Special: More UAE residents prefer locally-grown fruits and vegetables

Khaleej Times, 2nd Apr 2021


Faced with a lockdown designed to control the spread of a global pandemic, which lasted several weeks last year, many residents and businesses across the UAE took the time to take a closer look at their lifestyles and decided to explore ways in which they could improve upon them.

One way for them to do this, which was almost unanimously adopted across the emirates, involved cutting back on unhealthy junk foods and increasing the consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables. Experts noted that residents had understood the important role that fresh produce and healthy eating habits played in helping them build up their immune systems against Covid-19, and were eager to put them to practice. This led to a surge in the popularity of fresh local produce, especially in the organics segment. Concepts such as vertical farming, hydroponics, farm-to-table, sustainable agriculture & trade, and subscriptions to fresh fruit and vegetable home delivery services also recorded increasing interest among consumers.

The message was clear, said Kenneth D’Costa, MD at Barakat, a leading supplier of fresh fruits & vegetables – consumers valued fresh produce that was sourced locally, and which would help them in the fight against the pandemic.

“Consumers are increasingly being cautious about ingredients, reading labels frequently, and opting for the best of healthy and fresh food. Residents and food businesses alike have also shown a strong affinity towards local produce, and they are more aware of the impact of consuming local fresh produce on their health and the environment,” he explained.

In keeping with the company’s promise of ‘preserving freshness from farm to table’, Barakat has tied up with around 50 local farms. This helps the company deliver fresh leafy vegetables to the consumers from farm to table within four hours. In addition to the Barakat Fresh website, the company also has an app that allows consumers to place their orders.

“Local greens are the highest selling items on the Barakat app,” D’Costa said. “Within our ultra-fresh juices segment, there’s been a marked shift towards healthy juice blends like Green Juice, Rejuvenate, as well as Healthy Juice Shots, which are made from super-ingredients like kale, spinach, and celery. We’ve seen a 4x jump in online business. While lockdowns have led to spikes in digital adoption, the trend shifts are here to stay.”

Similarly, Mohammad Nassar, CEO of NRTC Group, another supplier that brings high-quality produce from local and international farms to UAE residents, observed how consumers have become more conscious and pay attention to where their food is coming from. This interest in locally produced food has made it necessary for fruit and vegetable delivery platforms to seek out the local farms and meet new consumer expectations.

“Additionally, the interesting realisation from the pandemic, was that companies across the nation learnt that they can’t rely completely on imported goods,” Nassar said. “There is now a need to have enough local sourcing to sustain and satisfy the local demand. The fresh fruits and vegetable market was already achieving growth pre-pandemic, and we saw this drastically increase last April, and which has only continued to grow over the past year above and beyond any projections.”

He also noted that the demand for organic and locally produced food has increased, and that this is a key reason why businesses are and must continue to seek out local and organic ways to work with local farms to supply fresh produce.

“Fruit and vegetable businesses must not just meet consumer demand but also focus on their corporate and social responsibility to the environment and working with local farms is a key part of that. There is also a greater awareness amongst consumers when it comes to their carbon footprint and conserving the environment. Consumers are now more willing to amend their spending habits towards environmentally-conscious choices and it is only a matter of time before consumers demand for locally-grown produce rises above the demand for imported goods,” he said.

While interest in local produce is growing, challenges still remain as highlighted by Margarita Vaamonde, head chef at MasterChef, The TV Experience. “Sourcing in the region depends on availability, as we often find the issue is not the quality but rather the volume of product we require. We currently use eggs farmed in the UAE and are working on finding more suppliers for local herbs, greens, and some vegetables. We endeavour to continue to work closely with suppliers and transition to using as much locally sourced produce as possible.”

Mohammad Mansouri, business development manager at Fresh Fruits Company, offered his insights on how the past several years have seen significant advances in innovative agricultural technology, which have led to an increase in the supply of local produce. “We now have over 6,000 farms producing nearly 100 varieties of fruit and vegetables locally. This is a remarkable achievement, especially considering the challenging environment we live in.”

People that value fresh food and a sustainable environment support local farmers by buying their products, he added. “Local produce tastes better because it is harvested at its peak maturity, unlike imported produce that is harvested at an earlier stage to withstand transportation. In addition, local produce is better for the consumers because the short distance between farm and table means that less nutrients will be lost from the food. The demand of local produce will continue to grow even after the pandemic ends. By supporting local farms and consuming their produce today, we ensure there will be farms in our community tomorrow.”