Irish food and drink exports to the Middle East could double to €500m in the coming years, Bord Bia claimed during last week’s Irish trade mission to Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.
Dairy products will continue to be the single strongest component in those export gains. In 2012, food and drink exports to the Middle East were valued at €275m, with the Gulf States (Qatar, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Oman, Kuwait, and Bahrain) accounting for 70%, or €192m.
Dairy initiatives dominated the headlines throughout the mission. Significant initiatives included the €20m new soft cheese manufacturing facility to be developed by the Irish Dairy Board in Riyadh, along with Kerry Group’s investment in a technology and innovation centre in Dubai and Bord Bia’s opening of a new office in Dubai.
Bord Bia chief executive, Aidan Cotter, said: ” Our strategy for the market is focused on delivering on the potential to increase dairy and dairy ingredient exports to the Gulf region; on broadening market access for the Irish beef and sheepmeat industry and in securing premium positioning for Irish food through high-end retail and foodservice customers.
“Our new office will provide a practical solution for Irish companies seeking to enter the market by providing access to market knowledge, insight and research.”
The Middle East is heavily reliant on food imports, which make up 80-90% of total food consumed. The region’s population has soared by 56% from 28.5m in 2000 up to 44.5m in 2010, and looks sure to exceed 50m before 2020. Irish dairy and meat products were a key focus for discussion during the trade mission.
However, both the Department of Agriculture and its Middle East partners were also keen to signal their strong interest in plans to share and develop advance new food technologies.
For this reason, the participation of senior researchers from Teagasc and UCC was also seen as central to the trade mission.
Teagasc’s Prof Paul Ross said: “Teagasc is delighted to be collaborating with the Irish Dairy Board in applying the technologies developed in the food research centre in Moorepark, to develop fresh cheese types suitable for markets in the Middle East.
“The ambition of the collaboration is to continue to develop a pipeline of innovative products to meet specific consumers and customer needs in key global farmers for the Irish Dairy Board. This will contribute to the returns farmers will receive for the milk they produce.”
Other food-related services also made gains from the trade mission. Of particular note was the unveiling of a new partnership in Saudi Arabia worth €5m for Irish water technology company Biotector. Based in Ringaskiddy, Co Cork, BioTector makes water analysis devices. Its partnership is for the supply of early warning liquid analysis technology for Saudi-based partner Yokogawa.
BioTector chief executive, David Horan, said: “Yoko-gawa have been based in the Middle East for over 20 years. They are originally a Japanese company. It is a huge partnership, worth at least €5m over the coming years. Yokogawa are going to look after the sales and services side for us.
“We have the right product, we’re here at the right time and we also have the right partner in Yokogawa. When you get those three things right, you can make real progress, as we have seen in the US. We are the market leader in the US with about 25-30% market share.”
BioTector has been working with oil and gas companies in the Middle East for several years. Last week’s trade mission has helped the Cork company develop new routes into servicing the food and drinks sector. It is very optimistic for its prospects in Gulf states.
“The main objective of our participation in this trade mission has been to gain a foothold in the food and beverage industry of the GCC countries, particularly the dairy sector where BioTector has a very strong market position in Ireland and the EU,” said David Horan. “I’ve already had a number of very positive meetings during the course of this trade mission and the high level of interest in our products at this early stage has reaffirmed we’re driving forward in this market at the right time.”
Mr Horan praised Minister Coveney and Enter prise Ireland for their part in opening doors for BioTector into the food and drink sectors in the Middle East.
“I’ve learned a lot from sharing experiences with the other delegates and, as a group, we’re talking about how we might work better together in the future. We’re all trying to connect with the same decision makers so there are synergies to be gained from pooling our expertise,” he said.
Meanwhile, Professor Patrick Fitzpatrick, head of the College of Science, Engineering and Food Science (SEFS) at UCC, noted that the Gulf region does offer very real trade opportunities for Irish agri-businesses.
For instance, Abu Dhabi’s 25,000 small farms are in a mid-reorganisation and need help in developing new structures for greater food autonomy. A country for just 40 years, it has made great progress to date, notably in terms of produce from its 7,500 greenhouses.
“I see UCC acting as a partner with the Bord Bia and Enterprise Ireland in the emerging relationships between the food sectors in Ireland and UAE/Saudi,” said Prof Fitzpatrick. “Through those connections we could support Irish companies doing business in the region. Every aspect of UCC food programmes and research is relevant: food science, technology and engineering, food safety, regulation and packaging, functional foods, nutrition, food for health, and food business development.
“UCC food students could take work placements on site in companies in UAE and Saudi Arabia that are partnering with Irish companies. This would provide them with invaluable experience in this emerging market, which could then be put to use by the Irish partners.”
UCC, along with other Irish colleges and agri-food sector companies can hope to develop further exchanges such as internships and work place-ments with partners in Gulf countries. Teagasc alliances in food and innovation can be very useful in this regard.
However, Prof Fitzpatrick also noted that any Irish companies partnering with GCC states will require a greater awareness of the cultural and religious customs and practices in each country.
In conclusion, Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney said the trade mission had been a great success for the participating 35 agri-food and technology companies. Along with the food, drink and advanced research links created, he also cited the Gulf region ties developed for Ireland’s €1bn equine industry through meetings with Mohammed Bin Faleh Al Thani, a member of the Qatari Royal family, Sheikh Hamdam Al Maktoum, vice-premier and minister for finance in Dubai, as well as a number other key investors in the Irish equine industry.
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