Harvesting Farm Fresh Produce in UAE

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The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is the fourth-largest economy in Africa and the Middle East. It is one of the most critical global trading hubs. Due to extreme weather conditions and limited arable land, the UAE relies on farm fresh produce imports to satisfy the demand from its growing population, mainly the influx of expatriates.

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The multiculturalism of the country’s expatriate society (about 88% of the overall population) results in diverse eating habits and a large food service sector offering a variety of cuisines. Hence there is a diverse demand structure within farm fresh produce.

Farm fresh produce replaces processed vegetables and fruits 

Overall, the apparent consumption of imported frozen fruit and vegetables saw slow growth in recent years, as consumers shifted towards fresh produce. Growing health awareness has resulted in a desire to eat more natural foods, which dampened the demand for processed fruit and vegetables. Shelf-stable fruit, for example, saw retail sales decline (-1%) in 2017 and stagnate in 2018.

Domestic Agriculture for farm fresh produce

The UAE’s agriculture sector is highly impacted due to its lack of arable land, intense heat, and limited water supplies. The UAE government has invested heavily abroad to ensure food security and diversity. It has signed a deal to establish an agricultural-free zone in Uganda for Emirati companies. Furthermore, support has increased for local production, currently accounting for just 20% of all fruit and vegetables consumed in the UAE.

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The primary focus areas include new technologies, especially hydroponics and sustainable cultivation methods, particularly organic farming in UAE. The establishment of the Abu Dhabi Farmers’ Services Centre (ADFSC) in 2009 supported domestic agriculture in Abu Dhabi.

The support includes training, extension programs, and a special fund to support the adaptation of greenhouse hydroponics methods in the Emirate. ADFSC can also certify farms according to Global Good Agricultural Practices (Global GAP certification). 

Assistance from the UAE Government

The Ministry of Climate Change and Environment of UAE is doing similar work countrywide. The ministry supports initiatives and implementing programs to help adapt hydroponics and organic farming methods. Additionally, it has partnered with the private sector to boost developments in this field.

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In recent years, marketing activities also supported demand for local produce, coupled with high media coverage and agreements with the UAE’s largest grocery retail chains to ensure broad availability and awareness among consumers. 

Overview of the supply chain for farm fresh produce 

Farm Fresh fruit and vegetables typically arrive in one of the country’s seaports, especially Jebel Ali in Dubai, the most important and busiest port in the Middle East.

Dubai’s Al Aweer Market is the centre of  the UAE’s farm fresh fruit and vegetable trade. On the arrival of the vessel till the discharge of the container, the shipment undergoes a visual inspection by customs and health inspectors to ensure labelling regulations. Additionally, they also confirm the validity and presence of all certificates and documents. Subsequently, all food shipments undergo random laboratory analysis and delay delivery.

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Transportation within the port is done through an external hauler, nominated by the importer through the Haulier Nomination Service listed on the UAE Trade Portal. Post clearance, the hauler makes the goods delivered to the importer’s warehouse. Anyone who wants to conduct business inside the UAE needs a valid trade license.

Suppliers trying to enter the market have different options, but most work with a local partner, who operates as the importer and often distributes the product to wholesalers, including Al Aweer hypermarkets and hotels, supermarkets, restaurants, and institutions.

However, large retail chains, such as Lulu Hypermarket, JM Foods, and Spinneys Group Ltd, typically work directly with suppliers, thereby helping reduce the fresh food prices for the end consumers. Price differences between the various supermarket chains usually arise because of quality rather than distribution system costs.

Health awareness boosts growth for farm fresh produce 

Health awareness is neither a new nor a UAE-specific trend, but its impact increases steadily. Given the media and government spotlight on high and rising obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular diseases, consumers adopt healthier eating habits. Therefore, consumer preferences are slowly shifting from better-for-you and fortified products to food perceived as less processed or more natural.

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This trend naturally benefits fresh fruit and vegetables, especially items with a reportedly superior nutritional value and often categorized as a superfood. Despite their high unit prices, Kale and various berries, such as blueberries and acai, benefit from this development. Another important field is organic produce, supported by all major retail chains.

Carrefour increased its organic farm fresh fruit and vegetables from apples and cucumbers to a wide range of items, including mushrooms, herbs and starchy roots. The supermarket Spinney’s, designed to target high-income expatriates from Europe and North America, was parallel. The retail chain introduced various organic items for a broad in-store marketing campaign to create an image as a retailer specializing in organic and healthy foods.

Local farm fresh produce also benefited from the trend and received an additional boost through recent government support for sustainable, domestic agriculture. Parents are a vital consumer group for such premium products, and farm fresh fruit and vegetables. This has led to high inclusion rates of farm fresh fruit in school lunches. 

Risks and opportunities for farm fresh produce

Demand for convenience is increasing worldwide in line with rapid urbanization and rising numbers of working women, single-person households, and busier lifestyles. Most of the population of the UAE resides in the country on working visas, resulting in high employment rates among men and women.

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Furthermore, most people already live in cities, and many live alone or in shared accommodation. All these factors support the demand for convenient solutions. Among a price-sensitive consumer segment, this helps sales of processed food and regular foodservice visits and hurts demand for fresh fruit and vegetables through retail.

However, among busy mid- and high-income consumers, demand for convenience and growing health awareness boost sales of higher-priced options. These higher priced options include pre-packaged or ready-to-eat products. The need for comfort combined with increasing health awareness has led to an established market for healthy meal plans. These healthy meal plans include simply healthy diets, right bite, and Kcal.

Most meals are based on fresh vegetables and fruit portions to deliver a nutritious diet. Hotels and restaurants are experiencing increasing demand for healthier meals. They have adjusted their menus to include more salads, fresh fruit snacks, desserts, and dishes rich in vegetables.

Economic uncertainty supports sales of staples and discounted products

 In the current economic climate, grocery shoppers in the UAE are more price-conscious than ever. Even many mid-and high-income consumers started to focus on essentials and discounted products. While various fresh food products are considered staples, consumers are still cautious and looking for value for money.

In this situation, discounts and promotions are often the best tools to grab consumer attention. The grocery chains widely apply this  strategy. Onions, tomatoes, and eggplants are essential, as all three are used in everyday cooking by many nationalities. Potatoes are also famous, as they are a staple in South Asian dishes.

Diverse cuisines and farm fresh produce

The UAE is home to ethnicities and nationalities worldwide. Although, most are exposed to different cuisines, many adhere to their traditional dishes and ingredients most of the time. This explains the significant presence of South Asian restaurants and the strong demand for ingredients used to preparing  popular Indian subcontinent dishes.

Tomatoes and onions are always in need as they build the base for all curries. Potatoes are equally important as they are used as an ingredient and a side dish in meat-based meals. Vegetarian dishes often feature okra and eggplant. Middle Eastern cuisine, especially Levantine dishes, is another popular genre.

Lebanese cuisine enjoys growing popularity among Arab and non-Arab expatriates and has experienced good growth. Tomatoes, cucumbers, parsley, eggplant, and courgette are all staples and used in several essential appetizers and main dishes.

Takeaway

 UAE does not expect the share of expatriates in the overall population to go down. The ethnic composition of UAE society will not see any dramatic changes over the coming years. The trends in preferences are expected to remain relatively stable. Thus the demand for farm fresh fruits and vegetable is expected to rise further in coming years.

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