CEO interview: UAE’s United Foods expands beverage portfolio, outlines innovation and sustainability efforts
The company is a distributor of frozen foods in UAE, importing French fries from Belgium, frozen vegetables from Egypt and Spain, as well as cheese from India.
In addition, it is the exclusive distributor for international brands such as Oreo, Cadbury and Mondelez ice cream in UAE.
The beverage portfolio currently consists of a water line, sold under the Jeema brand. The company hopes to add less sweetened and non-sweetened drinks into the portfolio.
United Foods CEO Fethi Khiari told FoodNavigator-Asia, instead of carbonated soft drinks or alcohol, he hopes to bring in healthier beverages such as non-alcoholic beers.
These new products will be imported and are currently being finalised. The full line-up will be announced in February 2021.
The DFM-listed company manufactures ghee, butter, margarine and various oils under six brands in UAE, including Aseel, Nawar, Mumtaz, Safi, and SuperSun, produced at the Jebel Ali edible oils and fat factory in Dubai.
The products are exported to B2B companies in bakery, biscuit and confectionery in over 65 countries, with Europe its biggest export market.
Khiari came on the board United Foods about 10 years ago, and after four years, he proposed to diversify its product portfolio.
“I joined the company around the time of the Arab Spring. Back then, exports represented over 60% of our revenue.”
The Arab Spring was a series of anti-government protests, uprisings, and armed rebellions that spread across the Arab world in the early 2010s. It caused security problems, affecting the export market severely.
Sensing this, Khiari focused on the local market in UAE, exploring acquisition opportunities of manufacturers as well as distributors.
Khiari hinted a potential acquisition by Q1 2021, but declined to disclose the details.
“We cannot rely on exports because it is sensitive to change due to new legislations or currency rates,” he added.
Focusing on the UAE market was also in line with the country’s National Food Security Strategy 2051, one of which is to increase local production.
Today, exports make up less than 30% of United Foods revenue.
These efforts paid off, where United Foods saw its business in UAE increase 13% in 2020, despite the COVID-19 pandemic. Edible oils and fats grew the fastest at more than 20% compared to the year before.
The firm is forecasting a 10% growth in revenue this year.
Khiari told us the firm was constantly innovating in its edible oil and fats portfolio.
“Innovation in edible oil and fats is different to other industries like juices where we can make a cocktail of fruit juices and call it innovation.
“Creating new products in this area is difficult. Yes, we bring in new types of oil like sesame oil or a spray for ghee, but these commodities typically do not provide a lot of space for innovation.
“Most of the innovation we do is creating new recipes for our B2B clients, in bakery and other applications.”
Another innovation is its zero trans-fat products.
Khiari said: “Three years ago, our fats, margarine and ghee were produced through hydrogenation. Today, all our products are trans-fat free.”
He coins it silent innovation, where “we improve the quality of the products for the good health of our consumers.”
United Foods is also working on several initiatives to be more environmentally and socially responsible.
The company only sources Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) certified oil.
Last year, the company jumped onto the renewable energy bandwagon.
It installed more than 4,000 solar panels on the roof of its Jebel Ali factory, which is said to provide almost half of its energy needs.
In the factory, all the forklifts are now electrical, instead of diesel-powered.
Because it deals with edible oils, a lot of water is required during the refining process. Khiari told us it is now reusing 99% of the water for other purposes like gardening.
In addition, used plastic water bottles in the company can be recycled into uniforms for employees.
Currently, the company is working with a consultant to develop a five-year sustainability strategy.