KARACHI: Owing to a lack of innovation, the dates industry of Pakistan, which is the fifth largest producer in the world, is on a downward trajectory.

In 1999, Pakistan produced 540,000 tonnes of dates annually. Instead of growing, this number went down to 467,000 tonnes in 2015-16, according to data collected by the Trade Development Authority of Pakistan (TDAP).

Balochistan is the major producer of dates in Pakistan as it produces 45% of the total production. Sindh stands at the second place with 43% share, followed by Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) with 2% and Punjab with 1%.

Balochistan’s Turbat district produces 100,000 tonnes of dates, almost one-fourth of the total production of Pakistan, while Panjgur produces 83,000 tonnes. On the other hand, Sindh’s Khairpur district produces 237,000 tonnes, which is 42% of the total production of the country. “This makes Khairpur a densely palm populated area,” said a source at the Sindh Enterprise Development Fund (SEDF). In 2016, Pakistan exported dates worth $102 million, which could go up to $200 million, said Mir Mohsin Bullo, Assistant Manager TDAP Sub-Regional Office, Sukkur.

“The government needs to pay urgent attention to production, processing and quality enhancement, preservation, research and marketing to save and ensure growth of this potent source of foreign exchange,” he wrote in his report in October 2017. Yet, these issues still persist to date.

There are myriad of problems, resulting in a decline in Pakistan’s date production, according to the SEDF source. A palm tree, which is the source of date production, grows in seven to eight years and produces the fruit at its optimal level for 25 years, after which its production starts declining, therefore, the tree needs to be replaced.

The 300 varieties of dates, which Pakistan produces, are also 50 years old and are not in great demand internationally, he said, adding due to that prices of Pakistani dates range between Rs100 and Rs250 per kg in the international market whereas other date varieties are sold for up to Rs700.

Due to the lack of innovation, Pakistan is losing potential revenue. Pakistan exports fresh dates to the US, Canada, France, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia and the UAE, but these comprise only 10% of total production, while most of the dates are dried and exported to India, which is a great loss.

The scope of value addition and profitability is immense. With a little value addition, dates can be used to make syrup, juice, paste, vinegar and so on, the source said.

“Instead of value addition, Pakistani traders push down the value of their dates by drying them,” he said. Pakistan mainly exports dates to India, which itself is a big producer, but due to immense consumption of dates and coconut in religious activities, India also imports dates from Pakistan. “These days due to tensions between the two countries, India has slapped 200% duty on Pakistani products, which is badly impacting the export of Pakistani dates,” said Sukkur Chamber of Commerce and Industry Vice President Gurdas Wadhwani.

“Dried dates cause a 60% weight and value loss,” said the SEDF source. Pakistan does not have processing units or cold storages, especially for dates, so drying them remains the only option. Dates contain more heat, so they need special cold storages, but Pakistan does not have even one such facility.

Pakistan does not have a storage system due to which date growers cannot save their crop and go for the second best option, which is to dry the dates, and that too is carried out in a very unhygienic way, and not through mechanised dryers. “If you travel to Khairpur, you will see dates lying at the roadside. Due to this unhygienic way of drying, dates carry about 21% aflatoxin, a family of toxins produced by certain fungi on agricultural crops, while internationally only 2.3-7.15% is acceptable,” stated the source.

Mechanised dryers are not difficult to build, he said, adding students of Karachi University and IBA have often presented their prototypes, which can dehydrate 1,000 to 2,000 dates. This can be taken to a massive level if the government or private sector supports these students. Pakistan’s dates varieties are over 50 years old, which do not look or taste good, unlike the juicy Middle Eastern dates. Even Pakistanis themselves do not prefer local dates, due to which the country, despite being the fifth largest producer, imports dates in Ramazan, the source added.

Pakistan’s first dates dehydration plant and cold storage is going to be built soon by a private firm in the Khairpur Special Economic Zone (SEZ). The Sindh government is offering opportunities to the businessmen who want to set up the processing and storage facilities. Date processing plants can ideally be established at the Khairpur SEZ, developed by the district administration of Khairpur under the supervision of Sindh investment department.