Both farmers and researchers hope that success in commercial cultivation of dates will help meet domestic demand as well as reduce dependence on imports
Motaleb Ahmed brought almost nothing, except some dry dates and date seeds, with him when he returned home from Saudi Arabia back in 1998.
Little did he know at the time that this Middle Eastern delicacy would eventually lead to a breakthrough in his life in terms of earning a livelihood.
These days the resident of Paragaon village in Mymensingh's Bhaluka upazila makes around Tk20-25 lakh annually selling dates that he grows in his date palm groves. He has also set an example for local jobless youths and farmers, who dream of becoming self-reliant by following in his footsteps.
His remarkable success has led to local residents referring to Paragaon as "the village of Saudi dates".
Motaleb went to Saudi Arabia in 1996 in search of a better life but failed to achieve his goals there. He brought some 35 kilogrammes of dry dates and date seeds with him when he came back home two years later.
In 2001, Motaleb was able to grow 75 date palm saplings. Eighteen years on, he cultivates dates on 10 bighas of land. His commercial farm now has 2,500 different mature date palm trees, including some familiar Saudi Arabian varieties such as Ajwa, Sukkari and Barhi.
This year, the yield for Motaleb was nearly two tonnes of dates from 80 trees.
He sold dates for Tk1,500-2,500 per kg this year and hopes to harvest the fruit from 250 trees next year. Apart from dates, the farmer also sells date saplings, with prices ranging from Tk1,000-5,000 each. His farm currently has more than 1,000 saplings ready to be sold.
Inspired by Motaleb, Mohammad Ivais has been cultivating dates on his two-bigha plot in Bhaluka after returning from Dubai.
He got yields from 10 trees this year and said his income from sapling sales is also handsome.
Paragaon is in Habirbari union. Many in the union have achieved success in Middle Eastern date cultivation. Locals are happy as the orchards are also creating employment opportunities.
Officials of the Department of Agricultural Extension said it is not possible to provide loans for growing dates but they are always ready to help farmers with necessary consultations.
"The soil of this area is fertile and suitable for growing date palms," said Jesmin Jahan, Bhaluka upazila agriculture officer.
"We are ready to extend all-out support to date growers," she added.
Success in Meherpur
The southwestern district of Meherpur has also seen a successful cultivation of Middle Eastern date saplings.
The success story took roots at the Kushtia regional station of Bangladesh Rice Research Institute in 2014. Initially, a group of scientists from the institute procured date seeds of ten different species from Dubai and the United Arab Emirates. Their selections included such popular species as Ajwa, Ambar, Maryam and Deglet Nour.
After experimenting with these species, the scientists developed almost 2,500 saplings and planted them in Mujibnagar Complex.
In the next stage, productivity in date growth was raised through artificial pollination. Measures were also taken to protect the budding branches from insects and rainwater.
After almost four years of intense care, some of the trees have matured. Bunches of red dates hang from the trees, creating a spectacular sight.
Mahbubur Rahman, a senior official at the Kushtia regional station, had a caveat: the sharp differences in climate between Bangladesh and the Middle East, he warned, pose challenges to date cultivation.
"We have planted 2,500 trees but only 20 have yielded fruits. This shows the extent of difficulty in achieving our goals," he explained.
"Now, extensive research is underway to preserve the condition of the trees and sweetness of the dates. Positive results from the research will be an indication that farmers are ready to cultivate dates," added the agriculture officer.
Maintaining taste, softness is key
Both farmers and researchers hope that success in commercial cultivation of dates will help meet domestic demand as well as reduce dependence on imports.
The annual demand for dates imported from mostly Middle Eastern countries is around 35,000 tonnes, 80 percent of which are consumed in the month of Ramadan.
"Even though consumption is higher in Ramadan, dates have special appeal for consumers throughout the year because of their nutritional value," said Sirajul Islam, a big importer of dates.
Date imports cost between $25m and $30m a year mostly from Saudi Arabia, followed by Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Algeria, Tunisia, Jordan and a few other countries.
However, importers do not appear to be enthusiastic about the prospects of locally-grown Arabian dates.
"Whatever amount is grown locally has to be consumed in the unripe state. Thus, there is little impact of local dates in the market. The dependence on imports will continue,'' Sirajul observed.
Traders said locally-grown dates might be more appealing to consumers if they have the same taste and softness as the foreign ones.
Researchers said they are trying their best to make the locally-grown dates taste the same as the imported ones.
Dr Akhtaruzzaman, deputy director at the Meherpur office of the Department of Agricultural Extension, said dates will be cultivated throughout the country in the coming years.