Dubai: Demand for organic foods is gaining traction as people are becoming aware of healthy ways of living by spending on healthy foods rather than on medical bills.
Manu Mahdi, CEO and founder of Organic & Real.com, said that he has been in Dubai for the last 16 years, with most of his career spent in the consumer electronics industry.
After joining his family business — Al Rashidiya Polyclinic — as CEO, Mahdi said that he has seen young people coming to the medical centre with unexpected chronic diseases like Type 2 diabetics, cancer and cardiac conditions.
“You don’t expect to see these diseases in young people and that got me thinking. When I studied it deeper, I found out that food is one of the main reasons for all these chronic medical conditions. A lot of chemicals are used in farming right now, which is creating these chronic conditions in people,” he said.
However, he said that there are a lot of dietary movements taking place, with more people moving to a vegan diet.
“So, there is an awareness of consuming good food but when I looked at the UAE, the availability of good food is a challenge. Even if I want to have food without pesticides, where do I get it? The prices for organic are very high,” he said.
Moreover, he said that 90 per cent of the people stay away from organic foods due to the price and the remaining do not believe in it.
“They say this is just a marketing trend and since my father did not have organic food, why should I have it? We are looking at that 90 per cent. That made me venture into the organic industry and make a change within the system by providing many organic products to the masses and not to the elite lot,” he said.
Organic & Real is an e-commerce portal exclusive for organic products and Mahdi claims that it’s one-of-its-kind in the region.
Lulu, Carrefour and Kibsons have organic produce but they also sell non-organic foods. Organic Foods & Cafe on Shaikh Zayed Road sells organic foods but they are a physical store.
According to Organic & Real, the GCC market for organic food is still small, but the annual growth rate is 20 per cent. The UAE market’s size is around Dh12.4b in 2018 and Saudi Arabia is around Dh25 billion.
“The only way we can make a change is to influence the supply chain and make it available to more people, try to get it directly from the sources, to cut down the middleman and pass the benefits to the buyers.
“Most of the time, we buy the vegetables from local farmers but in the summertime, it is very difficult to source it locally, so the products come from Europe. During season time, the prices of organic vegetables compared to non-organic vegetables are almost the same,” he said.
The biggest challenge, he said, is during the summer season as the prices can go up more than two-fold.
“That is the time where the supply chain has to be put in place and that is what I am looking at. When it is not season here, it is season is some parts of the world. So, getting it from India at an affordable price and providing it to customers, especially Asian expats, is feasible” he said.
For Europeans, pricing is not a concern as they are lean towards eating organic.
When it comes to the Asians, they are very sensitive to prices, he said.
Mahdi started the business in April and started sales in August.
Organic & Real works with the farmers and distributors directly and has more than 8,000 products from 50 suppliers. It has about 1,000 registered users.
“We will not have physical stores like others. Any supplier who has a certification from EU, National Programme for Organic Production (NPOP) or United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), can work with us,” Mahdi said.
His goal is to reach 20 countries in seven years. Next year, the marketplace aims to launch it in Kerala, India, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.
Mahdi got seed funding from family and friends about Dh2.75 million to set up the business and out of that, Dh1.5 million is his personal investment.
“For our expansion, we are looking for a partner and are in discussions with many players to raise $1 million and to support us in a bid to make our dream a global one. Even though the UAE is a good place to start a business, the scale is very less. For such a business to make an impact, it needs to have big scope. For that, we need to go to Asia, which is my main market,” he said.
“So, both the UAE and Saudi Arabia will give room for me to sustain and if I can get into India parallelly, I can work magic,” he said.