The Middle East region offers ample and exciting opportunities for Irish food and drink producers, according to Kieran Fitzgerald, Bord Bia’s (the Irish Food Board) new Regional Director in the Middle East
Did you know, there is more Irish produce on the shelves of supermarkets in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) than in any other market outside the UK and Ireland? Irish food and drink has some pretty impressive feathers in its cap these days, like the fact that we produce enough dairy each year to fill about 3,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools; that Irish beef is served at the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.
Food and drink is Ireland’s most important indigenous industry and one of our fastest growing export areas (if you’re on an Emirates flight you’ll notice Keogh’s crisps are being served). As an island nation with a population of just five million people, Ireland now produces enough food to feed 25 million people. Having worked for Bord Bia in China, and as part of the team that launched Irish beef in China and Irish lamb in Japan, I know what consumers have come to expect of Irish produce.
I am delighted to see a new generation of talented young people in Ireland being attracted into farming and food production that value excellence in our indigenous industry, because when it comes down to it, what makes Ireland really stand out as a food producer? Ireland’s mild climate and rainfall with little heavy industry is the reason that 80 per cent of the country is covered in lush green grass year-round and this unspoilt landscape allows farmers to produce in harmony with nature.
Food has always been intrinsically linked to both of our cultures, where consumers hold food security and traceability as priorities. In the UAE, consumers are very familiar with our Irish beverages, grass fed beef and dairy, seafood from our Wild Atlantic Way, and our prepared consumer foods – think Flahavan’s oats, Golden Irish eggs, and Butler’s Chocolates. As a committed member of the EU, Ireland adheres to the strict EU food safety standards and we encourage our farmers and processors to reach even higher standards by participating in our Bord Bia Quality Assurance Schemes, refined over the last 20 years in a process of continuous improvement and the pursuit of excellence.
Over half of adults in the UAE feel that safety standards and traceability of their food and drink is more important.
Bord Bia Indicators Barometer Oct 2020
As we enter the final decade of delivering on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, the global food and drink sector is facing unprecedented reputational, regulatory and market pressures to reduce its environmental and social impact, as well as develop innovative solutions to increasingly complex consumer demand. Bord Bia completed a Future Proofing toolkit to further understand preferences and behaviours from consumers in the UAE and Saudi Arabia emerging from the pandemic. What we found is a growing interest in healthy and organic foods to boost immunity, along with safely packaged food – a direct response to food security concerns from consumers who are now more inclined to purchase from a well-known brand where the origin can be traced.
50% of adults in the UAE are choosing foods that help boost immunity more often
Bord Bia Indicators Barometer Oct 2020
Ireland is perceived worldwide as a clean, green country and an ideal place to produce food. This is true. But today saying this is not enough, we prove it through Bord Bia's Origin Green initiative – the only one of its kind worldwide – working across the supply chain to assist farmers, companies, retailers and foodservice operators to meet their sustainability commitments on an on-going basis.
Irish food and drink exports to the Middle East were worth €310m in 2021, a strong performance in the context of numerous macro factors such as logistical issues, higher dairy prices, and the economic effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, especially for those companies supplying to the foodservice sector. This growth is a direct result of Bord Bia's invested relationship with the region.
Looking ahead, Bord Bia has a number of exciting announcements in the UAE and ME, including Bord Bia Talent Academy placements in key customers Almarai and Spinneys, and a relaunch of our acclaimed Chefs’ Irish Beef Club in Dubai, an exclusive international forum that brings together some of the region’s leading chefs who collectively endorse Irish beef.
One more feather in our cap.
Bord Bia will be present at Gulfood February 13-17, 2022, and at Expo’s Food, Agriculture and Livelihoods themed week from February 17-23, 2022.
Meet Kieran Fitzgerald
Kieran Fitzgerald has been appointed Regional Director Middle East at Bord Bia. His role is to manage the development, implementation and measurement of Bord Bia’s Middle East strategy and to deliver business lead conversions for Irish food and drink exporters in the Middle East. Fitzgerald has worked with the organisation since 2017, where he previously held the roles of EU Programmes Manager, Asia and Market Specialist, China.
There is a strong appetite for Irish dairy in the Middle East, and ahead of Gulfood 2022, David Kennedy Head of Dairy at Bord Bia speaks of Ireland’s sustainable advantage
The Middle East has been an increasingly important destination for Irish dairy exporters in the last decade, in particular. The market is unique in comparison to other non-EU destinations for Irish dairy in that it is genuinely multi-channel. On top of the traded ingredients you will see globally, you can also find Irish brands of butter, cheese and yoghurt on the shelves of regional retailers, as well as farmhouse cheeses and yoghurts in the hotels and hospitality sector.
31% of adults in the UAE are having more dairy now
Bord Bia Indicators Barometer Oct 2020
Consumers in the region are increasingly interested in the sustainability credentials of the food they consume. Customers are increasingly focused on satisfying this demand but also ensuring the security of their supply chains, something that has loomed larger in focus given the disruption of the last 24 months.
To leverage these opportunities, the Irish dairy industry has proactively invested in placing teams of people or ‘boots on the ground,’ in the market to uncover further opportunities and make strategic investments in local production and joint ventures. This is particularly evident in the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
Ireland exports between 75,000 and 90,000 tonnes to the Middle East in a typical year, largely comprised of fat filled milk powders, cheese, butter and specialised nutritional powders. Although this may sound very significant, we estimate that the Gulf states (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and UAE) have an annual have an annual dairy import demand of approximately 1.8m tonnes per annum meaning we have a share of approximately 5-6% of this business. There is undoubtedly plenty of room for growth and it’s the job of the Bord Bia dairy team and our colleagues in the Dubai office to work closely with the Irish dairy companies focused on the region to get a greater share of this business.
Although there is significant dairy production in the region, the vast majority of this is utilised locally for drinking milk and to a lesser extent butter and cheese, leaving considerable demand for imported powders, cheese and fats.
Bord Bia’s Dubai office is strategically located in the UAE, the market that is seen as the gateway to the region. Indeed, the UAE accounts for over 400,000 tonnes of total dairy import demand per annum and is very significant in its own right. I worked as a Bord Bia representative in Dubai in 2010, before we had a physical presence here, and it’s incredible to see the changes in the market in just ten years.
In terms of priority, Saudi Arabia is of great importance and is the market with import demand approaching almost half a million tonnes per annum. We’ve been supporting Irish dairy companies as they work with partners to invest in and uncover more opportunities in Saudi Arabia. I’m excited to see us deepen our relationship with Almarai, the largest dairy company in the region, this year as the placement of a Bord Bia Origin Green Ambassador is announced. This placement will be a real win-win, allowing us to share our sustainability learnings with Almarai and learn more about their business and how Irish dairy companies can better partner with them.
Oman and Yemen each have import demand of over 100,000 tonnes per annum but we’ve seen more Irish success in Iraq of late, with significant trade of fat filled milk powders. It would, however, be fair to say that we focus much of our attention, currently, on the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
The retail channel has been very positive for Irish dairy, particularly in the UAE, and we’ve seen this expand into other GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) countries like Kuwait, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia. We greatly appreciate the space Irish brands have been granted in Spinneys, Choithrams, LuLu, Carrefour, Kibsons, Alosra and Tamimi and are working closely with those retailers to uncover further opportunities. The excellent air connectivity to the region has meant that relatively short shelf-life products like Irish yoghurts can command shelf space in top retailers here. Butter and cheese have long been available in the region and have helped establish the sustainable and high-quality reputation of Irish dairy. There’s a huge appetite within the expat populations in the UAE to try something new and different all the time. The Dubai office has been working with some of our dairy brands to help leverage this appetite by working in partnership with clients and customers to raise brand awareness through social media channels and this has been a really effective service that we’re looking to accelerate in 2022.
A sustainable advantage
We’ve seen sustainability come to the fore in the Middle East: six in 10 of Emirati adults consider sustainably produced food and drink important when buying grocery*. Consider Expo, the key event of this decade in Dubai with over 10 million visitors to date since October 2021 and another three months to go, where there’s a whole pavilion dedicated to it. We see sustainability as Irish food’s unique selling point, so I feel there’s a great opportunity for us to increase communications of our credibility in this sphere, both with customers and consumers. Bord Bia consumer research conducted in the UAE in August 2021* revealed that the leading influences on dairy choices were quality assurance and naturalness credentials, with organic and grass fed also showing strong potential to influence choice. In contrast with most other markets, local sourcing is not important. There is massive scope for Ireland’s grass fed proof points to have cut-through in the Middle East. The contrast between the landscapes where we produce the food and where it is consumed in the Middle East is a very impactful image, from a customer and consumer perspective, that I believe we can leverage to drive value for Irish dairy in the region.
Intelligence and insights
Irish dairy companies consistently emphasise the importance of trade intelligence to better their opportunities in the region. To that end, we’re excited to launch at Gulfood the inclusion of Middle East and North Africa in the Bord Bia Dairy Markets Report for Irish clients to receive on a monthly basis. This comprehensive report combines in-depth trade analysis looking at the production and import trends affecting current and future opportunities for Irish dairy in the region, as well as frontline market intelligence from the team in Dubai around what’s happening at a customer and consumer level. We think this will really equip our exporters for further growth and help inform their strategic direction.
There’s no ‘one size fits all’ or perfect approach to success here. Bord Bia’s role is to work with Irish clients to understand their strategic objective and help them to understand the market conditions better and, ultimately, deliver new business.