Article appeared in issue 1, 2020

Export engagement in the East

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In 2019, Claudia Saumell took up her new role within Bord Bia (the Irish Food Board) as the regional director for the Middle East region. Ahead of Gulfood 2020 in February, Claudia discusses Ireland’s ambitions in the market and the opportunities it presents

Claudia Saumell, Regional Director, Middle East

Claudia Saumell is a former Africa market manager for Bord Bia, working across the different regions since 2013. Born in Spain, Claudia has worked in the food sector since her graduation in Business and Management from the University of Barcelona. She began her career in the private sector in Spain and Ireland, working on international trade, and moved to the public sector in 1997 when she headed up the new An Bord Iascaigh Mhara (Ireland’s Seafood Development Agency) office in Madrid. In 2009, Claudia joined Bord Bia, supporting Irish food and drink companies to grow their exports to Spain before being promoted to Africa manager. In January 2019, Claudia was appointed regional director in the Middle East with Bord Bia. 

 

Speaking to IrishFood, Claudia explains that she is excited to explore the potential of the Middle East markets further after now being in her role a full year. “This market is so dynamic, things in the UAE change so rapidly and there are also going to be opportunities based on projections for the region.”

Claudia says Irish food and drink producers have developed a strong export base within the region. In 2018, the market faced various challenges, which impacted trade going into 2019, but rallied at the end of the year. Claudia is confident about building trade into the future and building on the existing bases.  

“I would like to see more Irish meat in the supermarkets and a larger presence in high-end foodservice outlets and restaurants. 2019 was a difficult year for Irish meat companies as the market was closed for over six months due to a lack of a United Arab Emirates (UAE)-approved halal accreditation body that could certify for product from Ireland; but now this has been resolved and Bord Bia is committed to assisting Irish exporters to regain and expand their presence in the market. We have initiatives that range from projects with renowned Dubai-based chefs to re-open the Chefs’ Irish Beef Club (CIBC) in the UAE, to bespoke engagements with top retailers that hopefully will culminate in market visits to Ireland to source for new suppliers.

“I would also like to increase the presence of seafood. In Ireland, we have amazing shellfish. There is a market here in the UAE for that, especially in the foodservice sector, which is booming. I think there is room for brown crab, monkfish, black sole, hake, oysters, prawns, etc. While there is already Irish hake, oysters and organic fresh and smoked salmon, I would like to work on increasing the interest for pasteurised, brown crab meat. I always thought this is a supreme delicacy, full of flavour, and very versatile, that can be used as a main dish or as an ingredient, it adapts to a food-fusion type of cusine and it is extremely convenient with its packaging and shelf life.”

Chefs’ Irish Beef Club – the UAE chapter

The Chefs’ Irish Beef Club (CIBC) was launched in 2017 with Chef Reif Othman at the helm, who also became the 88th member of the club. In 2020, the Middle East team will re-open the CIBC UAE chapter with upcoming plans to welcome two new members. “We have planned to deliver activities that allow us to work closely with the chefs. Those activities are always based on the promotion and advocacy of Irish beef and we feel very confident that selected chefs will soon be Irish beef ambassadors,” Claudia said.

“At the end of 2019, Bord Bia participated in the BBC Good Food – Chef of the Year by sponsoring the content of the Mystery Box event with Irish produce, where, Chef Craig Best of Hell’s Kitchen UAE, won the BBC Good Food Middle East Chef of the Year. Bord Bia also partnered with author, Flavel Monteiro, to publish a book where 14 renowned chefs curated recipes using Irish beef, lamb, seafood and dairy.”

 

Overcoming market challenges

Overall, 2019 was a challenging year for Irish exports to the region. “This was because of a a combination of factors, the economic slowdown and the region’s political instability has had an impact on demand,” Claudia continued. “It seems consumers have overcome fears and consumption is stabilising again, moreover, we expect a significant growth of food demand towards the end of the year with the opening of Expo2020. Speaking of trends, there are some noticeable trends at foodservice level worth mentioning, particularly around new technologies and online ordering and the narrower gap existing between traditional brand advertising and online advertising.

“According to KPMG, 60 per cent of smartphone users have a food-related app on their devices with 50 per cent using them to order online. Food and drink internet retailing has now become the third-largest and third-fastest growing online retail channel in the UAE. On the back of this current trend, Bord Bia has developed a bespoke digital campaign for client companies to improve their brand visibility  at retail level amongst specific target audience. Results are very positive, overachieving key performance indicators (KPIs) after the first month of running the campaign.”

The introduction of 5 per cent value-added tax (VAT) in the UAE and Saudi Arabia in 2018 also impacted consumer demand and sentiment in 2019. This, Claudia said, affected the consumers in the very first months after the new regulation took effect. “Now, it has been assimilated in the mind of the shoppers and we do not see it as a strain for consumption demand anymore, particularly in the UAE.”

 

Target markets

While some of Ireland’s traditional markets in the Middle East experienced a decline in export volumes and values, Claudia said other markets in the region delivered growth, helping to offset those declines. “UAE grew by over 50 per cent amounting to almost €74 million, very close to Saudi Arabian figures. While the majority of Irish exports to Saudi are within the dairy category, the UAE has a more widespread range that includes dairy, beverages, poultry, chocolate based confectionary and seafood, to name a few.

 “The UAE is a market that stands out from the rest because there is such a variety of products already performing well, Dubai is the market outside Ireland and the UK that holds the largest number of Irish brands in the retail channel. There is a huge Irish presence in the retail sector. This presence should continue to strengthen with those retailers and distributors and the number of products appearing in this sector should increase, particularly in Dubai.”

 

Building blocks 

Irish exports have established a strong foothold and reputation in the Middle East and, Claudia said, several factors have supported that development. “One of them is the story of products that might be coming from smaller companies, produced by traditional methods, with healthier messaging and strong traceability.” An excellent example of this is the success story of Irish Farmhouse Cheese in the UAE. “We are strongly supporting the cheesemakers through consumer events, tastings and masterclasses with food writers and influencers, with which, the farmer’s story really resonates. Origin Green, she added, helps distributors tell the Irish sustainability and quality story to retailers and marks them out as high-end products. “It’s a combination of different factors – it’s the quality of the Irish products, the packaging, the information on the product itself, and the healthy lifestyle messaging.” 

Inward buyer visits are scheduled for the year ahead. “It is one of the best ways of securing the attention of the potential buyer – bringing them to Ireland and allowing them to discover all that we have to offer. There is one coming up with the UAE’s top retailer in June. That’s one of many, hopefully, but this retailer is one of the largest in the UAE – who currently have many Irish brands listed but we want to increase this offering with this retailer. We’re exploring new opportunities and the scope for new Irish products and new Irish companies and new product concepts.” 

Claudia said she is also exploring other opportunities to engage with buyers in the region. 

Saudi Arabia is the main destination of Irish food exports into the Middle East and a series of trips are scheduled for the first half of the year to build relationships with distributors and retailers. “The opening of Saudia Arabia to tourists will significantly impact the demand from the foodservice channel and we want to be ready to facilitate introductions with Irish suppliers. In addition, we have been targeting Kuwait and Qatar as new markets for beef and we are expecing to bring a number of buyers from these markets to Ireland before the end of April. Jordan is also another attractive market in the region so, we will continue to assess all market opportunities and grow our network on the ground for Irish meat and dairy.”