For Nils El Accad, sustainable living is about promoting a lifestyle grounded on the ecological principles of nature conservation. But electing to consume organic products has also been influenced by personal experiences.
When his mother died of cancer, he took on board what she’d said about eating organic food. “It was something she talked about a lot,” he said, “Organic is the way food should be, the conventional food is wrong; it shouldn’t be that way.” El Accad, took her words to heart and established the Organic Foods and Café brand with two stores in the UAE, 10 years ago.
“The reason most of us are ill is because [of] what we were eating – so we got to change [that practice]. And I couldn’t change the industry. The food industry really didn’t care about it, they just care about making money and as long as it’s legal then that’s fine. So I had to change. It’s really [what I call] my food revolution,” the founder and CEO said.
El Accad came to the UAE with his parents from Germany in 1970, at the age of just three months. His father set up one of the largest bakeries in the Emirates at that time. “We’ve been in the food business for a long time,” he said.
At first, he said, the response they had was really only from Western expats. There were not really any organic or health food products available in the UAE – and no dedicated stores – aside from a “couple of products” that were sold in pharmacies, he continued. However, with increased media attention and a growing population in the UAE, other nationalities soon took interest.
Today, the store’s customers are 30% local, there are four outlets across the UAE and the fifth will shortly be opening in Abu Dhabi. El Accad has also franchised the brand, opening in Bahrain and soon in Qatar and Kuwait, with plans to venture into Saudi Arabia as well. Oman and Jordan are also on the cards if interest in the franchise is found.
FOOD WITH A CONSCIENCE
“We shouldn’t expect to pay a couple of percent of our income on food, we should expect to pay for nutrition, and food is our nutrition,” he said. “So what we have to do is get good nutrition without all the chemicals and you can’t really do that other than, in my opinion, bio dynamically.”
Products sold in the store range from organic fruit and vegetables, gluten-free and vegan food products, eco-friendly cleaning products, fresh meat and fish and also a line of own-brand products. These are products that have been sourced locally (for example juice), but did not have packaging or branding suitable for the store.
“We actually assist a company that manufactures juices. Most of the own label items are from family farms where they didn’t cater for what we needed… or companies [that] were just too small to afford to design a proper label, so we stepped in and said okay, we’ll design that label and bring it across the way the market needs it,” he explained.
This is a trend that’s likely to continue, as the store buys from family businesses that follow the same ethos of the Organic Foods and Café brand. Not only is this good for the consumer, but it’s also good for the small businesses. “We believe that food is not about money, food is about nutrition. And we only really found small family businesses to share that view,” he said. “Our own design, our own label helps them because it gets the correct design to the customer and the customer can read what it is at a glance, in the right size [etc.] and that gives more turnover. So that’s better for them.”
The stores themselves are also eco-friendly. Twelve-watt light bulbs are used throughout, the stores feature skylights filtering natural light from outside, recycled paper bags are provided for shoppers, and even the walls have been painted with non-petrochemical paint.
While the credit crunch hit most small businesses hard, one of the major obstacles for El Accad was education. “It took a long time for me to get the public to understand what organic is, and most people still don’t understand organic. I mean this is a global issue,” he said. “They know it’s better [and] they know it’s without chemicals and pesticides, but it’s a lot more than that.”
Setting up in the UAE, the entrepreneur said, is no different from any other place in the world: “Don’t expect to open up something on the side – if you’re going to do something, do it seriously, boots and all,” he explained. “Put in 10% of your effort and that’s what you’re going to get out. So if you’re going to set up [something], be sure that you’re really going to put in all the effort that you need,” he added.
Market research is also essential, before starting up any kind of business. “Study what you are going to do before you set it up, forget all the glitz and glamor, you’ve got to work on a daily basis,” he advised. You’ve got to believe in what you do, he said “We eat it, breathe it, sleep it. If we didn’t, it would be [a] fake”.