Blessing Mutsambwa Tinarwo Correspondent
Palm trees have become a common sight not only in tropical regions of the world where they are naturally found, but also in and around homes and cities in Zimbabwe.
It is not a disputable fact that palm trees are ranked amongst the most beautiful trees in the world.
These tall trees with very unique trunks and magnificent leaves usually associated with warm sunshine and sandy beaches have become very popular in landscaping.
Fortunately, there are species suitable for any amount of space, for expansive compounds and for compact spaces.
Some species are so small they can be planted at your doorstep or even in a pot.
One uncommon fact about palm trees is that they can produce edible fruits which are also of substantial economic, environmental and social value.
The most common fruit-producing palm trees include: Date palms (Phoenix dactylifera), Coconut palms (Cocos nucifera) and Acai palm (Euterpe oleracea).
From these, the most important are date palms which have some economic value that can be harnessed for economic growth.
The date palm is a flowering plant species in the palm family, cultivated for its edible and highly nutritious sweet fruit and is considered to be the oldest amongst the cultivated tree fruits.
Phoenix dactylifera is the type species of genus Phoenix, which contains 12–19 species of wild date palms, and is the major source of commercial production.
The Date Palm is considered as one of the oldest and main staple and ancient crops in Southwest Asia, Middle East, and North Africa.
Spanish missionaries in the 18th and early 19th century further distributed date palm and it is currently cultivated in various parts of the world including Benin, Cameroon, Eswatini, Kenya, Namibia and Nigeria.
According to FAO, in 2017, global date production covered 13,4 million hectares, yielding 31 million tonnes.
Date trees typically reach about 21–23 meters in height, growing singly or forming a clump with several stems from a single root system.
Date fruits (dates) are oval-cylindrical, 3 to 7 centimetres long, and about 2.5 centimetres in diameter, ranging from bright red to bright yellow in colour, depending on variety.
They are very sweet, containing about 75 percent of sugar when dried.
Unlike other fruits, fully tree ripened dates are a naturally preserved food that can be transported or stored for several months without further processing.
This is because a fully ripened date is a semi-dried fruit and is akin to any other fresh fruit.
Date palms can take 4 to 8 years after planting before they will bear fruit, and start producing viable yields for commercial harvest between 7 and 10 years and can live as long as 150 years, but fruit production declines with increasing age and under commercial cultivation trees are replaced much earlier.
It has been observed that economic activities generated through date production and trade can positively contribute to the attainment of a number of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as well as developmental plans like the National Development Strategy 1 (2021 – 2025) in the case of Zimbabwe.
In this regard, there is need to promote research in this area as well as to avail resources for farmers to venture into the production of the date palm.
Of course, the introduction of a new commercial crop to a country is fraught with uncertainty, but expanding our horticultural base remains critical for Zimbabwe.
As we explore the prospects, there are some critical questions that we need to ask ourselves as a country. Are the climatic and growing conditions right? Are the necessary inputs, such as planting material and fertilizer, available at the right price? Is there a market for the crop? Can farmers get good technical advice?
Availability of water, irrigation and the suitable agro-ecological zones with sandy soils can also help in the cultivation of the fruit commonly associated with desert conditions.
It is quite possible to develop Zimbabwe to become one of few date-growing centres in southern Africa.
What makes this all possible is that the country now has the Zimbabwe Horticulture Recovery and Growth Plan in place.
Government launched this ambitious plan to revolutionaries rural agriculture which could see remote areas of the country being transformed into exotic fruit production hubs.
All this is part of efforts to help targets set under the National Development Strategy (NDS1) to revive horticultural production with a focus on exports as well as improved household nutrition.
Research and innovation can help drive this strategy by looking at date palm farming as an avenue to also boost food and nutrition security, income generation and rural agro-industry development.
Already, the Government has unveiled plans to support the growing of apples, granadilla, pecan nuts, apple, guava, mango, lemon, avocado pears and macadamia trees at household level.
In the first phase running to December 2021 it has a target of providing 500 000 seedlings to farmers depending on suitability of the fruit tree to the agro-ecological regions and potential income to be generated.
As Zimbabwe moves to create a critical mass for local industrial beneficiation of both indigenous and exotic vegetables and fruits, it very critical to expand the diversity of our horticultural base by also tapping into date palm farming.
Horticultural production and exports have been the fastest growing sector in the Zimbabwean economy registering massive growth rates over the past few years.
In the first half of 2021, Zimbabwe’s total horticulture exports exceeded US$30 million as firms benefited immensely from government incentives, good rains and reopening of global markets.
According to official data released by local trade promotion body, ZimTrade, the growth in exports represents a 6.5 percent increase from US$31,8 million dollars during the same period last year to US$433,9 million.
Players in the sector attribute the growth in exports earnings to a horticulture recovery plan, financing schemes and technical assistance from government and development partners.
Major contributors of revenues during the period under review include tea, macadamia nuts, citrus, fresh flowers and leguminous vegetables.
Prospects for continued growth are encouraging and palm date farming is worth considering as part of diversifying economic risks associated with climate change, drought and market risks.
The most important export destination is the European market which takes the bulk of our cutflowers, vegetables, herbs and spices and citrus.
Widening our horticultural base to include palm dates can increase our export earnings and enhance livelihood options for smallholder farmers.
The horticulture sector has tremendous prospects for growth and can cushion the Zimbabwean economy through drought years.
Our neighbours, Namibia, with the support of the FAO, have registered progress by promoting date palm farming as of the south-west African country’s vision to expand its exports.
The country has turned out to be well suited to date palm cultivation as it is free of major date palm pests and diseases.
Its export-oriented commercial farm sector is open to new opportunities and new ways of doing things taking advantage of the Southern Hemisphere’s natural advantage selling fresh produce to the north during the north’s off-season.
If Namibia can do it, Zimbabwe can too.
About five years ago the country had five growers and now the numbers have increased more than 10 fold, to 50.
With direct support from Government and technical support from the FAO it is possible to promote the growing date palms in Zimbabwe.
Zimbabwe can become a new comer to date palm production if we conduct research and promote date palm farming in suitable agro-ecological zones of the country.
Date palm trees are traditionally propagated from either seeds or suckers (basal stem offshoots produced in the early years of the life of the palm).
In commercial date orchards around Israel, date trees are grown by cloning adult date trees.
The climatic requirements for date palm cultivation are hot and arid conditions and therefore access to water/irrigation is essential.
Currently, Israel supplies around 75 percent of all Medjool dates to Europe, but it is expected that production in Jordan and the Palestinian territories will grow quickly as new plantations reach maturity.
Date production is a world agricultural industry producing about 5,4 million metric tons of fruit.
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.
In 2016, the global date trade amounted to US$1,2 billion, providing a major source of export revenues as well as of livelihoods and income for millions of rural smallholders.
According to the FAO, Egypt is the largest producer of dates in the world accounting for 17 percent of global production.
According to ITC’s Export Potential Map the markets with greatest potential for date exports in the MENA region are the UAE and Morocco. The combined untapped import potential is estimated to be worth more $235m.
This represents opportunities for dates producing countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia, who can benefit from zero tariffs under the Greater Arab Free Trade Area agreement.
In the last five years, European imports of dates increased annually at an average rate of 15 percent in value and 9 percent in volume, reaching €347 million and 145 000 tonnes respectively.
The higher growth rate in value than in volume indicates an increase in import prices.
France, the United Kingdom and Germany are currently the largest European import markets for dates, offering good opportunities for exporters.
The fast-growing markets of Poland and Spain also offer opportunities for exporters of dates.
Date palm is considered as an important constituent of farming systems in dry and semi-arid regions and is suitable for both small- and large-scale farming.
It is one of those fruit trees with highest production per hectare.
Multiple usage patterns of the date palm tree, high nutritional composition, profitability as well as environmental advantages makes date palm a good choice for small and medium farmers.
The production of dates in Zimbabwe can help to enhance livelihoods and export earnings for people who stay especially in natural regions four and five.
There is envisaged future growth in demand for natural sugars in addition to the already existing supply gap for dates of more than US$230 million.
l Blessing Mutsambwa Tinarwo is the acting deputy director, communications and advocacy department (CAD) in the Ministry of Finance and Economic Development