An Invisible War to feed the Near East and North Africa (NENA) region

Home to the bulk of Jordan’s agriculture output, the Jordan Valley is known for its citrus fruits, bananas, and vegetable produce, used primarily for local consumption, with a small share earmarked for export. Yet, a more ubiquitous crop, the date, has grown in popularity among local farmers due in part to its higher returns by acre, high quality, ease of commercialization, and export potential, with local strains Medjool and Barhi dates increasingly gaining popularity internationally.

According to Ahmad, a local farmer who inherited a small date palm plantation to the east of the Jordan Valley, dates not only have historic and cultural significance in the Arab world — mentioned over 20 times in the Quran — but they are also a reliable source of calories, vitamins, minerals, and a significant amount of fiber.

Ahmad’s farm is representative of Jordan’s date palm sector, where farmers growing between 200 to 400 trees sell their output to local stores or markets, with the hope that an increase in quality will allow them to export a higher share of their products. These farms typically hire a few temporary foreign workers during harvest, but the methods employed through the farming process have remained unchanged for years.

Date palm farm with 3000 trees (Source: Palmear)
Date palm farm with 3000 trees (Source: Palmear)

Despite the proliferation of date production, supported by Jordan’s food security policy in recent years, many Jordanian date farms are facing an invisible threat: a tree-boring pest called the Red Palm Weevil (Rhynchophorus ferrugineus) (RPW).

Imported from South East Asia, the RPW has quickly become one of the world’s major invasive pest species and the single most destructive pest of some 40 palm species worldwide, according to the UN. Their reach has extended across the Middle East’s date plantations, Europe’s ornamental palms, Asia’s palm and coconut trees, and even the palm trees on the West Coast of the United States. The RPW’s devastating nature primarily arises from the fact that it spends 80% of its life hidden inside the tree, making it extremely difficult to detect at an early stage and before it makes lasting damages. With losses of approximately 480 million Euros already having been incurred across the Mediterranean region to the RPW, there is growing evidence that global warming increases the RPW’s activity as its proliferation rate increases in hot climates.

Throughout its 12 weeks life span inside the tree, the RPW progressively impacts the palm tree’s health, slowly killing the tree as it bores through and feeds off the palm’s heart. For local farmers, this is particularly alarming as palm trees require 6 years to grow and produce fruits, meaning that the opportunity cost of losing a single tree is extremely high.

With the NENA region accounting for 90% of the global date supply, and with over 50M farmers said to be affected by the RPW, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), this threat is increasingly becoming widespread. Date palm trees across Saudi Arabia (30M), the UAE (15M), and Oman (7.6M) among others, are said to be at risk, making it a significant economic and food security setback in a region facing increasing challenges in feeding a rapidly growing population.

While Jordan currently represents one of the smaller markets, with approximately half a million trees, it is also particularly vulnerable to the devastation brought by unchecked RPW infestation, with a quarter of its population employed in food and agriculture (of which 50% are women). It is therefore one of the markets that most urgently require a cost-efficient and quick early-stage RPW detection technology.

While numerous technologies have been tested, such as heat mapping, sniffing dogs, and drones, acoustic technology is considered by researchers, as the best potential for early detection of the pest.

At Palmear, we have developed the first portable, non-invasive device that combines acoustics, big data, and artificial intelligence to help growers automatically detect early onsets of the RPW. Together with the GIS platform, we will allow users and public authorities to track the spread of the RPW in real-time, and monitor the health of palm trees throughout the region. Following a year and a half of intense R&D efforts, we have started commercializing our technology, and have begun offering Detection-as-a-Service (DaaS) across the Jordan Valley following the validation of our technology by the National Agricultural Research Centre (NARC) — the government body tasked with performing scientific research for the agriculture sector in Jordan.

One of our first customers, Farah, a 45 year old female doctor who owns a small farm that contains, amongst other crops, 10 date palm trees, approached us fearing that her small plantation was at risk of RPW infestation, Our inspection determined that 2 of her trees were infected and that immediate action was necessary to preserve the rest of the farm and its neighbours. Working in conjunction with local authorities and pesticide providers, treatment was administered to the palm trees during June, and within the 3 month window before the harvest when any pesticide treatment is forbidden so as to avoid pesticide residue in the final productNabil, one of our latest costumers, was facing much bigger problems. Despite regular farm maintenance, some of his 4000 trees started showing signs of the potential infestation right after the pre-harvest preparations. The urgent inspection was scheduled which led to finding even more infested trees than thought, but thankfully, all of them had very early infestations. All infested trees were mechanically cleaned and treated with the organic pesticide, therefore much bigger damage was prevented on time without affecting the harvest season and spoiling the premium date quality.

So far, Palmear has worked with over 30 farms of different sizes across the Jordan Valley, helping farmers quickly, accurately and cheaply detect early onsets of the RPW, while simultaneously ensuring targeted pesticide use to ensure environmental safety and to minimize costs to farmers.

Additionally, to offering DaaS, we provide medium to large farmers with our device and mobile app based on a Software as a Service (SaaS) subscription model, to carry out the monitoring process themselves. Feras, who manages three private farms for their respective owners, is eager to begin utilizing Palmear’s technology to bring the health monitoring process for his 3900 trees under management, to the next level.

Unlike other solutions currently on the market, Palmear’s technology is designed to be simple enough to be operated by farmers themselves. By allowing users to listen to the RPW in real-time, we have managed to overcome the digital divide, effectively convincing farmers of the applicability of our technology and ensuring that they themselves can freely operate it. The scalability of the technology will allow us to expand across the NENA region, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE, where 80% of fruit-bearing trees are date palms, and where food security and water scarcity are also major challenges.

Together with our partners, local authorities, and international development agencies, Palmear helps to protect and support the growth of a sustainable date palm farming sector in the NENA region, as well as coconut, oil, and ornamental palm plantations in other global markets.

If you want to know more about our work with palm trees, acoustics, or general palm health, you can check our website at www.palmear.ai or drop us an email anytime at team@palmear.ai

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