Muscat: A group of students from the Higher College of Technology have launched a new business that promotes local, eco-friendly agriculture practices by using date palm leaves as a soil alternative.
The students' company, called Jothor, which means 'roots' in Arabic, was founded in March as part of the Injaz Oman Sharikati student business competition that encourages entrepreneurship among youth.
Many of the 18 students who set up the company are science majors, and, therefore, decided to put their education to use. They came up with an idea to apply the science of using date palm leaves to grow plants and fertilize soil and set up this firm.
"We did a lot of experiments on related ideas in college. Some of the students tried this before and obtained good results. That's why we decided to compare the date palm leaves to soil and we were very happy with it," explained Noor Al Hooti, the finance manager for Jothor and a chemistry student.
Usually date leaves that are cut from the trees are burned, which pollutes the air, but the Jothor group puts them to better use by recycling them. They gather the leaves, wash and sterilize them to rid them of any bacteria or insects, and put them through an industrial blender which shreds them finely into thin little pieces.
"Instead of the farmers burning the waste from the date palms, we can recycle it in an eco-friendly fashion," noted Hajer Al Jahwari, the president of the marketing department and a chemistry major.
The processed date palm leaves can then be used to grow plants from seeds, or seedling plants can be transplanted on to them.
Leaves mixed with soil
The leaves can also be mixed with soil. Either way, the students discovered that plants seem to thrive when grown in a date palm leaves' stratum. They grew tomatoes and marigolds directly in the shredded date palm leaves, without any soil, and discovered that both grew very well.
"It's better than soil," added Sami Al Shuaibi, a biology student and the company's production planner. The date palm leaves are packed with essential nutrients like nitrogen, potassium and sodium, which plants need to grow.
"It's more nutrient-rich, compared to soil," said Hajer.
Another benefit of using the date palm leaves is that they require much less water than soil. In an arid country like Oman, where water shouldn't be wasted, this is an important consideration.
"It uses a lot less water. You just need to spray the plant. The date palm leaves absorb the water slowly that way," said Noor, adding that the plant roots then absorb nutrients from the damp date palm leaves.
The date leaves do not attract insects either, so trees, flowers, and vegetables that grow in this soil alternative do not need to be treated with pesticides.
"The soil in Batinah, for example, is vulnerable to a lot of diseases and has salt," Sami said.
Agro innovators seek investors
Many farmers rely on imported peat moss to enrich their soil in this part of the world, but by using locally sources date leaves, processed by young Omanis, they could save money and reduce their impact on the environment.
"We have plans for the future. We are planning to replace imported peat moss with our product in Oman," explained Al Mutasim Al Harrasi, Jothor's CEO, who majors in electrical engineering.
On the business side, Jothor has been selling boxes of the shredded leaves to farmers, who are using it to enrich their sandy soil and to fertilise their gardens. In the past, farmers used to spread date palm leaves over their land to prevent water from evaporating, so they are receptive to using it this way, too, Hajer said.
"Farmers can mix it into their soil. It's an enhancer for the soil. Our strategy is not to use anything chemical, but only natural, organic products," Noor said.
They have also been selling potted plants that they have grown themselves using da