How Baghdad’s Backyards Are Bringing Back Iraqi Dates

Dried dates on a silver tray.

Iraq once produced more dates than any other country in the world, being home to over 600 varieties of the fruit. (Image: Gorkem Demir via Dreamstime)

The arid landscape of Iraq was once dotted with plenty of date palms. However, a prolonged war with neighboring Iran led to their decline over the years. Now, an Iraqi company named Nakhla is attempting to restore the glory of Iraqi dates. It has come up with a unique annual subscription model. The palm tree owners and farms will pay the company a yearly subscription of US$35-75 for each plant, and in turn, its staff harvest and sell the dates grown on the trees. The palm owners are handed over a share of the profit.

There was a time when Iraq made a position for itself for harvesting a majority of dates globally. It had almost 30 million date palms. The war with Iran that lasted for 8 years and the U.S. invasion in 2003 took a toll on the date harvest industry in Iraq. Now, Iraq accounts for only about 5 percent of dates produced in the world. Iraqi palm growers lament that many palm trees died owing to the impact of warfare in the country. 

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View of Kurdistan, Iraq, from a nearby hillside overlooking the city as the sun sets.
Iraqi palm growers lament that many palm trees died owing to the impact of warfare in the country. (Image: Maurice Brand via Dreamstime)

Dates have numerous health benefits

There is no way one can deny the numerous health benefits offered by dates. The fruits are rich in antioxidants and they help you stay safe from free radicals in the environment. Dates are also filled with key nutrients like vitamin B6, magnesium, copper, fiber, and potassium. Dates are said to promote natural labor for pregnant women as well. 

Labeeb Kashif Al-Gitta set up Nakhla in 2016 at a time when the date sector in Iraq was in the doldrums after all the warfare. He decided to toss out the traditional harvesting model. Al-Gitta said the majority of palm climbers in Iraq prefer offering freelance services, which is problematic. He said: “They go to farms, but they do sloppy work. They just want to finish as quickly as possible and get paid. They don’t care what happens to the trees.” He and his co-founders initially faced some setbacks when they tried to launch the venture. 

Al-Gitta observed how palm trees were being neglected by individual owners and they were not willing to rely on freelance tree climbers. So he thought of offering the yearly subscription-based model. This ensured the company did not have to wait for new palm trees to grow and bear fruit. However, he admitted the journey was not smooth. He added: “It’s not easy to convince people of a new idea here in Iraq. Because we have come out of a lot of wars, people can’t trust people who come to their homes. They don’t know you.”

With efforts and consistency, the Nakhla founders found success. They gained from word-of-mouth publicity and after 2018, the number of palm tree subscribers grew a lot. Nakhla staff visit each tree 4 times per year and ensure after collecting fruits no mess is left behind. The company now looks after as many as 14,000 trees in Baghdad. They want to take it to 50,000 soon. Now, the company is catering to the needs of date firms too. 

Nakhla staff visit each tree 4 times per year and ensure that after collecting the dates, no mess is left behind.
Nakhla staff visit each tree 4 times per year and ensure that after collecting the dates, no mess is left behind. (Image: Zz3701 via Dreamstime)

Nakhla is facing some hurdles as its customer base keeps growing. They find it hard to hire sufficient tree climbers. It takes almost 5 years to become a pro at the job. There are other issues too. After the decline of the Iraqi date industry, Egypt and Iran managed to woo the buyers by offering cheaper date variants. Al-Gitta, however, is optimistic that those who seek quality dates will choose the Iraqi variants. Nakhla also has plans to expand its operations outside of Baghdad.

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