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Local organic produce to be distributed in UAETonnes of local organic vegetables grown by people with special needs at the world's biggest aquaponics centre are now being sold every month in supermarkets.
They were grown at the Zayed Higher Agricultural Centre for Rehabilitation and Development in Baniyas, a centre set up to provide jobs for people with special needs.
LuLu Hypermarkets have sold 35 tonnes of the cucumbers, peppers, aubergines, cabbages, lettuces and turnips in the past two months.
They are also on sale - under the Alkhas, or special, brand - at Abu Dhabi Co-operative and Carrefour, and talks are under way with Abela and Spinney's.
"The idea of the brand is to stand for quality and prestige," said George Itty, the founder and chief executive of Nahtam Social Responsibility in Abu Dhabi, which developed the brand.
"We selected agricultural products because, whether professional, unprofessional or special needs, the result and the quality are the same and we should feel proud to be able to compete with other products."
The system combines traditional aquaculture with a system that uses fish waste as fertiliser for its hydroponic vegetable tanks.
"Local produce is becoming even more popular because imported products create carbon footprint, so that means there will be a big impact on the environment.
"When food is locally produced, especially organic, there are no chemicals and no extra carbon for transportation."
LuLu, which is helping to train the centre's staff, also has its eye on the lower cost of local food. "We support local organic farming, the special needs community and, by promoting this, we are cutting the carbon footprint because there's no transport," said V Nandakumar, a spokesman for LuLu. "We're doing that much bit more to cut it down."
The aim is to produce 50 tonnes of vegetables every 30 to 45 days. "It's a cycle we're trying to create," said Mr Nandakumar. "They produce, we sell, they produce more, we sell more.
"The ultimate thing for the producer is to see his produce sold in the market but the backbone of the project is the special needs community."
For now, LuLu is selling the vegetables only in Abu Dhabi and Al Ain, but it intends to offer them in its 18 stores in Dubai and the Northern Emirates, and eventually across the GCC.
"We've been working quite closely over the past two years with the Farmers' Services Centre, which is the umbrella organisation of all farms in Abu Dhabi, to help farmers grow to customers' needs rather than what they want personally," said Peter Lonsdale, LuLu's retail operations manager in Abu Dhabi.
"There's been more focus in the last year on locally sourced food. We allow customers a choice and we've seen a significant increase in volumes from local farms, especially in the last six months."
He said improved farming techniques were delivering better produce than before, allowing local vegetables to compete with those from elsewhere in the Middle East.
"We want to encourage farmers for people to buy local products," he said. "It saves food miles, the products are fresher, cheaper and it's the right thing to do."
Publication date: 5/1/2013
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