The British halal food producer Adeel Khan says he decided to pack in his job as a high-flying investment banker when he judged that helping the poor and needy was more of a calling than working in finance.
“I wanted to do something real, something tangible and I realised that the financial industry destroys as much as it creates,” Mr Khan says.
“So what did I know? I knew food and finance.”
Trained as an engineer at Imperial College London and the University of Oxford, Mr Khan subsequently did stints with banks including Goldman Sachs and Lehman Brothers in London before striking it out on his own in Dubai as corporate financial adviser.
Being based in the Middle East for almost a decade, he says, opened his eyes more to war and the suffering endured by those caught up in it. He also noticed that when it came to food aid, refugees and the displaced in conflicts such as those in Syria and Afghanistan were not getting proper nutrition.
Most of the aid that was coming out of the Arabian Gulf was in the form of dry foods such as pulses and rice. But for those caught up in wars and natural disasters, it can be difficult to get hold of water and a means of cooking such foods.
“What was sent was dry rations, lentils, pulses, oil,” he says.
“Imagine that you are sitting in a bombed-out house with these dry rations in front of you. How are you going to cook? In Asia, there was a precedence of sending ready-to-eat meals but in the GCC because there was no manufacturer, no one ever thought of this.
“The absence of halal food relief globally, where there is disaster, man-made or natural, it is next to impossible to get decent halal food to people who need it,” Mr Khan says.
The gap seemed so glaring that he decided to do something about, taking a gamble and buying a food factory in Abu Dhabi. Extensive market research was deemed unnecessary, he says, as the need was so obvious that he was sure that his products would sell.
Mr Khan says he is not too comfortable about revealing too many details about his business as he believes many have been keen to imitate him following his success. He is, however, willing to say that his factory in Abu Dhabi has the capacity to produce five million food pouches a year and that his humanitarian company, Tayyib Foods, sells each pouch for Dh5 apiece.
The pouches, which look like the Nasa ready-to-made eat meals as seen in the recent Hollywood blockbuster, The Martian, are filled with about 250 grams of food, spanning a menu of more than 90 dishes. Chicken biryani and chicken kabsa top the list of the best-selling pouches, according to Mr Khan. The ready meals can last up to three years in temperatures of up to 35°C.
His main customers for the food pouches are charities and large corporations that need supplies for their corporate social responsibility programmes. Tayyib, however, got a big break during August 2013, six months after it started up, supplying humanitarian supplies to the residents of Gaza.
“The UAE created an aid corridor and companies who bought our meals, we were able to send them on August 18 using these aid corridors to Gaza, which was delivered on the ground by the UNRWA,” Mr Khan says.
While his idea for humanitarian food pouches came from an impulse primarily to do good, his dream does not stop there. From the seeds of the initial idea Mr Khan envisages building a global halal food empire through his holding company Saahtain Foods that caters not just to the displaced – but for all the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims who make up nearly a quarter of the world’s population.
“Muslims spend over US$1 trillion on food and beverages, but there is not single global halal food brand,” he says. “We’re a small company, we are an SME. Someone has to start, so why not me.”
The businessman is not the only one trying to make a buck from halal food. In the United Kingdom, celebrity halal chefs are on the rise, selling ready-to-make meals at supermarkets such as Tesco and Sainsbury’s. Mr Khan says though he is not competing with these kind of meals, which usually come frozen, but is focusing on another target audience – Muslim travellers.
One of the biggest problems Muslim travellers face these days is getting halal meals, which he noticed when travelling himself. And Muslims often have to go to much trouble to get hold of halal meals and hotels, too, can have problems catering to the needs of such guests.
“We are talking to Korean and Japanese hotels who want to stock our meals because every now and then, they get Middle East visitors who say ‘do you have anything halal?’” Mr Khan says. “And they can’t put together a couple of curries for halal. That’s difficult but with our meals, they can.”
The technology behind ready-made meals has been around for decades and was developed by Nasa, the US space agency, so the techniques for producing these meals and packaging them have long been out there. Mr Khan does not want to give away any trade secrets but most of ready-made meals are packaged in a mixture of flexible plastics and metal foils.
The margins that Tayyib Foods makes from the humanitarian pouches are slim but so successful has Mr Khan’s business become that in less than two years, the number of employees at Tayyib has more than doubled to 28 from 12 when the company first started.
Part of the reason that he is a reluctant to give out many details about the financing or the process of his business, he says, is that he has had many calls from big investors seeking to get a stake. For the time being, he says, he would rather keep it in his own hands.
He also has plans to expand into providing militaries with halal food pouches in addition as targeting sales to Muslim travellers.
The market for Sharia-compliant products, from food to banking and tourism, has been on the rise in recent years. According to the latest Global Islamic Economy report, spending in the halal food and lifestyle products market may rise 10.8 per cent a year through to 2019 to create an industry worth $3.7tn.
As an SME, Mr Khan says the UAE still holds many allures despite the current troubles that can afflict small businesses here, with many unable to pay their debts or struggling to get financing amid an economic downturn sparked by a crash in the price of oil.
While costs for SMEs have increased in recent years, being based in this country brings other benefits such as being part of a huge trading hub, Mr Khan says. When it comes to financing, he says he has no need to resort to any outside aid and plans to grow his business organically. “I would actually discourage people from wasting their time raising money,” he says. “The best thing to do is to do exactly what I did. No matter how small it is, just start on your own.”
* This story has been amended since it was first published.