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The deep dive: A date with dates

The deep dive: A date with dates

Welcome everyone to the first newsletter in this five-part Ramadan special deep dive series that looks into staple foods commonly eaten throughout the holy month.

We’re starting off with everyone’s fav thing to break a fast with: dates. Ya gotta love ‘em – Medjool, Ajwa, Segai, Khidri, Sokari, Rotab, or Dabbas, the options are endless! Dates are a staple among Muslim communities across the globe throughout the whole year, but particularly during Ramadan. Plus, these sweet treats are also the preferred choice of gifts to express good wishes, especially at Eid.

So why should you care about dates from an investment perspective, you may ask? The truth is that the unpretentious date is a great trading commodity, particularly for GCC countries — because it’s one of their most popular exports. In 2019, dates were the world’s 1317th most traded product (representing 0.011% of total world trade), at a total of $1.98b — a number that grew 6.31% from the year before. At this growth rate, the date industry is proving itself to be a reliant investment opportunity — so let’s dig deeper.

Date trade on a roll

The history of date palm cultivation in the Middle East and North Africa is a centuries-long one, as the arid and hot climate provides the ideal setting for date palms to blissfully thrive. Countries across MENA are some of the world’s largest producers of dates, with the total annual production on a global scale amounting to 8.5 million metric tons. Yes, that’s a lotta sugar — albeit, natural and unrefined!

According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FOA), the top ten date producers in 2019 were (in order of most tonnes produced): Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Algeria, Iraq, Pakistan, Sudan, Oman, UAE, and Tunisia. In that same year, the top exporters of dates were Iraq ($358m), Tunisia ($287m), Saudi Arabia ($229m), and UAE ($215m). Despite Egypt’s large date production, it accounted for less than 3% of world exports. In that very same year, the world’s biggest importer of dates was the UAE (no surprises here!), followed by Morocco, India, France, and Germany.

According to the International Trade Center’s Export Potential Map, the UAE and Morocco are the markets with the greatest potential for date exports in the MENA region – with a combined untapped import potential estimated to be worth over $235m. The Greater Arab Free Trade Area agreement also allows date-producing countries to cash in from this product by exporting to their fellow MENA members without paying any tariffs.

The Bateel effect

There is some major date F&B competition in MENA, including regional heavyweights like Almarai (their date milk is bomb) and confectionary giant Patchi Chocolates. But none stands out in the “date scene” as much as Bateel. As the leader in the Gulf market (and one of the most well-known internationally too), Bateel owes most of its success in the business to efficiently marketing the loyal date as a gourmet experience – essentially transforming the way people perceive the snack by attached a luxury retail experience to it (everyone loves feeling fancy pantsy after a good trip to one of their stores). Bateel is also a sustainability-leaning firm, opting for state-of-the-art production practices that are easier on the planet and the local agricultural landscape — we’re talking no pesticides, fertilizers, or chemicals whatsoever.

As with most retail and F&B players, the company was heavily impacted by Covid-19, but it managed to navigate these turbulent times by shifting heavily to e-commerce. Bateel’s transparency reassures stakeholders that the company is well-poised for growth and innovation even post-pandemic, while its service continues to grow and expand not just in the Middle East but also internationally. Also, who wouldn’t want to receive a Bateel gift-hamper? That’s some bougie present right there!

The paleo community have taken notice

One of the main reasons why dates are so popular is because of their versatility. This easily digestible, delicious fruit is rich in sugar and vitamins, making it a great source of fiber and carbs. As we become more health-centric as a population, alternatives to sugar are growing increasingly popular. Dates are often marketed as a healthy option and used in all sorts of products, from cakes to energy bars and truffles – this natural sweetener is everywhere.

Major international brands like LÄRABAR, Nakd, Deliciously Ella, and RXBar rely heavily on dates as one of their products’ core ingredients — which makes the possibilities for date exporting across Europe and the US even larger. In fact, RXBar caused so much hype that it attracted the attention of F&B giant Kellogg, which bought the protein bar business for $600m back in 2017. In its first year under Kellogg’s ownership, RXBar sales surpassed $200m.

Moreover, LÄRABAR continues to be one of the best sellers in the snack category for its parent company General Mills (one of Kellogg’s biggest competitors). Meanwhile, Deliciously Ella (which started off as a social media gig before growing into a full-scale business) has an estimated annual revenue of around $14m per year. Sounds like these businesses have found themselves their own recipe for success.

why it matters
Dates are a budding fruit to invest in, whether to ensure people in the Arabian desert have something sweet to eat or to fuel the growing sugar alternatives craze worldwide. Consumers across the world are embracing dates for health benefits — so, naturally, the F&B industry wants to capitalize on the trend. Plus, with the total untapped export potential of dates, this product has the potential to be one of MENA’s hottest commodities. You heard it here first!