Michael Wale meets Sheikha Muhairy, the 26-year-old owner of an organic farm in the desert on the edge in Dubai, which supplies the Spinneys supermarket chain as part of a unique ‘Farmers Club’ partnership.
The United Arab Emirates premium of supermarket chain Spinneys has formed its own Farmers Club to encourage the local growing of well produced food, and of the first seven farms chosen no less than four are organic.
Martin Aguirre, Spinneys’ commercial manager for fresh produce, is behind the scheme, which started two years ago when he joined the retailer after working for the Abu Dhabi Government in the Farmers’ Service Centre, which encourages healthier growing and organic farming. His own remit was to organise it more commercially. One of the initial barriers he encountered, was a concern among retailers over safety and quality issues with local products, compared with those imported. One of the business he eventually ended up supplying was Spinneys.
So when he joined the company two years ago he helped set up The Farmers Club, selecting a group of conventional and organic farmers as direct suppliers. For the conventional farmers he brought in the Berlin-based good farming practice Global G.A.P – standing for Good Agricultural Practise – which operate strict rules on everything food safety to environmental protection, as well as applying social responsibility criteria. It aims for safe and sustainable agriculture throughout the world. Spinneys has become the first Middle East supermarket to be a member of Global G.A.P. Aguerre says: “ Our commitment is that by the end of this year 90% of our produce will come from Global G.A.P registered producers.”
The organic growers have to have local organic accreditation ESMA from the UAE Government, but to be part of Spinneys programme you need to be American USDA recognised, or European or Soil Association badged.
The four organic farms have a production plan based on what will be needed week by week. Some farms specialise in particular lines, others do everything. It’s worth noting that because of the arid conditions there is little dairy in the UAE. Farmers are offered a fixed price to counter the volatility of prices affected by the time of the year. Aguerre says that in the 2015-2016 winter organic sales were up an astonishing 200% He enthuses: “ When we started the Farmers Club, locally produced organic was 2%. Now it is 7%, which is good.”
“When we started the Farmers Club, locally produced organic was 2%. Now it is 7%, which is good”
The growing season is from November to April. After that the weather becomes searingly hot and everything has to be grown in temperature controlled polytunnels and greenhouses.
I visited one of the smallest and most innovative of the organic farms on Spinneys Farmer’s Club list. As with any farm in the UAE it was hard to find, although it was only 40 minutes drive or so outside of Dubai. It was in the desert and reached by unmade, uneven, tracks. It was not surprising on reaching it, that camels could be seen roaming in the fenced off desert opposite.
Organic Oasis is run by 26-year-old Sheikha Muhairy, already at heart an entrepreneur, who, having gained a degree in Dubai, now travels back and forth to the London Business School studying for her Masters. Her family have owned the site for 30 years, but it was never utilised as a farm. It covers just 120,000 sqft, but every inch is now used.
It was the taste of a locally grown watermelon that first interested Muhairy in growing on the land. Despite asking, she couldn’t find the source of that particular water melon. So she decided to grow them herself. She explains: “ I grew a ton and a half of water melons and ended up with a considerable excess. I initially had no idea what to do with them. But I come from a business background, so I started to think of this as an opportunity.” And that was how she came to found Organic Oasis out here in the desert.
She decided not to sell to the open market, cutting out the middle-man, and simply going around knocking on door after door, spreading the word about – and taste for – organically grown vegetables. She recalls: “ For a whole year I struggled. Didn’t even break even. After we knocked on all those doors we had people who bought from us one day and never again.” Is it a profitable business in this region? Not in this region yet, because of awareness. I’d tell other people ‘don’t come into this business unless you know the economics of business’. We have an innovative model that doesn’t only involve selling, but also promotes social awareness. We encourage primary schools to visit us, so they can find out how their vegetables are grown.”
“We have an innovative model that doesn’t only involve selling, but also promotes social awareness. We encourage primary schools to visit us, so they can find out how their vegetables are grown”
After many knock backs the Spinneys deal happened. She says: “ Spinneys are one of the most amazing organisations”. Indeed, I could not name another supermarket in the world that would have signed up such a small farm to their organic cause – but they did. Now the word is getting around, as I can testify myself – when we were talking a car pulled up with a family who had driven 45 kilometres to buy her vegetables.
She started by growing 52 different types of vegetables in sandy conditions, with water supplied by three on-site wells. This year there will be 24 different crops and next year that will be reduced to eight. They still include watermelons. In future, others will include marrows and – indoors –tomatoes (beef and cherry varieties), aubergines, maize and cucumbers. And finally there are the sand loving carrots, which take 120 days to grow and, Muhairy admits, “don’t make sense financially”.
Finding and keeping skilled staff has also been a challenge but currently she has a bold chief grower in Said Kamal, a horticulturist from Pakistan with that nation’s love for cricket, and with Pakistan playing all their ‘home’ games in Dubai there could be another reason for him to stay loyal to Organic Oasis!
Later in the year Muhairy plans to open an organic restaurant in Dubai, which will serve a high proportion of her own farm grown produce. There will also be an experimental kitchen that will work on organic projects. “I’m just passionate about organic,” she tells me as we part.