Modernization of the Date Processing Industry

Date Palm Tree
The date palm may be the oldest staple food known to humans; it has a high nutritive value and the date palm tree tolerates harsh climatic and soil conditions. Its fruit generate valuable cash income and by-products, such as fronds, leaflets fibre and trunks, are utilized in small industries as packaging materials and handicraft products. Source FAO

Iran: World’s Largest Dates Producer
Iran is the world largest producer of dates, with one million tonnes per year, equivalent to 17% of the world production, and covering 250,000 hectares of land (2011 statistics). Two third of the dates in Iran are produced in the five provinces, Kerman, Khuzestan, Sistan-Baluchestan, Bushehr and Hormozgan, and create 25,000 jobs.

However, only 400,000 tons of this production is utilized by the date processing industry, the rest is either used for animal feed or wasted. Export is only 10 to 15% of the total production, mainly to the UAE, UK, Pakistan, Germany and Azerbaijan.

Outdated farming practices, which have been there since ever, inappropriate processing, storage, packaging practices, lack of standards on hygiene and quality are the major barriers for date trade in the national and international market and a major obstacle to the development of the date industry in Iran.

Iran ranked last from the point of value added; majority of Iran’s dates were shipped overseas in bulk; the added value was gained by foreign traders who process and sold the product at a premium price, sometimes six times higher than the export price from Iran.

In 2003, the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) in Cooperation with the Iranian Government represented by the Ministry of Agriculture and Jihad (MoAJ) and a number of other cooperating governmental bodies, such as the trade Promotion Organization, Ministry of Health (MoH), Ministry of Industries and Mines (MoIM), Iran Chamber of commerce (ICCIM), launched a project to modernize the date industry in Iran.

The objectives of the project were:
1.    Strengthen awareness on food safety and international standards;
2.    Update the legislations in conformity with international standards;
3.    Upgrade and establish technical, managerial and marketing support services to increase competitiveness and broaden the existing market share;
4.    Update selected date processing plants in terms of processing, packaging and storage practices.

The UNIDO office in Iran coordinated the implementation of the program in cooperation with UNIDO Head Quarters in Vienna (Austria), international experts, local counterparts and donors.

The Iranian government provided technical and administrative support and the policy framework.

The project cost was 1.2 Million US$, of which 15% was covered by UNIDO, the rest by the Iranian government.

Forty-nine training and awareness workshops had been held by national and international experts on food safety, marketing and Good Agriculture Practices (GAP), for a total of 2,434 participants.

The hygiene of the selected plants improved remarkably and new pilot processing plants had been established.

So far 11 enterprises have received the Hazard Analysis & Critical Control Points (HACCP) and ISO Certificates and nine other are in the process.

Quality improvement had an immediate and positive impact on selling price in the domestic and export markets. In 2003, when the project started, the export volume was 88,000 tonnes; in 2006 it was 123,000 tonnes, with a 39% growth. Export value increased from 37 Million US$ in 2003 to 139 Million US$ in 2010, with a 370% growth. In the same period, export price per kilo increased from US $0.4 to US $1.0, almost 110% growth.

It's worth mentioning that raisins and pistachio, both important export products, have also growth in terms of export value and volume however, the growth in the date sector had been much higher, this validating the effectiveness of UNIDO approach on developing value chains, job creation, and trade capacity.