It’s no surprise to many of us that the UAE imports 85 per cent of its food. The country’s landscape is, after all, predominantly desert, and therefore not conducive to agriculture. Yet head down to Souk Al Bahar on
a Friday morning, or Dubai Garden Centre on a Saturday, and you’ll find an abundance of locally grown vegetables and fruits.
Before we find out how these relatively new markets are faring, let’s step back a little and discover how they came to be.
‘There’s been farming here since time immemorial,’ says local food expert Yael Mejia, who launched Dubai’s branch of organic café Baker & Spice in 2009. The problem, she explains, is finding fresh produce. Before she moved to the UAE from London, Yael had heard that there was a locally certified organic farm near Abu Dhabi – just the kind of place she could use as a supplier. Of course, finding this farm proved difficult –
the myth that there is no agriculture in the UAE reigned supreme.
‘At some point in Baker & Spice’s first year, we attended an event in Abu Dhabi held in the same building as the Ministry of Environment,’ remembers Yael. ‘We thought this was our chance, so we popped up to the office and they suggested we go to Food Control, who in turn gave us the number of Abu Dhabi Organic Farm, the place I’d heard about.
We found that they were certified [to European standards], which was very exciting. The whole [operation] was extremely professional, and they started supplying us.’
The discovery of the first farm triggered a domino effect, which led to Yael finding many more local farms. Soon enough she found herself working directly with three or four suppliers – enough, she thought, to start a farmers’ market.
‘I pitched the idea to a representative of our landlord [at Souk Al Bahar]. We thought that the terrace outside our premises would be perfect – it’s outdoors, it’s shaded, and it’s convenient for me. However, by this time it was April  and it was getting hot, so we needed to run a very targeted campaign – we blitzed the media and we actually got a great response. When they heard about our first farmers’ market, people couldn’t believe their ears. When they came along, they couldn’t believe their eyes.’
Three seasons on, and the Souk Al Bahar Farmers’ Market has grown exponentially, and there’s more awareness of local produce than ever.
‘As much as I hate blowing my own trumpet, there’s absolutely no doubt that what we did started demand, and where there’s demand, supply will follow,’ says Yael with a twinkle in her eye. ‘Hopefully lots of operations that have so far been private or have kept themselves hidden will put their heads above the parapet and join the fray. Places such as Union Supermarket are now selling a lot of local produce.’
This season’s market, which started in November, initially featured six farmers selling their produce, though by the time you read this there should be eight or nine, as much more produce will be ready to harvest come mid-December. As well as staples such as cucumbers, aubergines and herbs such as parsley, coriander and basil, and fresh rocket, there will be carrots, beetroot, cauliflower, cabbages, broccoli, leeks and sweet corn. Yael adds that one of the farmers she’s spoken to is growing Italian zucchini, as opposed to the local courgette, while another is growing plenty of lettuce, peas and broad beans in greater numbers, as well as radishes and ‘an enormous amount’ of tomatoes. There will also be more onions and potatoes than we’ve seen in previous years, as well as what Yael describes as some ‘lovely melons’.
‘What is important is that [produce is] not esoteric, it’s the stuff people use every day in their kitchen. We’re not expecting the exotica. We actually don’t want the exotica – it’s fleeting and not everybody knows how to utilise it. What we want is the everyday stuff, the stuff households are looking for. It is a functional market and when you walk in, you realise what you’re looking at.’
Where Yael has led, others have followed, including Brit Becky Balderstone, who launched the Ripe Market at Dubai Garden Centre in September this year. ‘I missed the feeling of getting up at the weekend and heading down to the local baker who can tell you what’s in the bread, how he baked it, and the bread of the week,’ says Becky. ‘Or the local cheese lady, who’s making beautiful mozzarella Italian cheese. I love having that relationship, whether you’re in a village and you have a local butcher, or you live in a city and you head down to your local farmers’ market.’
Disillusioned with her marketing job, Becky was inspired by reports from her landscape architect husband, who had been visiting a number of local farms in the area as part of a business project. Using this fresh,
local produce, Becky decided to bring a concept pioneered by the UK’s Abel & Cole (www.abelandcole.co.uk) to Dubai – she would prepare boxes of fresh veg that could feed a family of two or four for a week. As the season changes, the contents of the boxes will change each week, keeping things fresh and fun. Becky says she now sells around 200 boxes a week, while the market itself draws between 500 and 800 visitors every week.
Much like Yael, Becky initially found it difficult to find suppliers, not because of the lack of farms, but because of their inaccessibility. It’s estimated that there are 24,000 farms in the UAE and that seven per cent of the nation’s workforce is employed in the agricultural sector (compared to 0.5 per cent in England). However, many of these farms are small family plots (averaging about two hectares in size), only yielding enough produce to sustain the owners. Even the bigger farms, with better-quality produce and more advanced farming methods, operate to feed the sheikhs and their extensive workforces rather than the general public (as Becky points out, if you have hundreds – or thousands – of employees, popping out to Carrefour isn’t an option).
Currently, most local farms depend on systems of irrigation that are hugely inefficient, which is why methods such as hydroponics (growing plants with nutrient solutions and the absence of soil) are being developed across the region. This is just the beginning, but as Yael predicts, the bigger the demand, the more incentive there will be to develop agriculture in the UAE.
But why should we choose local produce over food that is imported? In short: seasonality. ‘I go to supermarkets now and I still see South African oranges. Do you know when South African oranges came off South African trees? Nine months ago. People just have no idea,’ rages Yael. And that’s not to mention the reduction in Dubai’s carbon footprint.
To help people get with the programme, Yael is now planning to set up a Saturday farmers’ market in Dubai Marina to coincide with the opening of the third outlet of Baker & Spice (scheduled for January 2012). Meanwhile, Ripe recently launched its online sales, enabling customers to collect their boxes of fresh veg from various pick-up points around the city. It looks as though Dubai’s farmers’ markets will continue to grow.
Dubai Farmers’ Market runs 9am-3pm every Friday, outside Baker & Spice at Souk Al Bahar (04 427 9856). Ripe Market runs 9.30am-1pm, every Saturday at Dubai Garden Centre, www.ripeme.com.
It’s far healthier to eat fresh, seasonal produce. Becky Balderstone of Ripe Market tells us which UAE products to look out for at this time of year.