Signs of growth in Iraq’s date palm industry have given hope to young entrepreneurs as the sector flourishes after decades of war and drought.
Maitham Saad is one of them.
For the computer engineer, the date palm tree and its sweet fruit make up a large part of his childhood memories and identity.
Having grown up in the southern province of Basra, Mr Saad recalls how palm trees crowded the banks of the Shatt Al Arab River in early 1980s.
“Then, my ancestors’ groves were all green and the harvest was abundant that they exported to different countries,” Mr Saad, 39, told The National.
“For me, this tree is something of great value and I’m emotionally attached to it.” He blamed war and drought for ravaging his country’s prized date palms.
Iraq was the world’s top producer of the fruit during 1950s and 1960s. Then, it had nearly 32 million date palm trees with annual production reaching around one million tonnes, most of which was exported to markets in Asia and Europe.
But it has lost more than half of these trees since the 1980s when the Iran-Iraq war broke out, followed by harsh UN-imposed economic sanctions during the 1990s which crippled investment in agriculture.
A series of droughts followed, starting at the end of the 1990s and continuing after the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein. The ensuing chaos further disrupted the agriculture sector.
By 2004, there were only around nine million trees and the annual production was hovering at around 200,000 tonnes, according to the Agriculture Ministry.
The following year, the government started to launch initiatives to increase the number of trees and to encourage the private sector to invest in the sector.
These efforts have borne fruit.
By the end of last year, annual production had reached about one million tonnes — an increase of about 30 per cent from 2020 and about 60 per cent from 2019, according to the Agriculture Ministry.
From last year's production, 600,000 tonnes was exported, with the lion’s share sent to the Netherlands, Italy, Turkey and Egypt, the ministry’s figures show.
Amid the peak in demand locally and internationally, Mr Saad wanted to add an Iraqi touch to the dates to give the purchasers a unique experience.
In May 2018, his passion for dates led him to enter the gourmet dates market. That’s when his Berhyah brand began its journey.
“I thought it was a good idea to make the dates a special Iraqi gift that is linked to the country’s civilisation and heritage,” the father of two said.
At a small workshop in his home town of Abu Al Khaseeb district south of Basra, Berhyah — named after one of the most famous types of dates in Iraq, Berhi — was born. When the brand was launched, producing handmade date sweets was mostly a cottage industry employing small numbers of women.
The products are packaged in a selection of elegant gift boxes with elaborate designs inspired by engravings found in ancient Babylonian and Assyrian sites, heritage-related scenes and works of art by local artists.
Now, Berhyah is considered one of Iraq’s bestsellers of premium organic gourmet dates.
Rather than using only Berhi dates, it now also uses eight other types: Ashrasi, Khidrawi, Braym, Um Al Amood, Usta Omran, Khyara, Qorunfoli and Hilawi.
They are sold in luxury boutiques in Basra and the northern city of Erbil as well as several other places.
Customers can choose from nine varieties of sweets with five flavours; pistachio and cardamom, walnut and cinnamon, sesame and tahini, coconut oil and peanut butter.
For VIP orders, it offers dates wrapped in edible gold leaf. It recently introduced cookies and French pastries stuffed with dates.
“From A to Z, our work offers different meanings through different symbols from Iraq’s history and that makes anyone proud when buying and gifting such a product,” said Mr Saad.
Like other business, Berhyah was hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic. Demand started to peak before and during Ramadan, rising by between 45 per cent to 55 per cent and boosted by the easing of pandemic-related restrictions.
It now serves clients not only in Iraq but also in countries including the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
The fruit continues to be a key food during Ramadan in Iraq and elsewhere. Traditionally, it is the first food eaten by Muslims to break their fast after sunset during the holy month. The dates regulate the body’s use of sugar and are an excellent source of fibre and carbohydrates.
The tree has been an integral part of Iraq’s history. It is thought to have been cultivated for more than 4,500 years, providing a staple food. Its fronds have also been used to make shelters and its leaves woven into mats and other products.
Amid growing interest in reviving the date palm industry, Labeeb Kashif Al Gitta founded the Baghdad-based agritech start-up Nakhla, the Arabic word for date palm, in 2018.
It offers cultivation, harvesting and cleaning services for date palm trees across Baghdad whether in houses or public areas, for a subscription fee and a share of the revenue from the harvest. The company sells its share of the harvest under its own brand.
Despite starting with only a few dozen palm trees, the company now looks after thousands. It has been awarded the care of more than 12,000 trees across Baghdad by the local municipality.
Last month it received a six-figure investment from Euphrates Ventures, an Iraq-focused venture fund.
“Date palm trees have always been considered a national treasure in Iraq,” Mr Kashif Al Gitta quoted in a statement after the funding was received.
“Today there are more than 19 million date palm trees, seven million of which are not made productive. We want to change that.”
“There is great potential in reviving agriculture in Iraq, but we want to go beyond that and integrate the latest technologies into our service,” he said.