ABU DHABI // Ten new farmers' shops across the emirate will reopen by the end of this year, bringing local produce to a wider market.
The Farmers' Service Centre (FSC), a government body charged with making Abu Dhabi's farms more sustainable, has already renovated five Souq shops in Liwa, Sila and the capital in the past year, in the hope of getting more local food on plates.
The Souq chain was set up almost 30 years ago by Sheikh Zayed, the founder of the UAE. But it had not kept pace with the times, and by the time the FSC took over the shops in late 2010, they were in a somewhat sorry state.
"Many of these [shops] can be cramped and crowded and can create anxiety in a shopper," said Chris Hirst, the centre's chief executive.
"We want the souqs to be inviting so that shoppers can browse and think without having to rush out after picking up one of two things. They're meant to be as convenient as possible."
The changes have gone down well with consumers; sales at those five shops are a quarter up on last year.
"The stores seem to attract a nice mix of the entire Abu Dhabi population," said Mr Hirst. "This year, we have plans to reopen 10 new stores."
Most of the next batch of renovated stores are in Al Ain, with others in Abu Dhabi - including at the new market due to open in the Mushrif Mall - and Al Gharbia.
Some of the larger shops will include a bakery, a seafood counter and a butcher selling locally farmed meat. "This is a relatively new development," said Mr Hirst. The shops' signs will be in Arabic and English.
By the end of last year, the first five shops were all selling local produce, including dairy products, along with dry goods and basic items. The shop on Muroor Road also has an organic section.
"Lamb so far is only available at the Mina location but the chickens will be available throughout the Souq chain," said Mr Hirst.
The shops plan on stocking on local eggs next season and local camel meat soon.
The FSC is also sourcing its produce from more farms than before. From 300 farms in Al Ain and Abu Dhabi last year, it now buys from almost 1,000 farms.
"So we're seeing more diversity and volume to choose from and the quality has improved, especially as these farmers start to adopt new techniques and more efficient practices," said Mr Hirst.
Nayla Aklam, from Jordan, usually shops for her family at LuLu Hypermarkets but has recently started making stops at the FSC shops.
"I was a bit sceptical at first," she said. "But once I tried the tomatoes, cucumbers and fresh basil, I was pleasantly surprised."
She said the shelf life of local products is now much longer than that of imported tomatoes from Holland or iceberg lettuce from Spain.
"Imported food products I get from the supermarket usually last only a few days," said Ms Aklam. "But these local products last me at least a week, and they taste so much better than the imported items."
Still, she doubts many will give up imports. "It's a shame because people have the perception that imports are healthier or cleaner but it's really not the case," she said. "If my children can eat it and like it, then everyone else can."