x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Major challenges for UAE's potato growers

One challenge lies in convincing supermarkets to go with better quality, chemical-free product, even if it costs a bit more than imports .

Workers yesterday harvest potatoes on the Al Ain Wheat Farm close to the Oman border. The farm is participating in an initiative to increase the amount of locally-grown potatoes and to sell them in the UAE. Silvia Razgova / The National
Workers yesterday harvest potatoes on the Al Ain Wheat Farm close to the Oman border. The farm is participating in an initiative to increase the amount of locally-grown potatoes and to sell them in the UAE. Silvia Razgova / The National

ABU DHABI // Potato farmers are launching an assault on overseas growers' monopoly in the local market.

Farmers are planning to increase production and educate the public on the superior quality of locally grown spuds.

But they face a major challenge in marketing as supermarkets generally opt for cheaper potatoes from abroad, said an executive from the commercial grower Elite Argo, in Al Ain.

"For healthy food and hygiene, 30 to 50 fils more on a kilogram does not affect the pockets," he said. "And locally produced potatoes are chemical-free and superior in quality."

The Elite Argo executive said shoppers needed to be made aware of quality local products that were grown in accordance with Food Control Authority rules and international standards.

Abu Dhabi Farmers' Services Centre (FSC) this year aims to triple the amount of local potatoes produced to nearly 2,500 tonnes, from less than 900 tonnes last year, on 45 farms in the Western Region, Al Ain and Abu Dhabi.

"We harvested 1,200 tonnes of potatoes so far this year, and for next year we plan to increase it to 3,500 tonnes a year," said Martin Aguirre, commercial and operations director of the FSC.

"It's long journey in such a hot and humid climate but in the coming years the centre targets to greatly ensure its food security.

"The FSC imparts all logistical supports as well as promotes the marketing, but there is not enough support for the local retailers, even though it's a superior quality.

"I want the consumer to be aware of the local produce and its quality versus the imported vegetables."

Each day, 500 tonnes of potatoes are bought across the Emirates.

Local potatoes are sold in the UAE at between Dh2.50 and Dh3 a kilo, and are generally found at Spinneys, Abela, Choithrams, Geant, Aswaaq and Souq.

Potatoes imported from around the region sell for about Dh1.70 or Dh1.80 a kilo, depending on the quality.

"The production cost is relatively acceptable," the Elite Argo executive said. "The challenge is to penetrate local products in the market."

The 2012-2013 growing season marks the third year of an FSC programme in which potato seeds are distributed to farmers under a credit agreement that allows them to pay after the crops have been sold.

"The quality we're seeing from local farmers is easily as good as but usually better than these imports," said Chris Hirst, chief executive of the FSC.

"This season is even more ambitious because the farmers have more experience growing potatoes, and we are better informed about methods that take into consideration the UAE's harsh conditions."

Mr Aguirre believed the public's understanding of what constitutes quality produce was changing.

"A few weeks back, retailers were rejecting our offers at that price [Dh2.50 and Dh3 a kilo], but today they come back and are asking for potatoes because they start seeing that they have less wastage and consumers prefer the local potatoes," he said.

anwar@thenational.ae