraged the government to seek assistance from the World Bank and the IMF. The requisite restructuring that came with the IMF and World Bank money was multifaceted, but a few specific measures that helped bolster the country’s date industry included reducing tariffs, devaluing the currency, and facilitating the success of the private sector.

Even before these restructuring efforts, the Tunisian government had begun to more seriously consider the potential of its date sector. The government established several trade support bodies, including the Industry Promotion Agency (API), the Export Promotion Center (CEPEX), and the Tunisian Export and the Market Access Fund (FAMEX). More specifically targeted at dates, the Groupement Interprofessionnel Pour Les Dattes (GID) was formed in 1974, with the assignment to gather information about and encourage research on the dates sub-sector in order to control the quality of the plants, support exports, and establish base prices for producers. The Tunisian government had also been working to encourage the production of higher-value date varieties through new plantations and replacement plantings, while also making large investments in irrigation systems. In addition, the government had begun offering support to farmers through the provision of agricultural input subsidies, and support to date producers through export subsidies designed to reduce the cost of processing and transport.

Beginning around 1990, USAID began work on encouraging an export-oriented agricultural market in Tunisia, and started to identify potential subsectors, one of which was dates. USAID had indicated that Tunisia had a relative advantage in targeting dates as an export crop due to the fact that it produced a “rare type of date”— a “soft” deglet noor which could be sold either on the branch or processed, and that Tunisia was capable of yielding softer dates without the use of pesticides. The deglet noor is now less rare, and cultivated in several countries, but the varietal’s origins in neighboring Algeria give the North African countries an advantage in production.

USAID also assisted in the development of a marketing strategy for identified strategic crops — for dates, the organization suggested emphasizing the unique and desirable qualities of Tunisian dates to European importers. The strategy also suggested that the Tunisian date subsector could be improved by strengthening the existing date quality standards, supporting further privatization in the sector, and financing a pest control program (Europe’s strict laws on the allowable pest content of agricultural imports posed a challenge to Tunisian date exporters). 

The changes to the date ecosystem continued through the 1990s, when Tunisia began to sign onto important trade agreements. The country signed a Free Trade Agreement with the EU in 1995, which was fully implemented by 2008 when tariffs were completely dismantled. As Europe is not a significant producer of dates, but is a significant consumer of them, the agreement allowed Tunisian dates to more easily enter the European market.

The 1980s conflict between Iraq and Iran—both major date exporters—disrupted global date supply, and higher prices for the fruit created an opening for new market entrants. Tunisia stepped in to fill this supply gap, and through the following decade businesses began to take better advantage of the higher profit potential of processed dates. Historically, North Africa would send relatively raw, unprocessed dates to Europe, where they would be processed and repackaged. But by the 1990s, Tunisia began to develop its own processing and packaging capacity, allowing the country to capture more value. At the same time, the private sector developed a marketing language for its date exports, becoming less producer-specific, and more focused on emphasizing and bolstering the idea of deglet noor being a highquality Tunisian product.

How to master the date-ing game

A large part of Tunisian success has come from its marketing of a unique, preferred, and high quality date variety with a language that has transformed deglet noor to be almost synonymous with “Tunisian dates.” Its targeting of high value European markets willing and able to pay higher prices for quality dates has been an important factor. Furthermore, the government’s sustained and consistent export promotion efforts and support of the private sector have been critical.

What then can be learned from Tunisia and applied by other date exporters looking to maximize revenues? Not all date exporters work within the bounds of the same policies, have the same resources, or have the same goals, yet it appears that those Middle Eastern countries with limited agricultural diversity, particularly in the Arabian Peninsula, are failing to take full advantage of what may be one of their most important agricultural products. 

To better realize dates’ potential, those fruits destined for export should be high-quality varieties capable of commanding premium prices. There is some evidence suggesting that past attempts by Iran and Egypt to challenge Tunisia’s position in European markets have been unsuccessful — a failure which may have been related to quality perceptions. However, there may still be possible entry points, and a heightened focus on marketing and quality standards would help new entrants overcome that obstacle. 

And while North Africa maintains a hold on the deglet noor variety, new market entrants might find more success in marketing other premium varieties like the medjool or khalas.

Marketing efforts from prospective new entrants should aim to expand foreign demand for dates, while also encouraging interest in lesser-known varieties of the fruit.

The date consumer market has historically been relatively limited, and European imports have been largely stagnating or increasing modestly over the past decade or so. However, past success of the marketing of certain crops, such as avocados in America, indicate the potential for widening the consumer base through targeted marketing (see our piece on avocado markets here). Introducing language surrounding the nutritious value of the fruit, for example, may increase interest. Indeed, data from a major American medjool distributor suggests that consumption may be increasing, and is being driven especially by young consumers in the US. The fruit seems to have a more marked consumption increase in the industrial use realm, where it can be used as a natural sweetener to items including cereals, granola and a wide range of confectioneries. Dates’ unusual status as an all-natural, but uniquely flavored sweetener suggest that as consumers in wealthier markets grow more health-conscious and increasingly interested in natural products, the market for the fruit could grow.

But even the most robust date marketing effort will fall short of its goals if exporters fail to improve their post-harvest processing and packaging capacity.

Evidence suggests that in some countries, processing constraints limit the ability to expand date exports. Saudi Arabia, for example, has a surplus of high quality khalas dates that may be suitable for export, yet only a small share of Saudi dates are either processed or marketed for export. Encouraging the development of better, good-quality packaging and processing facilities will allow exporters to boost the volume and value of their exported product.

Finally, exporters may seek to compete against rivals by identifying potential areas of weakness. Despite Tunisia’s success story, the country actually has very low date yields—much lower than the US, Saudi Arabia, Israel, or Oman. These yields have been largely stagnant since the 1960s and there have been several reasons proposed for this lackluster performance, including climate change, desert encroachment, soil quality deterioration and an increase in the salinity of groundwater. 

These low yields suggest that better practices may exist still, and that competition on the basis of price— assuming the equal quality—may be possible. These steps may act as a guideline for revised strategies aimed at maximizing date export values for those countries that have yet to savor the full sweetness of the fruit.

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