From the Sahara to the Elbe

Meriem Ben Dlala loves nature. And she loves her country, which is one of the largest date producers in the world. To her, this sweet desert fruit is the embodiment of Tunisia’s culture, which dates back thousands of years. Ben Dlala works for the date producer Rose de Sable. “I would like to share our culture with the rest of the world”, the biologist says about her motivation to participate in the Manager Training Programme.

The shiny brown fruit of the date palm grows at dizzy heights. In Nefta, the dates ripen in October every year and are then ready for harvesting. The green Oasis of Nefta in the middle of the desert certainly is a wonder of nature. Here half of Tunisia’s total date harvest grows on about 5.5 million palm trees. Rose de Sable also cultivates dates in this location. “Harvesting is a delicate process; the dates have to be picked by hand”, Ben Dlala says.

From Quality Manager to Project Manager
Answering the question of what exactly the company does, Ben Dlala explains: “I do everything”, and laughs. She started work at Rose de Sable, which means “desert rose”, as a quality manager. Her area of responsibility has grown since her participation in the Manager Training Programme in 2019. Now she is also responsible for the areas of Research & Development and Customer Relations and reports directly to the company’s management. “I am involved in all stages from the field to the customer”, the energetic manager says. Her broad knowledge benefits her in negotiations with new customers, where in-depth specialist and technical know-how are needed and it is impossible to be prepared for every question.

First successes and valuable insights
In Germany, Ben Dlala entered into cooperation with a trading company for dried fruits in Hamburg. Since then, several truckloads of the nutritious palm fruit from the Sahara have made their way to the Elbe. The sweet temptations were sold in reputable supermarkets; in 2020, however, deliveries stopped. Ben Dlala explains that price pressure is strong. There is a lot of competition, including that from other countries such as Egypt and Iran. “Then the corona crisis broke out and everything became more complicated, expensive and unpredictable: customs duty, transport, documents”, the manager continues. But she is optimistic and believes that she will soon be able to dispatch her dates again. And she has drawn a lesson from this experience: “We will sharpen our strategy and concentrate on alternative products.” One example is a new product for the Japanese market: the company’s own “Castilla” brand of dates in stand-up pouches. Despite the difficult situation, the firm has been able to maintain their turnover level in the corona year.

Snack bars made in Tunisia
One of Ben Dlala’s innovative ideas is the development of energy bars and healthy snacks based on dates. These snacks are produced from by-products from the date processing. The manager is currently preparing a corresponding project study. Up to now, Rose de Sable has only sold different types of whole dates. However, the market for healthy snacks is promising, as Ben Dlala learned in Germany. Creating a higher degree of added value for the products is an important step towards the future for her company.

More organic products
In future, more organic crops are to be cultivated. Rose de Sable already produces exclusively organic dates on its own plantations. In 2020, they made up roughly 20 per cent of total sales. The plan is to increase their share to 50 per cent by 2025, and the firm intends to buy further plots for date cultivation before the end of 2021. Further investments are also being made in this connection: “We are planning an extension to our factory in Tozeur, which will expand our annual capacity by 25 per cent”, says Ben Dlala. Rose de Sable also advocates fair trade in the cultivation: The company helps disadvantaged producers and farmers to improve their quality of life.

Know-how as a unique selling proposition
The unique selling proposition of the family-run firm is its in-depth knowledge of the secrets of date cultivation, gathered over several decades. Dates are a very delicate fruit, as biologist Ben Dlala explains. The agricultural process of their cultivation is spread across the entire year, and every step is decisive for a good harvest. “I have always been fascinated by plants and fruits. I continue to learn so much about dates, and that is exciting and inspiring every day. It is simply a wonderful adventure”, says the 30-year-old nature lover, who is doing her best to get the fruit of this adventure back on the German market soon.

Photos: © Rose de Sable