Young people with creative ideas are helping to revive the Iraqi date industry in unique ways – having people adopt date palms that grow in their backyards, marketing gourmet boxes of dates that celebrate Iraqi history and culture, and sharing modern ideas of cultivating the palms.
Date palms have been part of Iraq’s history for more than 4,500 years, providing food and shelter. During Ramadan, dates traditionally are the first food eaten to break the fast after sunset. They regulate the body’s use of sugar and are an excellent source of fiber and carbohydrates.
Once known as the “King of Dates”, Iraq’s 30 million date palms produced one million tonnes of dates each year until the 1980s. But war with Iran in the 1980s, decades of neglect, and a lack of water in the TIgris and Euphrates rivers, harmed the industry, which previously had been second only to oil in terms of national export revenue.
By 2003, when the US-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime, annual production had fallen to 200,000 tonnes, leaving the local market relying on imported dates. Only about six million of the remaining 9-12 million date palms were producing fruit, only six factories were processing dates compared to 150 before 2003, and Iraq was supplying only five per cent of the world’s dates.
Starting in 2005, the government took steps to revive the industry. It created a Date Palm Board, aiming to increase productive trees to 21 million by 2021, offered subsidized fertilizers and insecticides and loans to farmers, established 30 nurseries to grow new varieties that produce dates in two years, rather than four or five, and created programs to build processing and storage facilities. In 2018, the Iraqi government planted more palm trees, including 70,000 palm trees south of Baghdad along with thousands of trees in Karbala, Najaf and other parts of southern Iraq.
By the end of 2020, annual production had reached about 735,000 tonnes – an increase of about 15% from 2019 – with around 17.35 million trees. By the end of 2021, annual production had reached about one million tonnes — an increase of about 30% from 2020 and about 60% from 2019 – and 600,000 tonnes was exported, most of it to the Netherlands, Italy, Turkey and Egypt.
In the meantime, some citizen-led initiatives also have been addressing the problem.
In 2018, Basheer Al Masoudi began encouraging farmers to increase the number of good varieties they grow and teaching them to use modern methods including taking tiny samples from date palms to grow into new trees. His Palm Fans in Mesothelioma page on Facebook has more than 70,000 followers. As well as selling palm shoots, his project offers a place where farmers and experts gather to exchange views.
Basra, Iraq’s second largest city, was once called the “black land” due to its dense date palms. Computer engineer Maitham Saad, who grew up there when palm trees lined the Shatt Al Arab River in the early 1980s, entered the gourmet date market in May 2018, when producing handmade date sweets was a cottage industry employing small numbers of women.
His Berhyah brand, which links the dates to Iraq’s civilisation and heritage, packages them in elegant gift boxes inspired by engravings found in ancient Babylonian and Assyrian sites, heritage-related scenes and art by local artists. Customers can choose from nine varieties of sweets with five flavours. It now serves clients in the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand as well as Iraq.
One of the most innovative ideas of all was inspired by a television program in the United Arab Emirates.
Labeeb Kashif Al-Gitta co-founded Nakhla in 2016, having recognized that no one was looking after the remaining date palms, and that the traditional freelance harvesting model was broken. But donors said their first idea – to buy a farm themselves – wouldn’t work.
Then they learned about Adopt A Bee, a subscription-based program in the United Arab Emirates which allowed sponsors to adopt a beehive and get honey in exchange. And realizing that they had a similar situation in Baghdad – date palm trees in peoples’ backyards, although many didn’t produce dates because they weren’t well cared for – led them to their current model.
By 2018, the Nakhla founders had 20 trees in their care, visiting the palm trees four times a year. Even in a tough year, 2020, Nakhla was able to scale its number of subscriptions for the palm trees from 120 palms to more than 2,200 palm trees in Baghdad and Diwanyiah, attract some VIP clients, make contracts with municipalities and banks, hire more than 50 people, and take part in local and international awards.
Now, they care for around 14,000 trees and by next year, Al-Gitta hopes that will be 50,000. Nakhla now takes care of palms on farms, as well, with farmers paying the first year’s fee and date sales covering the service for the second year and beyond. Sponsoring companies can now receive tax credits for funding the upkeep of palms lining Baghdad’s public streets. Branded signs are erected beside the adopted trees like miniature billboards.
How Baghdad’s Backyards Are Bringing Back Iraqi Dates. Atlas Obscura, Jul. 1, 2022
Iraqi entrepreneurs sweeten Ramadan with gourmet dates. The National, Apr. 20, 2022
Inside the fight to save Iraq’s date palm industry. The National, May 10, 2021.
Date growing crisis in Iraq’s ‘black land’. Middle East Eye, Jan. 25, 2021
Iraq’s date palms: rescuing a national icon. France 24, Jul. 17, 2022
This startup is fighting to keep Iraq’s palm trees alive. The World, Jun. 6, 2023