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Tue 1 May 2007 05:41 PM

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New liquid gold for ME

Sales of soup are rocketing across the Middle East with convenience a prime factor.

While rapid growth of the Middle East's soup sector might be a cause of envy in other food categories, industry insiders are less surprised.

Indeed, for companies operating in the sector, the Middle East has long had potential as a key market for soup, particularly dehydrated brands such as market leaders Maggi and Knorr.

This is at least partly because bouillion, which is a basic form of soup, and chicken soup, are already well established parts of the diet for many Middle East families, as well as being traditional Ramadan foods.

But while the overall soup sector in the region is growing at around 10%, the industry is also changing, with the frequency of dehydrated soup consumption increasing across the year and a sharp rise in sales of new variants, according to Jan Piet Kesteren, vice president, marketing food and beverages, at Unilever Middle East. Unilever introduced its Knorr brand to the Middle East in November 2002, while Nestle's Maggi brand was already the market leader at the time, and both brands have since been instrumental in driving the category, according to Kesteren.

"The soup sector is doing very well in Arabia, especially among Arabs," he said. "In Saudi Arabia, growth is close to 10%, while in Kuwait it is also doing very well, which is good for a food category. We are happy with that. It is becoming more and more popular among Arab consumers, which is very good."

Kesteren added that while dehydrated soup dominates in the Middle East market, consumers are also buying soup more regularly and becoming increasingly adventurous in their tastes.

"If you look back 10 years it was almost only a chicken noodle market. That changed rapidly and more and more variants are coming in. More excitement is coming to the market place," he said.

"Chicken noodle is still the main variant but the contribution last year dropped by almost 8%, so that is significant. Other flavours and variants, including cream of chicken, mushroom, and vegetable are taking a bigger slice of the market.

"We introduced a couple of new variants last year as well, French onion and Chinese corn, which are doing very well. With the increasing consumption, people are looking for more and more variants. We try to increase the relevance of the category."

Furthermore, while soup consumption has traditionally been far higher during Ramadan, consumption is now increasing throughout the rest of the year as the main players try to increase the frequency of consumption. "Ramadan is still very important as a consumption period for soups but it's becoming wider, which is good," Kesteren said. "Soup is healthy, easy to prepare and it is very tasty. It must have a great future in this part of the world."

But despite the increasing popularity of soup, Kesteren insists that there is still plenty of room for expansion of the market.

"Soup consumption has quite a high penetration, so almost everyone is using it, but if you compare it to other countries in the world, the frequency levels are quite low.

"So the starting point was chicken noodle soup during Ramadan and what we have tried to do is bring more local variants and try to bring that across the year," he said.

The low frequency level of soup consumption in the region is perhaps demonstrated by Heinz's current lack of interest in the sector in the UAE. The company does not import canned soup to the UAE itself, although its distributor for country, Al Seer, does import some lines on an ad-hoc basis, according to Kunal Dhawan, a category manager at Heinz.

"The cost of our soups is quite high compared to the powdered ones. I think it is an attitude change that will take time to happen," he said. "We don't really focus on the soups at the moment. We may do in the future. At this moment in time we have other priorities, such as ketchups, condiments."

However, for Unilever, the relatively low frequency of consumption remains an advantage. Unilever recently launched a cup-a-soup, which is intended to expand soup consumption into other areas of people's daily lives, such as work time.

But while dehydrated soups remain a firm favourite among the region's Arab population, Western expatriates are helping to drive a small but growing market for canned soups, although this is mainly limited to the UAE, and sales remain small compared with dehydrated soup.

"In Kuwait, dehydrated soup accounts for about 97% of the market. The UAE is also about 80%, and Saudi Arabia is 96%," Kesteren said.

"The UAE is different because of a higher expatriate population bringing canned soups from other countries," he added.

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