In recent years dates have taken on new significance in the local economy. Since 2005 the emirate has made a concerted effort to boost annual production of dates and improve the quality of the date crop, with the long-term goal of turning the industry into a driver of growth within the agricultural sector. The government-led initiative has transformed the local date market. “In 2012 we processed around 93,000 tonnes of dates from farmers, up from just 30,000 in 2005,” said Fares Sumairi, marketing manager at the Al Foah Company, the state-owned firm that oversees all aspects of the UAE’s date industry. “In 2013 we expect to see production top 103,000 tonnes.”
A Perfect Fit
The date palm is one of the only fruit-bearing plants that can be easily cultivated on the arid desert land in and around Al Ain and Al Gharbia, the emirate’s two major date-producing regions. In 1971, the year the UAE was established, the country produced less than 8000 tonnes of dates, almost entirely on a non-commercial basis. As a result of a considerable amount of new plantings in the decades following independence, this figure jumped to around 240,000 tonnes by 1995 and more than 500,000 by 2000, according to statistics published by UAE University’s Date Palm Research and Development Programme (DPRDP). Date exports rose significantly over this period, from zero in 1971 to more than 50,000 tonnes in 1998, according to data from the DPRDP. By 2009 the UAE was the fourth-largest date producer in the world and the world’s top date exporter, with around 90% of local production sold abroad, according to a report issued by the Ministry of Foreign Trade. In 2012, according to data from Al Foah, Abu Dhabi’s date crop was worth more than Dh548.39m ($149.27m), up from Dh516.37m ($140.55m) in 2011 and Dh439.9m ($119.73m) in 2010.
The rapidly rising production and export rates over the past eight years are directly linked to the creation of Al Foah in 2005. The company, a subsidiary of Abu Dhabi’s General Holding Company, replaced a number of smaller state-run entities when it was launched.
Al Foah was established with a mandate to streamline and commercialise the UAE’s date farming segment in an effort to boost production and exports and add value to the date market. Prior to the establishment of the firm, the date industry operated on a semi-commercial basis. Al Foah’s major responsibilities include purchasing the date crop in its entirety from the UAE’s 17,000 date farmers, processing and packaging the crop, and marketing and selling it in the UAE, the Middle East and around the world.
More Than Just Dates
Adding value to the crop, both through processing and marketing, is one of Al Foah’s key objectives. “Prior to 2005 dates were widely seen as a low-value commodity in Abu Dhabi,” Sumairi told OBG. “We have worked to change this perception in a number of ways.” On the production side, Al Foah provides subsidies to farmers to encourage them to produce high-quality dates using modern farming methods and technologies (see analysis). The firm’s subsidy policy has resulted in a major uptick in both yield and quality over the past eight years.
Marketing, branding, and an array of new processing and packaging techniques are considered to be central to Al Foah’s long-term objective of adding value to the UAE’s date crop. The company has launched a number of new brands in recent years in an effort to target specific niche markets. Under the Zadina brand, for example, which was launched in 2010, Al Foah aims to market premium dates as luxury products in Europe, East Asia and other high-end markets.
Products under the Zadina brand include besr juice, date fudge, date truffles and date ice cream, among others. Other Al Foah brands include Date Crown dates, which are sold in high-end supermarkets in the Middle East, India, Australia and China; Al Dhafra Dates, which are sold primarily in outlets in the UAE; and Al Saad, Al Foah’s bulk brand. “We do not want to just sell dates,” said Sumairi. “Anyone can do that. We want to streamline and expand the entire date value chain.”
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