That’s according to Mark Napier, who oversees the Gulfood portfolio of annual trade shows in the emirate, and it is apparent to anyone visiting the show.
Now in its fourth year, Gulfood Manufacturing, which focuses on ingredients and processing technology, took place at Dubai World Trade Centre this week.
The 2017 edition has seen 100 more exhibitors than last year’s 1,500, and there are hopes of further expansion in 2018, when an additional 20,000 square metres will be added to the current 80,000-square metre floor plan.
When it opened in 2013, it was the biggest trade show launch in any vertical market, says Napier, adding that the event’s concept works in tandem with February’s Gulfood, which claims to be the biggest annual food and hospitality event in the world.
“It’s where food companies find their manufacturing business-improvement tools, where they find what they need to produce food and beverage faster, quicker, more sustainably and more profitably. It’s about how to make things in a better way to meet the consumer trends that we see reflected in trade shows like Gulfood,” he says.
The growth of the Gulfood trade shows reflects Dubai’s rising prominence as a hub, as witnessed by plans for Dubai Wholesale City, a vast food processing mega-park in the emirate, which were revealed in July.
The 51m square-metre “fully integrated wholesale trading city” is being built at a cost of US$1.5bn will serve as a key contributor to the UAE’s strategy of economic expansion and a channel for global trade through its cutting-edge infrastructure and innovative solutions.
The UAE’s location has done much to spur projects like this, and led to the development of considerable logistics competence, says Napier.
“Food contributes about 11% of the country’s GDP, so you can see that it’s a massive market indeed, and one that continues to grow driven by population growth and the fantastic logistics industry here,” he states.
By bridging Asia, Europe and Africa, it has evolved into a major import and re-export hub. Napier continues: “When you live in a part of the world where they import 90% of their food needs, it doesn’t take someone to be very clever to join the dots to think, ‘well, instead of just importing flour, we could turn it into biscuits to create value and employment, and we continue to grow the economy.’ Dubai’s leadership is very smart on that sort of thing.”
At the same time, the UAE, with its rightful reputation for wastefulness, appears to be changing its tune towards the environment, at least as far as business is concerned.
After visiting many of the stands at Gulfood, it becomes clear that sustainability is this year’s focus of attention. Every time FoodNavigator-Asia approaches a food executive, it is only a matter of moments before the word is trotted out to describe a company’s strategic direction in the region.
Again, the reasons for this are pretty clear. The Gulf doesn’t produce much of its own food, so it is bound to suffer as resources buckle under the strain of growing populations. While waste and efficiency hardly merited a thought in the past, the region is fast realising that a new culture of sustainability must be embedded across its entire supply chain.
This viewpoint might not yet have filtered down to the populations of Dubai and the wider GCC, but it is certainly getting through to ingredient suppliers and technology manufacturers, who see efficiency and waste reduction as a business case, just as they are finding ways to tap into the increasingly healthy demands of a heretofore unhealthy population.
Hamdan, son of Dubai’s ruler, Sheikh Mohammed, has launched what is known as the Dubai 3030 initiative—embraced by Napier and his staff—to promote exercising.
"When you have that sort of focus on fitness and health coming from the leadership of the country, you can combine that with consumer interest in how they look, how they feel,” Napier says.
“If you look back just five years, you would have found it more difficult to find organic health and wellness, now it’s certainly very popular in the shelves. Manufacturers are very clever: if they see a consumer shifting their taste preference they have got to build product to fit.”
Of course, the customers of the companies exhibiting at Gulfood—the end-manufacturers—will take time to buy into this new culture of sustainability and health, as it means them shelling out for new products and processes. But the kernel is there, and it comes as a surprise to your correspondent, who in a past life spent almost a decade in Dubai, and is well aware of the wasteful nature of personal and corporate life that seemed to have been baked in under the desert sun.
Dubai now appears to be taking on board the trends that have for years been commonplace in other, less profligate regions. And through its increasingly effective logistics operation it has been transforming what was once a pretty average food industry into a slick and thriving boon to the economy.
Though it is often described as a crossroads between continents, Dubai has faced its own manufacturing crossroads. From this it has emerged strongly, and appears to be charging down the right path.