How Kibsons have found success in the UAE: freshness is key when ordering groceries online

'Fortunately, we are geographically blessed in the UAE, in terms of where we are located – it helps local airlines and it helps us,' says Halima Jumani

DIY gluten-free sticky chicken lettuce tacos box from Kibsons
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This story has been produced in collaboration with Kibsons International

Halima Jumani was watching a movie at home with her husband, Jamal ­Hussain Khatri, about three years ago, eating "a punnet of blackberries as though it were popcorn". The fruit was brought in from South Africa's OZblu for the Khatris' ­family-owned company, an importer and distributor of fresh produce that had supplied to all major supermarkets across the UAE since 1982.

The fruit is typically marked up from single digits to more than Dh20 a pack. "Suddenly, I turned to my husband and asked him how often and how many people would be able to enjoy this at Dh22 a punnet?" Jumani recalls. "So we decided to extend the benefits we get as importers to our friends and family, and created an Excel sheet to manage their orders. This system soon became too huge to handle. So the next step was to develop a small website, and that is what led to this whole thing."

The "thing" that Jumani is ­referring to is the home ­delivery wing of the wholesale family business of the same name, Kibsons. Over the years, the company has developed a ­reputation for consistently delivering high-quality ­produce – a must when it comes to ordering groceries without physically seeing, smelling or touching them.

A fresh approach

"We grew very ­organically from the belly of a big business, and I'm glad our delivery process has allowed people to trust us enough and dare to order online," Jumani says. "Having been in the distribution business for 40 years, we already had storage facilities and refrigerated delivery trucks travelling across the seven emirates, plus the expertise."  

Despite this successful set-up, the Khatris built from scratch a 12,000-square-metre state-of-the-art cold-storage warehouse in Dubai in April last year. A transit spot that allows for the storing of each product in optimum conditions, the facility also includes one of only a few banana-ripening chambers and what Jumani reckons is the first avocado-ripening pod in the UAE.

Kibsons operates a 130,000-square-foot cold-storage warehouse in Dubai 
Kibsons operates a 130,000-square-foot cold-storage warehouse in Dubai 

“Bananas come into the country green – they cannot be imported in a ripened form,” she says. “In the past, we would outsource the process to one of the ripening facilities in the region. However, when we constructed the new structure, the chief executive [Jumani’s husband, Jamal] had a very clear vision about its ­infrastructure, and wanted to have control over the quality from the point of import to the point of delivery.

“The same goes for avocados, which are one of our ­bestselling products alongside berries. Thanks to our own ­ripening chamber, we are able to ‘perfect’ 99 per cent of them.” Both procedures involve a play of ethylene gas, temperature and time to make sure the fruits are just right in terms of looks and taste.

We grew very ­organically from the belly of a big business, and I'm glad our delivery process has allowed people to trust enough and dare to order online.

“When retailing only through supermarkets, we were not able to connect with end users, but now we have a direct track to feedback, good and bad. We owe our growth to this feedback. At this point, the comment we get most consistently is that our produce lasts longer in people’s fridges, a reflection of our attitude to cold-chain management, which is really what freshness is all about.” 

She cites the example of strawberries. If left out in the sun during the offloading process, the fruit will lose none of its colour, but when an unsuspecting buyer takes them home, the shelf life is drastically affected. Next on the cards is a new meat-breading line, which will expand Kibons's ability to both marinade and supply superior cuts of meat.  

Spoilt for choice - and price 

As of now, the website offers a range of barbecue items, chicken, duck, turkey and beef, plus fish, mussels, prawns and squid. Its bestselling fruit and vegetable categories aside, there are bakery items, dairy products, pantry staples (from cereals and sauces to oils and spices) and beverages. These are all served in Kibsons' ubiquitous blue boxes.

"We've deliberately kept the website clean. There are no notifications bugging you and payment options are straightforward. It's a similar experience to supermarket shopping, in that no two boxes are the same, and you have the convenience and choice of ordering by piece, kilo, packet or carton, or simply reordering your favourites," says Jumani.

The company also offers do-it-yourself boxes, packed with all the ingredients and instructions one would need to whip up a yoghurt-marinated shawarma, say, or a salmon, apple and celeriac salad. These are but two of more than 70 deconstructed meals and beverages on offer on an ever-growing list that has vegan, gluten-free, keto and palaeo options too.

DIY berry booster smoothie box from Kibsons
DIY berry booster smoothie box from Kibsons

South African chef Jenny Morris, a regular at the UAE's various food festivals, collaborated with Kibsons on four DIY meal-box recipes in 2018, which are still available on the website. "I came across Kibsons on a show and went to have a look at operations, as one does," Morris told The National at the time. "I was so impressed with this produce, and I said to my husband: 'I love their outlook, and their passion.'"

Kibsons is also able to offer its produce at competitive prices. The single-digit berries aside, you can expect to pay Dh5.50 for a kilo of UAE tomatoes, Dh29 for a whole one-­kilogram honeydew melon from Australia, Dh46 for 500 grams of black tiger prawns from Vietnam and Dh16.50 for a 500-gram packet of turkey mince from Brazil. "Again, it boils down to having the knowledge beforehand of which produce is best from which part of the world and in which season, as well as what is more affordable when, so we can offer a value for money proposition," Jumani says..

The company also has an Ugly but Tasty section that sells food items at a discounted price. “Think premium-looking products versus ones that are not so good looking but perfectly fresh. It’s called Imperfect, and people love it, plus it reduces food waste,” she says. Two Ugly but Tasty green apples from Italy, for instance, cost Dh4.50 (down from Dh11).  

Within the UAE, Kibsons gets many of its seasonal vegetables from Al Rawafed, an organic farm in Abu Dhabi, and its bread is freshly baked by the German Bakers Kitchen every morning. Of the countries the company imports from, Jumani cites everywhere from Australia, Ecuador, Ireland, India and the UK to Spain, South Africa, the Netherlands, the Philippines, Thailand and the US. "It has to be that way so we can cover all seasons. Fortunately, we are geographically blessed in the UAE, in terms of where we are located – it helps local airlines and it helps us."

Creative uses of the Kibsons box 

It all started when Lizelle Scurr's daughter was feeling unwell and the Dubai resident kept her home from school. Around mid-morning, Scurr discovered her 7-year-old child watching TV cosily curled up in a Kibsons box, cushions, blanket and all.

Courtesy Lizelle Scurr 
Courtesy Lizelle Scurr 

The member of The Real Mums of Dubai group posted the image online, saying: “I just love how these boxes have become such a big part of our lives. I think it’ll be one of those brands that [will make] our kids remember their childhood in the UAE when they see it.” She went on to ask fellow members if they had a Kibsons box picture to share. The response was at once endearing and overwhelming. “I couldn’t find our ball pit,” said Stacey Hooper, alongside a photograph of her two toddlers sitting in a Kibsons box neck-deep in colourful plastic balls.

Mum Bonita Jade Smith, meanwhile, used the boxes as a base to teach her son about colours and shapes, Lucy Tran painted hers to resemble a Batmobile, while Nicola Bradley taught her child about the importance of fishing plastic out of the sea seated in a Kibsons boat box.

Courtesy Nicola Bradley
Courtesy Nicola Bradley

From using the boxes as aircraft and fire engines to transforming them into a makeshift Christmas fireplace to hang stockings upon and even painting them to resemble Chanel bags in lieu of a store-bought Halloween costumes, creative parents are going all out to stoke their children's imagination, while waste-conscious patrons use theirs as storage. The company, for its part, encourages customers to return delivery boxes to be recycled, with about 50 per cent currently being turned in.