We talk today to Dr. Abdallah Ben Abdallah, FAO international consultant and senior date palm specialist. Dr. Abdallah made his way to Eritrea from his home country, Tunisia for a joint project of the Eritrean Ministry of Agriculture and FAO regarding the introduction of modern date palm cultivation. He is the team leader of the project, FAOTCP, and his experiences and views of Eritrea follow.
- -Dr. Abdallah thank you for your time. We would first like to get to know you. So please, introduce yourself to our readers.
I grew up with close familiarity to date palm and its cultivation from a very young age; my father is a date palm farmer in Tunisia. Therefore, for my higher education, I focused on the science of date palm and its nature. It is something I enjoy very much as date palm farming is extremely rewarding. My job as FAO international consultant and senior date palm specialist led me to many countries. I worked in Yemen, Namibia, and Saudi Arabia and at the moment I am here with you, in Eritrea. This time around, I am here for my third mission and our project has been showing us promising results. It has been a pleasure working in Eritrea with its people.
- -How did you get to know about Eritrea?
I was appointed by FAO to be team leader of the date farm project, a technical cooperation project between FAO and the Ministry of Agriculture in Eritrea. The aim is to develop the date farm in the country. With, also, a special focus of assisting the laboratories of NARI, the National Agriculture Research Institute in Halhale for propagating the technical approaches of the institute as well as to enhance the capacity of the staff. Moreover, part of the project is to enhance the actual farming of date palm in suitable areas of the country while raising awareness and enhancing knowledge amongst farmers.
- -Is Eritrea favorable for date palm farming?
It is, extremely. Eritrea, in fact, has a huge potential. Date palm cultivation could be one of the biggest agro industrial sectors of the country. It can be advantageous for small, individual farmers and also for national harvest. I believe in the near future Eritrea could be a major exporter of dates.
- -Can you explain why you actually believe that the country could even benefit from exporting dates?
From a professional stand point I believe that Eritrea meets all of requirements date farm needs. The soil is good, the water is there and the climate is extremely helpful. Eritrea’s climate is characterized generally by three seasons. This is a factor that suits the cultivation of different types of date palm trees of good quality. I’d like to mention also the willingness of the Ministry of Agriculture and the farmers at large. Every stake holder is ready to assist the sector in all possible ways. What I can assert in few words is the fact that in Eritrea only the technical knowledge was missing. This lack hindered the farmers from realizing the benefits of date palm cultivation. However, with the willingness of the government to assist farmers as well as projects for national harvest, I believe that there will be great outcome coming out of the TCP project in Eritrea. Eritrea’s Northern and Southern Red Sea Regions are extremely suitable. Therefore, we disseminated nine types of date palm trees in both of the regions after scientifically identifying the soil type, water basins and the climate. We planted and pollinated trees.
- -Okay. Is there a reason why you became fond of date palm?
I learned from a young age that date palm tree is a sacred tree. It can be harvested for more than 50 years. If well maintained it can give its fruits even for 70 years. Moreover, in each harvest season, mostly once a year, one tree is able to produce 300 kilograms of dates! You have to work hard and treat the tree properly in order for you to benefit abundantly. Of course once you plant you have to wait two to three years, but then you can harvest early. Let’s stay in the 5th year, the tree gives abundantly.
- -Can you please briefly tell us what your work experience in Eritrea was like?
I met and worked with professionals of different fields. We worked on capacity building within the laboratories. We worked with farmers and we worked with many other stakeholders whose willingness to work hard led to the implementation of our project as planned and as expected. This along with the technical briefings of the project were explained in the terminal workshop in Massawa in the presence of his Excellency the Minister of Agriculture and others. The project was undeniably succesfull. For subsistence farmers, we set out intensive trainings and we planted with them. We divided the farmers in two categories: subsistence farmers to whom we gave 10 plants to each household and commercial farmers to whom we gave 100 plants each. And this is just the beginning. The project will be extended based on the interests of the farmers. We also set out a pilot plantation in Gahtelay with the collaboration of the Livestock Corporation of the Northern Red Sea Region where we planted date palm of nine varieties. Gahtelay will be our bank of seeds in case the demand of cultivation grows… In fact, I am quite certain it will. I am extremely satisfied with the people’s participation in the implementation of the project. Starting from pollination, plantation and harvesting. The interest from farmers of both categories is impressive. Of course, this is the first aspect. The second aspect will focus on harvesting, and the third on exporting. The Ministry of Agriculture has set out its budgets and everything so I think that the date palm project in Eritrea will be prosperous.
- -Before we end, tell me about your personal experience in Eritrea. I am sure you felt at home and had no problems of talking and discussing with the farmers as Arabic is widely spoken in Eritrea.
You are right. All along I had no problems in communicating and delivering my discourses. I felt welcomed and well received all along. It was honestly a real pleasure for me to be in Eritrea. I spent a lot of time in Asmara, Massawa and Assab. Eritrea is indeed a beautiful country. But what pleased me most is the willingness of the people to work. This particular attitude of the people will impact the project positively. Many of the farmers I met had abandoned date palm farming and shifted to cash crops. Slowly now the interest is growing by the day and farmers are encouraged to invest on date palm farming. Like I said before, not far from now dates will be a major export good from Eritrea. Best wishes to the farmers and stakeholders!