Overhauled Mina Vegetable Market is cleaner and safer

Mina Fruit and Vegetable Market has been given an overhaul by Abu Dhabi municipality to promote produce grown in the UAE.

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ABU DHABI // Local produce can be difficult to find at the Mina Fruit and Vegetable Market, where more than 100 vendors hawk boxes of imports from around the world.

But at Mohammed Assad's stand last week, most of the fruit and vegetables - tomatoes, peppers, cauliflower, lettuce and herbs - came straight from Emirati farms.

"Local, all local," said Mr Assad, 55, from India.

He began selling locally harvested vegetables at the new stand about two months ago.

Separate stalls promoting home-grown produce is one of many changes the capital's municipality has made in the port-area market in recent months to support UAE farms.

The market has also started providing cheap overnight refrigeration to local farmers, many of whom drive from Liwa and arrive late with their bounty, said Othman Saleh Al Falahi, the head of the municipality's markets division.

In addition, the municipality is trying to rid the market of undocumented workers who rummage for produce in rubbish bins and resell it, undercutting legitimate vendors.

"They get this, clean it, put it in boxes and stand next to the local farmers and start selling it as local vegetables," said Mr Al Falahi.

Rubbish bins that used to be scattered throughout the market are now housed in one location, far from the stalls.

"This helps local vegetables and the wholesalers," said Mr Al Falahi.

In a competitive retail sector dominated by malls, traditional venues such as the port market are having to raise their game to keep old customers and attract new ones.

The market's covered stalls are rent-free for vendors who are able to sell 120 containers of vegetables per year.

But many focus on foreign produce from the United States, Australia, Syria, Jordan and numerous other countries.

Although there are more than 24,000 farms in Abu Dhabi, the country imports more than 85 per cent of its food.

But "buying local" has become more popular in recent months at the market, where more than 300 UAE farmers sell produce.

"We have very good fresh tomatoes, all kinds of lettuce, dates, oranges, lemons, all this," said Mr Al Falahi, who grows lettuce and strawberries at a hydroponic farm near the road to Dubai.

"We have the best strawberries, actually," he said.

At Mina market's new stands, about 80 per cent of the vegetables must be local during the country's growing season from September to June, said Mr Al Falahi.

Signs labelled "Green Farms" direct customers to the stalls.

Some of the vegetables at Mr Assad's stand on Wednesday were foreign, said Mr Al Falahi, pointing to chillies from India and squash from Iran. But most of the produce was grown locally.

The most popular local items were cucumbers, tomatoes and onions, Mr Assad said.

"Local vegetables have a long life, because they are fresh," said Mr Al Falahi. "They come [on the] same day, instead of 15 days in the fridge."

Mohammed Jalal Al Reyaysa, director of communication and community service at the Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority, said local produce was monitored by the government "from farm to fork".

"We follow them until they get to the market, to the hands of the consumers," he said.

The municipality has also been working to make Mina market cleaner and better smelling, said Mr Al Falahi. A food safety expert who visited in June found decaying pumpkins under a dirty mattress and a truckload of watermelons baking in the sun.

Workers used to wash the area once a month, said Mr Al Falahi, but now they wash it daily and spray it three times a week to repel insects and rodents. The municipality has also built shading to cover the aisles between stalls, where workers unload vegetables in the sun, to keep the men and the produce cool.

"This is all new," said Mr Al Falahi, gesturing at the canopies.