Namibia -- The introduction of a new commercial crop
to a country is fraught with uncertainty.
Are the climatic and growing conditions right? Are the
necessary inputs, such as planting material and fertilizer,
available at the right price? Is there a market for the crop?
Can farmers get good technical advice?
impressive sight of 10 000 date palms, drip irrigated and
flourishing in the sandy soil of a Government farm in southern
Namibia, proves that the country is well on the way to mastering
the cultivation of a fruit more commonly associated with the
northern end of the continent.
although only a few metres high, are heavy with orange, yellow
and dark brown fruit. Twenty-five Namibian farmers attend a
workshop at the farm on date pollination, harvesting and packing
given by government agents, assisted by FAO experts. A brand new
packing house, with cold storage rooms and stainless steel
sorting tables, handled 25 tonnes of high-quality dates this
year, which were shipped to France and the United Kingdom.
At independence in 1990, Namibia's
first president, Sam Nujoma, had a vision of his country as a
date-growing centre for southern Africa. Investing the
Government's own money in the programme, Namibia invited
FAO to provide technical assistance for the new crop.
"We looked in different places for advice,
and we were told that FAO could offer a broad range of
expertise," says Helmut Angula, Minister of
Agriculture, Water and Rural Development. "We want to
be the centre of date technology in southern Africa. For us to
make an impact on the world market, we also need to have
neighbouring countries start growing dates for export, so the
sub-region becomes known for the fruit."
Namibia turned out to be well suited to date palm
cultivation. The vast semi-desert country, with a population of
only 1.7 million, had wild palms left by German troops. A good
road system means the fruit can be trucked efficiently to
airports and then flown to distant markets. The country was free
of major date palm pests and diseases. An export-oriented
commercial farm sector was open to new opportunities and new
ways of doing things. The Southern Hemisphere has a natural
advantage selling fresh produce to the north during the
sector hungry for new ideas
"Namibia is a virgin country," says
Dr Abdelouahhab Zaid, a professor from Morocco, who was the
project's FAO adviser from 1995 to 2000. "They are
ready to learn how to do things from scratch. In the old
date-producing countries, on the other hand, you try to teach
new methods, and they tell you they've been doing it in a
certain way since before you were born."
The project's current FAO adviser, Dr Abdallah
Oihabi, explains the programme's master plan: Government
farms lead the way with research and trial cultivation,
commercial farmers come in when they feel they can make a
reasonable return on their investment and poor farmers, seeing
the commercial sector's success, start growing small
numbers of trees. Thus the sector is expected to grow, not only
nationally but across southern Africa.
"Five years ago there were five growers, and
today we have 50 who are giving the crop a try," says
Pieter de Wet, National Project Director for the Namibia
Development Corporation, which guides the country's
development with indirect Government support. "Things
are going quite well, and now we plan to give out 500 date palm
offshoots a year to communal (subsistence) farmers. They are
inundating me with requests for trees. We have already had a
course to teach 12 extension officers from communal areas about
hard part -- reducing poverty
vast majority of Namibian farmers are poor and must work
off-farm to make ends meet. The Government hopes date
cultivation will be a step towards improving their
opportunities, by increasing their incomes and adding nutrition
to their diets. FAO continues to support the date production
programme during a five-year second phase, which runs until
2006 and concentrates on helping poor farmers.
In the communal area of Otjimbingwe, northwest of the
capital, Windhoek, a demonstration plot of 100 date trees has
been planted on Government land. "We want people to
start homestead gardens so that everyone produces enough food
for their own needs at home: tomatoes, spinach, dates,"
says Zedekias Tsamaseb, the Government extension technician.
"They would eat some and sell some."
The cost of the planting material is
prohibitive for small farmers: about US$20 a tree from a private
tissue culture lab in Windhoek. FAO's TeleFood fund has
helped some communal areas to buy trees, but otherwise poor
farmers must wait for government farms to provide offshoots from
For poor landless
Namibians, the Government has a settlement programme that
provides housing, training and four-hectare plots for apprentice
farmers, where they cultivate dates, grapes and vegetables. So
far 12 families have arrived at the Orange River Irrigation
Project in southern Namibia.
was a security guard before and I couldn't improve my
life," says Jackson Matuku, 30, who arrived only a
month before to begin his farming career. "I like the
work, although we aren't making any money yet.
Transportation is a problem. By next year I hope it is