Comment: KSA Keeping it fresh: Importing food into KSA

Martin Venter on the challenges and opportunities for restaurateurs in KSA
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Martin Venter.
Martin Venter.

In countries with moderate climates you can, on any given day, walk to the local square to buy the freshest ingredients available in the area; these goods range from live produce to fruit and vegetables of all shapes and sizes. Imagine a walk through San Lorenzo market in Tuscany, where you can buy ripe tomatoes the size of your palm, or the floating market in Bangkok, which has exotic fruit that can’t be found anywhere else in the world.

The life of a restaurateur or wholesaler in these areas requires very little large-scale logistical planning. In Saudi Arabia, however, 85% of all produce is imported and, over the next few years, this figure is expected to grow due to factors such as poor soil condition, water scarcity, and unfavourable weather. The government has tried to improve the local agriculture industry but, in the late 2000s, the depletion of ground water by farmers forced the authorities to abandon this idea.

Despite the challenges, very little thought has being given to new and innovative farming methods. With the exception of places like Jeddah, where the aquaponics industry exceeds US $266.6m (SAR 1bn) per year with exported seafood products, weather shouldn’t play a factor. It comes down to the need to farm smartly on a large scale. And this would need a firm commitment from the government to recruit private investors to help make the country more self-sufficient and less reliant on product imports.

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Water is currently being supplied throughout the Kingdom by a vast array of desalination plants scattered along the east and west coasts of Saudi Arabia. This in itself is good news for local farmers and food producers, which require large water supplies for their businesses.

So where does that leave us? The fact is, when it comes to importing goods, we face several challenges. Considering the volume of importation, processes should be well defined, but this is not the case in reality. Although import guidelines are clear, the approval process for new products is a gamble, and import officials often take their time to solicit an import licence. In my experience, some officials are friendly if you catch them on a good day, but the inconsistencies can be frustrating. One solution would be to establish a freeport in Saudi Arabia, which could save time and reduce the strain on the importer.

As the country strives to make Vision 2030 a success, private investment from foreign companies will go a long way to easing business transactions in Saudi Arabia. Getting your product — and capital — through the gates is a major factor that will influence the success of Vision 2030.

From a business perspective, I want to give my customers a top-quality food experience, and for this I need my products to be as fresh as possible. If we can’t grow locally, we need to ensure we get goods as quickly as possible, in order to give our customers as close to a ‘fresh experience’ as possible. Concepts such as farm to fork, field to fork, and farm to table are all possible; we just need someone to make these things easier to facilitate in Saudi Arabia.

Martin Venter is a restaurateur and COO of restaurant, FMCG, and real estate company, HB Brands, in KSA. Email him at Martin.Venter@hbbrands.com or follow him on Twitter @Martin_Venter1.

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