That’s the view of Ramlan Osman, an Malaysian expat who left Kuala Lumpur two years ago with the ambition of establishing a halal industry in a country with only about 200,000 Muslims.
Vietnam could be the perfect offshore foil for Malaysian halal production, given time, he believes. For now, though, Ramlan spends much of his time trying to convey the concept of food and goods that are permissible in Islam to audiences who have barely heard of halal.
Still, little by little, he has been making headway, and government officials in particular are starting to see the potential halal has to transform the country into a production base, he claims.
“Nobody knows about halal here, but that isn’t stopping me. The main reason why I’m here is to encourage the business community to look at getting their products and services to halal standards. If they don’t do so, they will never be able to penetrate OIC countries like Malaysia,” said Ramlan, referring to the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation, a United Nations-like grouping of 57 Muslim-majority countries.
Global Muslim spending is forecast to reach US$2.4 trillion per year by 2024, according to the authoritative annual DinarStandard report on the state of the Islamic economy. Thanks to a lightning pace of growth, experts now acknowledge that the supply of halal food, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and services already falls short of what is needed.
To address this, more non-Muslim countries need to start manufacturing and exporting goods with halal certification to show that they are produced in a religiously permissible way.
Ramlan, the founder of Vietnam Halal Centre, offers certification for companies in the country that see the potential of the Islamic economy. Having also previously been the executive in charge of the Malaysian government’s strategy to implement 24 halal manufacturing parks, he also intends to do something similar in Vietnam.
“I'm doing the groundwork by helping SMEs to understand what halal manufacturing is. It’s going to take four or five years so it’s not going to happen overnight,” said the Ho Chi Minh City-based expat.
His strategy is to influence regional officials across the country to buy into the economic benefits of halal manufacturing for Vietnam, and to use their clout to spread this message. It would be little use, he says, if he can only generate pockets of interest; rather, he needs there to be a structured adoption mandated from the highest levels.
At the same time, he is speaking to local agri-foods majors about participation in a putative halal park that will bring together manufacturing, logistics and certification. This in turn will serve as a showcase for his broader mission.
“The entire country, from the south to the north, is built on agriculture and manufacturing. There are plenty of Vietnamese products that are being exported to Europe, Russia, China and the US. Why can’t the same be done for halal markets like the Middle East, Indonesia and South Asia? These are markets Vietnam cannot afford to miss out on,” said Ramlan.
His former employer, the Halal Development Corporation, an agency under Malaysia’s Ministry of International Trade and Industry charged with developing the global halal industry, agrees.
“Currently, Vietnam's GDP growth is at average of 6-7% per annum. This is like Malaysia 20 years back where economy was booming,” said HDC’s chief executive, Hairol Ariffein Sahari, in Kuala Lumpur.
“I see that Vietnam possesses abundant of halal potential raw materials, including coffee, rice, aquaculture, spices, nuts, vegetables and also fruits. This indicates high potential in producing halal end products, in particular halal processed F&B for consumers all over the world.”
In the last two years, Ramlan claims to have engaged with 2,000 local companies on his mission, using his own resources. He says it has been hard work, but he is making progress. What keeps him going is the prize he is hoping to realise before anyone else in the halal industry cottons on.
“Most of my Malaysian friends say to me, ‘Why are you bothering with Vietnam? There are no Muslims, so what the hell are you doing in the country?’ I always smile and say to myself, ‘it’s good that you guys don't know’.”