NAUTE, 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?

The 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.

The trees, 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.

Presidential vision

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 north's off-season.

Farm 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 growing dates."

Now the hard part -- reducing poverty

The 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 established trees.

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.

"I 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 better."