Oman students get back to their roots

Students in Muscat have developed a soil alternative from date palm leaves, which they say will boost local agriculture.

Omani students say date palm leaves can be used as an eco-friendly soil alternative [Sarah Macdonald/Al Jazeera]

Muscat, Oman – A group of local students is hoping their use of date palm leaves will boost agriculture in Oman and other arid countries in the region, while also minimising local farmers’ environmental footprints.

Eighteen students from the Higher College of Technology in Muscat recently began selling a soil alternative, made from shredded date palm leaves, through a small company they founded called Jothor, the Arabic word for roots.

Currently, many of Oman’s farmers import peat moss to enrich the soil, which is both costly and damaging to the environment. The students said their product, Cuticle, can rejuvenate agricultural regions that have been hit by desertification.

“The government is looking for alternatives and ways to combat desertification, so it’s a serious problem for Oman,” explained Noor al-Hooti, a chemistry student and the group’s finance manager.

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The idea for the product came after biology student Marwa al-Toobi realised the potential date palm leaves and tree trunks have as an alternative to soil during soilless cultivation experiments.

It’s better than soil, actually, and we found the leaves absorb more water.

by - Fatima al-Tiwani, Jothor production manager and chemistry student

Toobi’s results revealed that the date palm leaves and trunks are packed with nutrients like nitrogen, potassium and sodium, and are more fertile for sowing than regular soil. The students then planted marigolds, tomatoes and house plants in the shredded date palm leaves, without any soil, and discovered that they flourished.

The leaves are washed and sterilised before they are processed in an industrial blender that shreds them into a size suitable for planting seeds or mixing with soil.

So far, they haven’t attracted insects, so plants that are grown in this soil alternative don’t need to be treated with pesticides, the students said. “It’s better than soil, actually, and we found the leaves absorb more water,” said Fatima al-Tiwani, the group’s production manager and a chemistry student.

Prior to the discovery of oil, agriculture was a main part of Oman’s economy, with dates being at the forefront. Though agriculture currently accounts for only one percent of Oman’s GDP, dates are still the most important crop in Oman, with date palms representing 82 percent of all fruit trees in the country.

There are nearly eight million date palms in Oman, so there is no shortage of the discarded leaves. In the past, local farmers would place the leaves on the ground around the bases of trees to minimise water evaporation, or compost them.

“Later we will make contracts with farmers to get support from them. Otherwise they are going to burn the leaves and old trunks. They just want to get rid of them, while we want to serve the environment,” Hooti added.

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Dr Rashid al-Yahyai, associate professor of horticultural sciences at Sultan Qaboos University, said that while many products such as ropes, baskets, and mats were made from date palms leaves in the past, today date palm reuse has decreased. Instead, the leaves and dead trees are often burned, which causes pollution and health hazards to the farms and the workers.

“The new product may provide another outlet for an income to the farmers, while saving the environment, cutting production costs and reducing health hazards associated with inhaling smoke. This new product can be used in the farm as a green-manure for date palm or as a substrate for seedlings of other plants, such as limes and mangoes,” Yahyai said.

This opens new horizons for young people to use part of the local environment in new profitable projects.

by - Bader al-Siyabi, Oman Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries

Currently, Jothor sells potted plants that are grown in the shredded date palm leaves, but orders are increasing for the product itself. “We’d like to reach a level where our product can replace the imports of peat moss,” said Tiwani, adding that the students plan to market Cuticle regionally.

Desertification – the process of an arid land becoming even drier due to a loss of water sources and an increase in salinity – is a problem in much of the Gulf region. In Oman, desertification is increasing along the Batinah coast, between Muscat and the UAE border, because of a shift from subsistence farming to industrial farming and an increased use of water sources, explained Tiwani. It is also a major cause for concern in the UAE, which has the highest water consumption in the world

Bader al-Siyabi, director of the Date Palm Department at Oman’s Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, said the students’ initiative fits perfectly into the ministry’s policy of developing date palm farming in ways that use the entire tree, not just the fruit. According to Oman’s Agriculture and Livestock Research Strategy for 2011-2015, there has been a push to increase the number of date palms grown in the country, and diversify the date palm products available for export.

“This opens new horizons for young people to use part of the local environment in new profitable projects,” Siyabi said.

Professor Yahyai added that the product also has cultural significance in Oman, since date palms have long been a source of sustenance, a sign of hospitality towards visitors, and to build homes, among other uses. “Since this product is made from date palm, it deserves a special status,” Yahyai said. “Initiatives such as this one should receive the utmost support … to bring such ideas into the commercial stream.”

Source: Al Jazeera