Food for thought: Interview with Nils el Accad

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Nils El Accad doesn’t like to call the food industry the food industry.

“I don’t know why they call it that. It’s got nothing to do with food.

“It’s packaging a PR - there’s no proper food in there at all. It’s as close to not being food as it can get without the businesses behind it being incarcerated.”

The founder and owner of Organic Foods and Cafe isn’t a man to pull his punches on the topic, but he’s in a good place to speak authoritatively on it, having dedicated many years to the research, study, education and supply of healthy foods.

As well as having experienced first-hand the profound effects of different types of food on the body.

“It started when I was fifteen years old,” he says.

“My mother became sick with cancer and looked at a lot of foods and realised that everything we were eating was toxic. She died when I was 21.

“A short while after that I got sick and went to every doctor out there to see if they could heal me.

“None of them could do anything to help me, but one said there was somebody I could go to who would look at my body as a whole - a homeopath. So I went and she tested me for two days, and then said take these drops three times a day and come back to me in a few weeks.

“One week later I called in and said ‘what did you do?’ because I was completely cured. After three years of being ill, I was cured.

“She told me to stop eating rubbish, as it’s harming my body.”

Working in the conventional food industry at the time, El Accad gradually fell back into eating foods that made him sick again.

He continues: “I went back to the homeopath and she gave me the drops and told me to go away if I wasn’t going to pay attention to what she was telling me.

“That’s when I decided to challenge the food industry.”

And a challenge it certainly is.

The global organic food market is estimated to reach $88bn by 2015, but the US is thought to account for well over half of that, and the figure pales into comparison when held up against the conventional food market which was valued at more than $4tr at the end of 2012.

And it’s especially hard in the UAE, which was reported by the FiBL-IFOAM survey from 2011 as having only fifteen organic producers, and using only 0.17 percent of its agricultural land to grow organic foods.

And that’s before entering into conversations about price points, ease of production, seasonal availability, and numerous other things.

But while he admits it’s “a big thing” to take on an institutionalised market, he says it was an “even bigger thing to get out of conventional food when the whole family depended on your salary”.

He adds: “I had to do it though. I couldn’t stay it conventional food, and I’m the kind of person who acts first and deals with the consequences afterwards.

“I’ve always lived in Dubai and I wanted to bring nutrition to this part of the world. If I couldn’t do it then I would have had to leave – that’s how important it was to me, and how much I believe in it.

“I love Dubai, but I can’t live without organic.”

And so, the first Organic Foods and Cafe opened in Satwa, Dubai, in 2004, with assured principles and unwavering commitment to not just wholesome foods, but wholesome businesses.

“Out tag line is ‘it’s not about the money, it’s about the nutrition’,” says El Accad.

“The food industry is a for-profit industry - it’s about getting the highest sales possible, not about producing food. That’s not in the equation at all. It’s all about the money for them.

“Any company listing on the stock exchange, or measured by results, can only be about the money. And any company that’s about the money shouldn’t be in the food industry. They care about margins, not nutrition, and it’s damaging people.”

Now with a flagship store on Sheikh Zayed Road, as well as one in the Greens, one in Jumeirah Village Mall, and another scheduled for Abu Dhabi, the company’s reach may be growing, but it’s ethics remain staunchly the same.

Stocking more than 10,000 hormone and chemical free products from food and supplements to skincare, cosmetics, household cleaning and baby items, the family-run supermarket only buys from other family run business.

Bypassing traders and the open market, Organic Foods and Cafe uses a selection of hand-picked farmers who share the same values as them.

El Accad says: “We try to buy from family businesses as much as we can. Families who make food responsibly, who are ethical and responsible.”

But in doing so, he raises an issue which is making it even more difficult for organic shops to maintain a foothold in the marketplace.

Already competing on an uneven playing field against large companies with more money at resources at their disposal, El Accad says that the latest development is that “organic is being hijacked”.

“A lot of people don’t realise that,” he continues. “It’s a bit problem now that many multinationals have got their grubby hands on organic. They’ve bought out a lot of the companies and products.

“In fact, stuff organic now, most of what we’re doing now is bio-dynamic. There’s lots of garbage organic now. Biodynamic is based on methods developed by Rudolf Steiner in 1924 and it’s really the way to go. It’s a difficult method to explain, but it’s based on the rhythms of nature.

“Did you know that you can grow strawberries in a plastic tunnel, using certain chemicals such as oxychloride and sodium nitrate, and fly them to the UAE for sale and label them as organic? It takes a lot of time and effort to understand this but we want to make sure we’re not buying into that.”

While the public’s acceptance of the industry’s norms may seem to stack the odds against businesses such as Organic Foods and Cafe, El Accad explains that there has been a slow but notable rise in people turning towards the wholesome option.

He says: “It started with the expat community, and in time the media grabbed onto it and many of the Arabic community found out about us and organic food. So, slowly people have been understanding organic more and more.

“It can be hard to find people of the same belief as us in Dubai. It’s not so much a community based on environment and health matters - it’s more commercial - but that doesn’t mean there’s no space of us and that people like us can’t exist here.”

He adds that if organic is to grow, then it’s the people who need to make the change - and they have to do it at the tills.

“Every day there’s an election in the UAE,” he says.

“Did you know that? Every day, each of us takes part in an election. When you spend a dirham, you’re casting a vote. You’re voting for conventional or organic, multinational or family business.

“You have to make your vote count. If people want to see more nutritious food and businesses, then they have to create the demand. If the demand is there, the supply will come. It’s as simple as that.”

As we near the end of the interview, I ask El Accad what advice he would have to any entrepreneurs looking to do something similar to Organic Foods and Cafe.

“Don’t expect to earn any money,” he counters.

“If you go into it thinking you’ll make money, you’ll be very disappointed. If you’re doing it because you believe in it, then you’ll not be disappointed.

“I’m not disappointed at all.”

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