It’s easy to see the plant-based revolution across the Middle East. Supermarket shelves are stocked with an ever-growing range of plant-based substitutes, restaurants are adding meat- and dairy-free options to their menus in a way never seen before, and vegan Facebook groups are attracting thousands of members.
However, most of the products in the region are imported, which means that plant-based alternatives, which are already more expensive than their animal-based counterparts, carry an even higher price tag in the Middle East. However, this could soon change with local production picking up.
LOCAL INDUSTRY TAKES LEAD
The trend started around 2021 when UAE-based halal food manufacturer Al Islami launched its first plant-based product – a sunflower protein, fava beans, and peas burger. In the same year, regional food industry giant Americana launched Nabati, a range of five beef and chicken plant-based products that include nuggets, meatballs, and patties. And in Egypt, Juhayna Food Industries, one of the country’s oldest dairy and juice manufacturers, launched a full range of plant-based milk, becoming the first Egyptian company to do so.
“The huge advantage of plant-based meat is that they’re [made using] new technologies, and they’ll keep improving and evolving with new technologies. So we can continue to develop even more delicious and nutritious plant-based meat,” says Laurent Stévenart, director of plant-based foods at Americana’s Nabati.
“If you look at restaurant menus, you’ll see a big change. It’s becoming rarer to open a menu without seeing plant-based food items. That’s encouraging and implies the demand is growing,” he adds.
The positive momentum continued into 2023. UAE-based food manufacturer IFFCO recently opened the region’s first plant-based meat factory at Dubai Industrial City, where it will make products such as meat-free koftas, shish tawook, and chicken burgers through a venture called Thryve. Shortly after this announcement, Switch Foods, an Abu Dhabi-based plant-based meat brand, inaugurated a 20,000-square-foot factory in the capital to produce soy-free and vegan kebabs, kofta, sujuk, minced meat, and burger patties.
“An important development which needs to happen in the category is the adaptation and relevancy of the solutions to the market,” says Didier Chanove, business development director for plant alternatives at Kerry.
“As such, one of the things we’re trying to bring to the market is the authentic taste people seek in the Middle East. For example, simple plant-based patties are not the same as shish kebabs.”
Kerry has been active in the Middle East for over two decades, opening a new 21,500-square-foot facility in Saudi Arabia last year that will be integral to its plant-based food supply in the region.
GLOBAL BRANDS HEAD TO THE REGION
The competition will intensify in the coming years as the region’s booming plant-based market attracts international brands to set up local manufacturing facilities. One such company is Eat Just. The US alternative protein startup is building the Middle East’s first cultivated meat facility in partnership with Doha Venture Capital and Qatar Free Zones Authority and plans to add a processing facility in Qatar for its plant-based egg division.
Meanwhile, Change Foods, a US-Australian food tech startup creating animal-free dairy products, is gearing up to build a 1.2-million-liter manufacturing plant in Abu Dhabi and bring it online by late 2025. It is now establishing its first commercial facility in the UAE under the government’s NextGenFDI initiative to supply the global market and bring down the cost curve.
“We’re creating a whole new dairy production industry in the UAE on a 12-acre piece of land, with an output [equivalent to the yearly production] of 20,000 cows. We solve many issues with food security for the region but also with sustainability,” says David Bucca, founder, and CEO of Change Foods.
“We’re creating a sustainable form of dairy; we use 90% less land, 65% less energy, 96% less water, and generate 84% less greenhouse gas emissions,” he adds.
Government support is accelerating the growth of the plant-based segment in the region. “The Middle East is unusual in that there is a lot of active interest from different governments to be a part of [the plant-based movement]. There’s a lot of investment, interest, exploration, and support, so it’s a synergistic time to be looking at this space,” says Leanna Mix, Marketing Director, Kerry.
Additionally, the most convincing plant-based substitutes require a certain scale. Therefore, the segment’s growth will need a lot of partnerships, sponsorships, and the space and time to develop gracefully – and the region is already seeing all of that, Mix noted.
BREAKING THE COST BARRIER
Undoubtedly, local production can lead to more affordable plant-based products as it would cut shipping costs. It can also boost the availability of plant-based options as companies would not have to depend on overseas shipments.
“We’re going to see picking up in the region the manufacture of the final product, taking all the raw ingredients, putting them together, doing the mixes and spices, and packaging them to sell in the market. It gives you flexibility, affordability, and availability. It’s much easier to import the raw ingredients and then co-manufacture as you go rather than import the final product from abroad,” Stévenart says.
Nabati sources the bulk of its ingredients, such as soy and wheat protein, from third-party suppliers and manufactures the final product locally. Whereas IFFCO’s Thryve imports about half of the ingredients for its plant-based products and sources the other half locally.
“Cost is an obsession that we have in the plant-based meat industry. We want to hit price parity with animal meat because the price is a barrier. If you produce locally, you can adjust volume based on the actual demand you see; you don’t have to ship it from the other side of the world – that also has a cost. For example, the final product will have a longer shelf life than if you ship it from the US,” Stévenart explains.
According to Chanove, only a few markets have reached a level of plant-based price parity. “To reach parity, we need a combination of industry and government effort. From an industry perspective, it’s all about the technology we can drive – what is relevant to the market, what is easier to bring, and what is easier to produce locally.”
Despite the meat-centric diet of Arab households, the region’s market for plant-based alternatives is seeing explosive growth. According to the UK-based Triton Market Research, the MEA’s plant-based food and beverage market is expected to achieve a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 8.35% between 2021 and 2028. The figure is not far from the projected CAGR of 12.11% for the global plant-based food market over the next decade, as forecasted by US market researcher IMARC.
Unlike Western markets, where demand is driven by growing concerns for animal welfare and environmental sustainability, the trend is primarily fueled by rising health consciousness in the Middle East. “The biggest hook most appealing in the region is health. Our plant-based meat does not contain any cholesterol or trans fat. If we can educate consumers on the health benefits of plant-based meat, that’s when it will start picking up,” Stévenart says.
Moreover, as Mix highlights, the continued evolution of technology will enable companies to add nutritional benefits such as omega three on top of enjoyable plant-based textures to satisfy modern consumers.
Bucca also believes that health will be a common motivator for people to buy animal-free foods. “Health is certainly something we can lean on as part of our offerings. We can engineer it to be hypoallergenic, reassemble foods and create combinations that have never been experienced before. We can add probiotics and different things that typically would not come from traditional dairy.”
“Food is emotional,” he adds. “It has to taste delicious and smell good, and it has to be at the right price; these are preconditions. Once you provide that experience for consumers, the rest is history.”
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