Becky Balderstone is the founder of Ripe Organic, a store, farm network, and community organization that has been operating in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) since 2011. Ripe Organic works with a tight-knit network of local and regional organic farms and recently started its own farm. Balderstone’s startup began as a delivery service for seasonal produce boxes, and then built an immensely popular series of farmer’s markets across the UAE, and is now supplemented by a brick-and-mortar grocery in Dubai. Ripe also leads a robust set of community initiatives, including school vegetable patches and menu-building with local chefs.
The organic food movement, buttressed by the always-expanding expat community, has now taken hold across the Emirates. Food Tank sat down with Balderstone to discuss her work, the role of Ripe Organic in the community, and the growing demand for organic, local foods in the Arabian Peninsula region.
Food Tank (FT): Can you talk about what brought you to the UAE, and how you became interested in organic produce and farming in the region?
Becky Balderstone (BB): I initially moved to Dubai for work in 2006, but when I realized my passion lay elsewhere, I knew it was time to start out on my own. I have a marketing background, but I have always been concerned with healthy living and healthy eating, so launching my own business around this idea was always a bit of a dream. Supporting local agriculture is something that both my husband and I feel strongly about. Before visiting the farms here, I had no idea how advanced the organic farming was, but the food being produced was amazing, so it just made sense to start a company supporting this. I loved having access to markets and local produce back home, and I thought many other people probably felt the same—so I launched Ripe!
FT: What are you growing, raising, and bottling right now?
BB: The local organic farms in the UAE are packed with local varieties of our favorite vegetables including kale, beetroot, and our heirloom tomatoes—and Ripe Organic stocks a wide variety of freshly harvested fruit and vegetables, free-range organic eggs, dairy and dairy alternatives, local honey, dried goods, tea, and more.
FT: What does the organic farming scene look like in the UAE and the broader Arabian Peninsula?
BB: Many of the farms have grown significantly over the last few years to meet the growing demand for organic produce. We at Ripe support many certified organic farms in the UAE, and each of them has unique items that they love to grow. Some farms are also passionate about trying new varieties, and others work with us to develop specific growing plans for chefs and restaurants in the region.
FT: What are the particular challenges of desert farming? How do you keep your operation sustainable?
BB: The climate here in the UAE does bring with it certain challenges in sourcing and growing local organic produce. From May to September, the intense heat means a lot of produce just can’t grow. For our purposes, we have developed a really good network of regional organic farmers [in different microclimates] who can assist us with the gaps in UAE provisions and keep things seasonal.
FT: It seems that many organic farming operations in the region are headed by expats—do you work with any Emirati-owned organic farms, or know of some that we should check out?
BB: We work closely with the local farmers of certified organic farms in the UAE. The farmers here are exceptionally talented and we really enjoy working with them, experimenting with growing new products, and developing growing plans to meet demand.
FT: What steps does Ripe make to spread awareness about organic farming and healthy eating in the community? What can Food Tank readers do to spread awareness about these issues where they live?
BB: Ripe Organic encourages everyone to live a farm-to-fork lifestyle, and we want to help by making it as easy as possible to access local organic fruit and vegetables in the UAE. We run the Raising with Ripe initiative, a pop-up organic stand at schools around Abu Dhabi and Dubai, so parents can pick up their groceries on the school run (while raising money for the school to build their own vegetable patch). We also work with corporate clients to ensure that they can serve local, seasonal fruit and vegetables on their menus.