The Middle East’s technological forte is in the food sector [Opinion]

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As Gulfood draws to a close in Dubai this week, one of the biggest exhibitions in the region, the appetite for food is palatable [all puns intended].

While the Middle East tends to lag behind in many sectors when compared to the rest of the world, it is arguably in the food and beverage (F&B) sector where the potential for innovation is most potent, so it’s time we stopped stuffing our faces and started innovating instead.

With 400 million people and a terrain that spans mountains to deserts and the sea, the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) region is in a unique position to make use of its food culture as a basis to disrupt current models.   

The total F&B sales is currently valued at $145 billion in Mena and is set to grow to $171 billion by 2023, a growth of 3.33 per cent, one of the highest growth rates in the world according to the Gulfood global industry outlook report.

Food has always played an important role in the region, the caliphs and the Ottomans in particular, used it to display wealth and finesse. Indeed, much of the dishes enjoyed today across the region and beyond into Europe can stem their influence from the rulers that emerged in the Muslim world centuries prior.

It was the Arabs who introduced pasta to the Italians, bringing with them noodles from China and into Sicily in the ninth-century where they enjoyed a presence for more than 200 years.  Even the Indian samosa can trace its roots back to the Levantine sambousek.

But as with almost every other sector, the region has become a consumer as opposed to a pioneer.

However, there are hints that this could or is rather, changing all the way from “farm to fork”.

Take Pure Harvest Smart Farms, the company has developed a sensor-laden greenhouse to hydroponically grow tomatoes in the UAE or Red Sea Farms in Saudi Arabia, which has developed a method to grow plants in saltwater.

The latter is based in the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) which has managed to develop several other unique and ingenious technologies to tackle the issues of food security including Oaesis which has designed a patented laser-based lighting technology that is powerful enough to help plants grow more efficiently, surpassing current technologies like LED lights. Edama Organic Solutions, led by Saudi entrepreneur Kenana Dahlan, converts organic waste into soil conditioners adapted to desert climates. It helps to overcome food and water scarcity issues and reduce environmental hazards from organic waste.

These farming solutions will not only benefit the region, but can be adapted, used and sold all around the world. Globally, new technologies have emerged or are being adapted across the supply chain. Blockchain is an exciting tool that can be used for traceability.

Perhaps you are reading this as you take a sip of your morning or afternoon cup of coffee. With a scan of a QR code on the packet, you will soon be able to trace the coffee beans’ journey all the way back to the plantation it was picked from, the roastery that processed and packaged it and the truck that delivered it to the supermarket shelf.

Dubai-based Halal Chain uses blockchain to determine the origins of halal meat. Such use if coupled with DNA-testing technology can identify the individual animal that was slaughtered for its meat.

The way these raw ingredients end up in kitchens and how they are being used commercially is also changing. In the GCC, home cooks on Instagram used the social media platform to monetise their home-cooked meals and gain customers, but as licensing authorities have cracked down on them, the use of commercial and “dark kitchens” have emerged. Companies like The Leap Nation and Kitopi, which operate within these so-called dark kitchens where several food brands can operate out of one commercial kitchen have cut the need for brick and mortar restaurants as demand for online food delivery continues to rise.

Which brings us to the consumption sector, where most of the activity takes place in the Middle East region, the fork stage. The likes of Talabat, Carriage and Otlob deliver thousands of meals daily, all three brands were acquired by Germany-based Delivery Hero, which also owns Saudi Arabia’s HungerStation and Turkey’s Yemeksepeti and Foodonclick. These six brands generate almost half of Delivery Hero’s revenues accounting for 191 million orders of its total 370 million in 2018.

None of these business models were unique in their own right, but they have all demonstrated the region’s openness to disruption. LUNCH:ON has managed to innovate the delivery business model to cater to office workers, while the founders of Dubai-based Salt Burger’s use of Instagram won it a legion of followers whose custom enabled it to open several restaurants.

Both Talabat and Carriage emerged from Kuwait, where Deliveroo just launched its services. Kuwait is aiming to become the food capital of the world by 2030. The government has launched a food accelerator to help achieve this while franchises of foreign chains are beginning to dwindle as local food brands have emerged in the GCC state – some which are now expanding beyond the region to Europe and the US. There is a certain celebration and embracing of food in this part of the world that it has become more of an experience than a method of survival, creating new opportunities for tweaks and alterations along the chain.

The innovation need not necessarily come in the form of deep or hi-tech to become pioneers, but rather from our ability to adopt and embrace new technologies – that is something we can use to our advantage, instead of copying other models from different parts of the world.

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