Dates: Fruit for a worldwide market

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SOME time ago, a group of people were working relentlessly on a project to the point where they had to sometimes skip lunch in order to get things done. Of course, skipping meals is not recommended and one day when a colleague brought some dates to the office and offered them to his coworkers, a discussion ensued.

“It is not lunch, but it will get us through the day; this fruit is from the tree of life!” one worker said. Others argued that the man should have brought other types of dates, and this was followed by a discussion of the history and economic importance of dates.

Most people are familiar with discussions about the rich heritage of dates. I have met many people who are passionate about dates and have seen many initiatives to promote the date industry in Saudi Arabia and across the world. Muslims around the world consume dates in Ramadan and during pilgrimage and people of other faiths also consume the fruit in various parts of the world.

The total world import of dates reported in 2017 was $1.5 billion which is more than double the total import 10 years ago in both the value and quantity of dates. This trend could continue to be upward for a variety of reasons, among which is the growing Muslim population and the demand for healthy food around the world.

Most of what I have read on the subject has focused on the agricultural and production aspects of the date industry. While these areas are crucial in shaping the final product, the international marketing aspect of dates requires equal attention. The marketing of any food item involves harvesting, processing, packaging and transportation. Accessing international markets requires an initial investment to provide consumer products that are up to international standards. This is especially relevant in the food sector where quality and compliance certifications by recognized bodies are required by buyers and foreign market authorities.

Other fruits and sweets are considered alternatives by many consumers; therefore, product diversification is needed in the marketing of dates to attract a wider range of consumers. This could be achieved by further researching consumers’ demands to produce something that suits their tastes, traditions, purchasing power and eating habits.

Additionally, extending the reach of known products can be accomplished by capitalizing on producing value-added manufactured dates to compete in groceries, coffee shops and even airline catering. Existing value-added date products include date paste that is used as a filling in pastries and as a sugar substitute, as well as date syrup. Other examples include “mamoul” which is a traditional pastry filled with dates and other ingredients like nuts.

In the chosen target markets, adequate advertising and promotional offerings should be made to reach consumers. Current examples seen in chain restaurants include adding date products such as mamoul to restaurant menus as desserts. While chain restaurants usually sell under their brand name, a proper branding is a must to achieve the required competitiveness. This includes suitable packaging and product information that highlights ingredients and nutritional value.

Despite the real challenges associated with global trade, I am optimistic about the future of the date industry and the potential for Saudi dates to further expand their reach and increase their global market share. The timing is great for Saudi businesses intending to export dates as new factors for their success have come to light with Saudi Vision 2030 which has the goal of increasing the share of non-oil exports. Guided by the aspirations of Saudi leadership, numerous initiatives and projects have been launched to help exporters.

Notable initiatives to support the global reach of Saudi dates were recently introduced, such as the Saudi Dates Mark which is provided by the National Center for Palms & Dates (NCPD) to align date producers with national and international standards. NCPD also highlights and facilitates investment opportunities in the sector. International trends and demands for the date sector are essential for informed business decisions, thus, the Saudi Export Development Authority has recently made available more than 20 detailed reports for the most promising foreign markets for Saudi dates.

Furthermore, the Chambers of Commerce and regional trade support institutions have made important contributions to the date industry. A case in point was the recent agreement between Al-Madinah Chamber and the International Islamic Trade Finance Corporation (ITFC) to implement the Program for the Development of the Date Sector in Madinah Region that addresses constraints and assists in improving and optimizing value chains.

Being one of the world’s major producers and exporters of dates, along with the importance of dates in the Kingdom’s culture, Saudi Arabia will continue to be a leader in the date industry and its business sector will continue to find better ways to supply the world with the fine fruit and associated value-added products through continuous improvement in harvesting techniques, warehousing and distribution as well as proper international marketing strategies.

Abdulrahman Saleh Alotaibi

The author can be reached via email: otaias0y@gmail.com and Twitter: @otaibi3w


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