As part of its commitment towards supporting Small and Medium Enterprises (SME), the Expo 2020 Dubai’s licensee programme identifies individuals who have started homegrown brands and have nurtured them sustainably. In a two-part feature, Friday meets two expats who saw the opportunity in the UAE’s local products and turned them into success stories with passion and hard work.

Read the other half of the feature: South African Stevi Lowmass of The Camel Soap Factory.

Thirty-year-old Yousuf Saleem from Sri Lanka understands the dates business like a pro. He grew up watching his father Saleem Mohammad set up the Al Barakah Dates Factory in 1988. It was a testament to Dubai being a land of opportunity. A first-generation entrepreneur, his father sourced the best-quality dates from farms in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Tunisia and Algeria, packaged and then sold them in the local market.

Today Yousuf has transformed the factory (that processes more than 60,000 tonnes of dates per annum into various end-products and exports to 54 countries around the world) into the first solar power-run date processing factory in the region.

The Simply Dates bar aims to appeal to a younger market who would perceive the bar as a 'cool snack', explains Yousuf
Stefan Lindeque

Situated in Dubai Industrial Park, it has a 1MV rooftop solar installation covering more than 150,000 square feet space. This provides about 40 per cent of the factory’s annual estimated energy consumption, resulting in Dh10 million in saving and offsetting around 1,058 tonnes of carbon annually – equivalent of taking 224 cars off the road every year. 

Simply dates

The company’s wholly owned subsidiary The Dates Bar Company (a joint venture between Al Barakah dates and a Danish company called The Whole Company) has now launched its Expo-licensed date bar, Simply Dates – a below 100-calorie mid-day snack, free of nuts, allergens, diary and gluten. The company’s dates bar production line is 100 per cent solar powered.

‘We started out with packaging and selling dates but since 2010 we’ve come out with value-added products, such as date paste, syrup, powder and sugar,’ says Yousuf.

According to him, the quality of dates differ with every geographical area. ‘African dates, for instance, have more moisture and hence they are softer in texture and ideal for making date syrup. Dates from GCC are good for date paste. So, depending on the properties of the dates, we decide on the products.’

The UAE has more than 250 varieties of dates, he says. ‘The most popular varieties are Khalas, Barhi, Fard and Khenaiz. The annual harvest size in the UAE is around 150,000 tonnes and the harvest months are August to October.’

A cool snack

The plan to further diversify with the Simply Dates bar came up as an idea to appeal to a younger market who would perceive the bar as a “cool snack”, explains Yousuf.

The 1MV rooftop solar installation covers 150,000 sq ft and provides about 40 per cent of the factory’s annual energy consumption

‘We do a mini bar and a full-size bar and our motto has been to keep the product line simple. About 90 per cent of the date bar is dates and natural fruit. For example, if it’s a cacao bar, then 90 per cent will be date and cacao beans,’ he says.

The dates, says Yousuf, are sourced from the farms right after the harvest in August and brought to the factory.

‘They are then cleaned and sorted depending on their requirement. For instance, dates for paste are kept separately from those used for making syrup. For the Simply Dates bar, the dates are sorted, and seeded before they are minced into a homogeneous paste that is then mixed with other ingredients and finally routed to  the date bar line.’

But why would one have a date bar, and not a date?

‘Typically a date has a seed and in many countries people, especially the younger generation, don’t like to eat dates with seeds. So, when you have date snacks, like the bar, you do not have to worry about the seed. It does not inconvenience you in any way,’ says Yousuf. ‘Also for many school- and college-going kids, the date bar is almost like a chocolate bar. That makes it fancy.’

20 million bars

The Dates Bar company has a commitment with Expo 2020 Dubai to produce 20 million date bars between September 2019 and 2021. ‘But we could do much more,’ says Yousuf. ‘The bar costs Dh5 as we are looking at a simple product at an affordable price.’

The company now exports whole dates to India, date paste to Europe and North America, date syrup to the Levant and Europe, chopped dates to Europe and date powder to Europe and North and South America.

As an Expo licensee, The Dates Bar Company will be creating a sustainably manufactured Expo-branded food item that will raise awareness of innovations in manufacturing, while also introducing millions of Expo visitors to a unique Emirati snack.

The company exports whole dates to India, date paste to Europe and North America, date syrup to the Levant and Europe, chopped dates to Europe and date powder to Europe and North and South America
Stefan Lindeque

‘We have also kept Expo’s sustainability angle in mind with the use of recyclable packaging,’ adds Yousuf.

The Expo branded products will be available across supermarkets, says Yousuf, ‘but we are also speaking with retailers who are partners of Expo 2020 Dubai. We want the local UAE market to be a key market for the Expo-branded Simply Dates bars.’

As a second-generation entrepreneur, he aims to leverage the opportunities from Expo 2020 to expand internationally once he gives a taste of his products to millions of visitors.