In war-torn Sudan, the uncertain future of the date harvest

Hozaifa Youssef was supposed to continue his studies in India, but the war in Sudan decided otherwise: instead, he harvested dates in his home region

In war-torn Sudan, the uncertain future of the date harvest

Hozaifa Youssef was supposed to continue his studies in India, but the war in Sudan decided otherwise: instead, he harvested dates in his home region. His employers fear not being able to sell their production. In Karima, a northern town on the banks of the Nile, some 400 kilometers from Khartoum, stand thousands of long date palms planted at regular intervals in plots dotted with water reservoirs.

There, September marks the start of the harvest. This was the case in the palm groves of the north of the country, but not in other regions. In the south, in Gedaref, known as Sudan's grain basket, land remained fallow this year. If Al-Fateh Al-Badawi was able to harvest his dates in Karima, he is not sure he will be able to sell them because “the buyers are cautious,” observes the farmer.

Above him, under a big blue sky, barefoot and equipped with a simple rope, a man climbs the stem of a palm tree to cut the bunches of dates. On the ground, in the shade of the branches, on large white sheets, men and adolescents beat bunches of dates before collecting the last fruits by hand.

Among them is Hozaifa Youssef, a 26-year-old radiologist who worked in Khartoum before joining his family in the north to help with the harvest and escape the horrors of the war that broke out on April 15. “I was supposed to go to India for my master’s degree but, with the war, I had to change my plans,” he tells AFP from a palm grove in his native region.

Seventh world producer of dates

The bloody war between the army of General Abdel Fattah Al-Burhane and the paramilitaries led by his former deputy turned rival, General Mohammed Hamdane Daglo nicknamed “Hemetti”, has plunged this East African country into chaos. The fighting left at least 7,500 dead, according to a report by the NGO Acled, and more than five million displaced and refugees, according to the UN.

The war is also responsible for what experts call the “deindustrialization” of the country and the devastation of its agricultural sector, which accounts for nearly 40% of GDP and 80% of jobs, according to the UN.

In Sudan, the date is a daily food, as in many Arab countries, and is vital to the country's economy. The world's seventh largest producer of dates, Sudan produces more than 460,000 tonnes per year, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

And across the country, small farmers no longer have access to financing, buyers are no longer able to sell stocks on the markets and the heavyweights of the agricultural industry have thrown in the towel. In May, the Haggar agricultural group, Sudan's largest employer, announced the suspension of its activities and investments in the country. Those who continue to work face significant challenges.

“Substitute markets”

Before the war, most trade took place in Khartoum. But the war deconstructed an economy already on its knees. Incessant air strikes, artillery fire and street fighting have destroyed the capital, the economic heart of the country.

“Due to the proximity and the importance of demand in Khartoum, this is where we sold the majority of our harvests in previous years but, with the war, this is no longer possible,” worries Mr Badawi, dressed in a white djellaba and matching skullcap. “We’re trying to find substitute markets,” he says. Another farmer, Al-Jerah Ahmed, believes that aid from the Sudanese state is necessary for “quality production”. The 45-year-old would like the authorities to “invest in the Karima date preservation factory.”

But the state, which has not paid civil servants' salaries for five months, is already struggling to ensure food security for its 48 million inhabitants since Sudan lost its two main wheat suppliers due to the war between Russia and Ukraine. And in a country which was already among the poorest in the world before the war between the army and the paramilitaries, nearly 6 million inhabitants are now “on the verge of famine”, warns the UN.