- In the long run the sector could benefit from suspending trade with India
By: Younus Sandeela
Lack of investment in modern technology, weak government policies and unfavorable natural conditions kept Pakistan’s date sector from developing into a profitable industry. With around 600,000 metric tons in annual production, the date happens to be a significant horticulture crop in Pakistan. Grown primarily in the plains of Sindh and Baluchistan provinces this valuable crop, like the rest of agriculture in the country, suffers from general backwardness.
Khairpur district in Sindh, with one of world’s densest plantations of date palms, produces around 250,000 metric tons of dates annually. This makes Khairpur the single largest date-producing district in the country, producing almost half of the country’s total production. This also makes the date crop in Sindh more organized and geographically concentrated than Baluchistan’s. Aseel, the dominant variety in Khairpur, constitutes about 90 percent of date production in Sindh.
Most date varieties in Pakistan do not fully ripen on the tree and have to be harvested at “Doka” or “Dang” (Khalaal and Rutab in Arabic) stages. After harvest, the fruit must be dehydrated to get the final soft brown dates. Complete absence of technology means unripened dates must be sun-dried in the open fields for the purpose of dehydration and ripening. Lack of mechanization and over-dependence on rudimentary methods for postharvest management results in significant damage to the final quality of the fruit. And since the date harvest in Pakistan generally coincides with the monsoon rains, this damage is particularly high whenever there are heavy rains during the harvest season. The biggest damage is caused to the fruit lying in the fields for sun-drying. Many date-producing countries face a similar dilemma of the fruit harvest coinciding with rains. However, most of these countries have successfully managed to make use of modern technology for mechanically dehydrating the fruit and thus have been able to rid themselves of the damaging practice of sun-drying the fruit. Mechanically dehydrating dates not only saves the fruit from rains but it also preserves the fruit quality as leaving the fruit in the open fields for about six days and nights exposes the fruit to all sorts of contamination.
Pakistan’s date sector shows what happens when policymakers fail to identify an important agricultural sub-sector and leave it at the mercy of farmers and mediocre exporters. It also highlights the risk of overdependence on a single market. However, nature seems to be now forcing us to undo past mistakes and benefit from the available opportunity. It is an opportune time for policy makers, both at federal and provincial levels to promote Pakistan’s date sector amongst investors, both domestic as well as international
Further, lack of proper storage facilities, particularly the absence of a cold chain, forces farmers to rely on outdated and damaging practices for storing the fruit over a long period of time. Applying vegetable oil to the fruit in order to give it shine and to keep it from sticking together is a common practice that renders the fruit un-exportable as table fruit to high-end markets.
Due to the fear of rain-related damage to the crop, date growers in Pakistan opt for converting the fruit into dry dates (chhoara). The process requires boiling raw fruit at “Doka” stage and then sun-drying it. This makes the fruit slightly more resilient against water-related damage. However, this severely restricts exportability of the fruit as other than India, not many countries demand dry dates. Deterioration in Pakistan-India relations has resulted in discontinuation of trade between the two countries. Though an extremely unfavorable situation for farmers in the immediate term due to significant drop in prices, this could actually be a blessing in disguise as farmers are now likely to invest in technology and processes to save the crop from potential rain-related damage and opt for making more of fresh dates.
Failure to capitalize upon available technology and to carry out capacity building of farmers has historically resulted in around 80 percent of the crop getting converted into dry dates and exported to India at throwaway prices. The Remaining 20 percent is sun-dried and turned into fresh dates. Even the fresh dates, due to faulty postharvest practices, are damaged to an extent that they are no longer exportable as table fruit and are exported as industrial raw material, which again results in an extremely low value for exporters.
With fruit from the previous crop still lying in the warehouses, prices are likely to drop further as the fresh crop starts to arrive in the market by around mid-July. At these prices, Pakistani dates would become extremely attractive as raw material for processing into value-added products such as date syrup, date paste and date sugar; with huge international demand particularly from the confectionary industry in high-paying health conscious markets. With high moisture and sugar contents, Pakistani dates, particularly Aseel and Begum Jangi, are extremely suitable for such processing.
Pakistan’s date sector shows what happens when policymakers fail to identify an important agricultural sub-sector and leave it at the mercy of farmers and mediocre exporters. It also highlights the risk of overdependence on a single market. However, nature seems to be now forcing us to undo past mistakes and benefit from the available opportunity. It is an opportune time for policy makers, both at federal and provincial levels to promote Pakistan’s date sector amongst investors, both domestic as well as international.
Disturbance in Middle East, the world’s main date producing region, could seriously disrupt the future supply of date fruit and value-added date products. Setting up date processing facilities in Pakistan may not be in the interest of Pakistan alone. Producers of value-added date products may actually be looking for such opportunities outside the volatile Middle East.
Setting up date processing facilities in the country will not only help safeguard the interests of growers but would also contribute towards earning export dollars. There also exists an opportunity for setting up common facilities for curing of dates. In the face of complete failure by the government to set up such facilities, the field is wide open to private investors for setting up the date dehydration facilities where raw dates could be brought in by farmers for mechanized dehydration against a charge– a viable business with significant potential for growth.
However, for now it seems the present government, like most previous ones, is failing to focus on agriculture, the untapped goldmine, and trying everything else under the sun to revamp the economy.