A little halaal could have a multiplier effect

It’s estimated that there are somewhere between 800 000 and 1.5-million observant Muslims in South Africa.

Which isn’t a particularly large segment of the population—especially when you compare it with other religions or demographic groups. But commercially Islam punches far above its weight.

There are places of worship and butchers and retail outlets dedicated to Muslims, owned by Muslims and usually operated by Muslims.

In addition every McDonald’s outlet in South Africa is also halaal certified and every supermarket has a number of halaal products on its shelves. For these producers and stockists there is, more often than not, no religious motivation unless one counts the pursuit of profit as a spiritual quest.

The global market for halaal food (excluding everything from cosmetics to vaccines, which can be found in halaal variants) is estimated to run to somewhere between $600-billion and $700-billion a year, maybe even as high as R5-trillion. More than 90% of that is controlled by companies such as Nestlé, which have simply extended their existing operations to cover the needs of Muslims.

The remainder is still more than sufficient to keep a small or medium-sized venture in business. ‘The business growth from the new markets it has opened up has probably been around 25% to 30%,” says Wynand du Plessis, the founder of the Extreem Kwizeen, a catering company that operates from Cape Town. That figure is about three times what could have been expected, given that Muslim attendance at the average Western Cape banquet will typically be about 10%.

But 18 months into its halaal certification, and after more than seven years in business, Extreem has discovered the halaal multiplier effect. ‘We couldn’t before, but now we market to the Muslim community,” says Du Plessis, who is not Muslim. ‘We do selective ads and flyers and stuff and we now do some Muslim weddings.

We’ve gained a little bit of market share there.” What the company also gained is greater traction among its existing client base: large corporations which want to impress big groups of people.

Extreem and its 25-odd staff members serve meals to groups of up to 3 600 people. Fail to provide the average of 360 Muslims among them with a good meal and you disappoint all of them—their partners and friends and the acquaintances they just met at the table, the hosts, as well as everybody else who notices.

Before it became certified, Extreem would buy special halaal meals from other suppliers and suffer for it, Du Plessis says. ‘It was always embarrassing. We’d have these beautiful meals we’d do, but the plate for the Muslim guest would not be It would be this blob heated up in the microwave. People complained.”

What finally drove the company to throw out the wines in its sauces, which Du Plessis finds old-fashioned anyway, and the bacon served at breakfast functions, was the sheer embarrassment.

Like the function for 2 800 people, with the 40 who specified halaal meals receiving their (somewhat unappetising) third-party plates—and the remaining 100 unexpected Muslims eating takeaway chicken hastily bought from the halaal Nando’s outlet down the road. Some time after that incident is when the company learned the value of discretion.

‘It’s like vegetarians; the worst thing is to draw attention to it,” says Du Plessis. ‘You don’t want to be asked why your meal looks different or have to explain your religion at the table. We want that food to blend in, so that the two Muslims at the table of 10 don’t get questioned about their food and their beliefs and end up talking about that all night. So now all the meals look the same because each one is actually prepared for those two Muslims.”

Extreem has discovered a niche in providing halaal meals to other caterers and hotels. Sometimes it receives a photo of the dishes to be served and constructs the equivalent, or nearest possible copy.

For Extreem the transition to halaal was relatively easy and the maintenance of its status is made painless thanks to the 26% shareholding by a practising Muslim chef and a number of other employees of the religion throughout the organisation. Aside from occasional site inspection from representatives of the Islamic Council there are no further requirements.

But companies with no Muslim shareholders or employees can be certified almost as easily, according to the bodies responsible for maintaining halaal standards. Certification can take as little as three weeks, according to Moulana Abdul Wahab Wookay of the National Independent Halaal Trust.

‘It differs from business to business and depends on the infrastructure and processes that may already be in place, but we have food services companies and restaurants that have been certified by us in less than a month,” he says.

For restaurants or fast-food outlets, the two major requirements are that no alcohol or pork are used or sold other premises.

For businesses owned by non-Muslims the alcohol prohibition can mean some complicated calculations to determine whether the potential new income from Muslim customers will outweigh the substantial margins that can be charged on alcoholic beverages.

But Wookay says removing pork from the menu is not nearly as fraught. ‘We’ve had big and small companies applying for certification and they usually tell us that pork is a small part of their business.

People don’t seem to be buying as much pork anymore; I don’t know if that is because of the perception of swine flu. Usually they don’t have a
problem opting to remove the pork.”

In small businesses with single premises and straightforward requirements the trust appoints two supervisors to ensure probity if there are no Muslims in food management positions. These supervisors report to the trust and remain on its payroll, which means that business owners do not negotiate salaries directly. The benefit is that the training and placement of the supervisors is up to the trust, as is liability for failure.

Wookay says that businesses are not expected to employ supervisors to stand about and watch other employees work. ‘Their primary duty is to ensure that things are done right, but we want them to add value to the company in its business and they take up other responsibilities too. Some handle the stock control or take control of ordering stock for the kitchens. We explore the needs of the business and then we determine what will work.”

The cost to company of the supervisors can vary widely depending on the skills required. Any observant Muslim is familiar with halaal practices and requires only a short period of training, Wookay says, but the skills required to contribute to the business in other ways will determine the salary level.

Such controls are what allow a wide range of franchise owners to operate everything from a halaal Spur Steakhouse to a halaal Scooters Pizza. Although some fast-food franchises include a liquor licence, many operators say that alcohol sales are a tiny part of their revenues, whereas turning away even the occasional Muslim customer hurts both pocket and brand.

Who shouldn’t go the halaal route? Depending on location, some fastfood operators are worried that their mainly Christian customer base may resent the focus on another religion and say they display halaal certification either discreetly or not at all.

But, short of militant action by a local church group, none surveyed had any intention of giving up their halaal status.

Info Corner

Halaal and haraam
Halaal, also often spelled ‘halal” or ‘hallal”, is an Arabic term that can identify any product or practice permissible under Islamic law, but is most typically used to describe food prepared in accordance with that law.

Haraam, its opposite, describes anything prohibited by the religion. Certain substances are explicitly haraam, according to the Quran, such as the flesh of carnivores or intoxicants.

In addition, halaal food must include only meat slaughtered in the correct ritual fashion.

The cost of non-compliance
There are about 1.6-billion Muslims in the world and the strict food observances by many have seen a proliferation of infrastructure to support Muslim-friendly products.

This includes everything from special slaughterhouses and segregated warehouses to keeping the specially slaughtered lamb or chicken well clear of pork, which could contaminate and destroy much of the premium that can be commanded by halaal meats.

The costs of that extra infrastructure can be rapidly dwarfed by non-compliance or mistakes. In early June Indonesia banned certain meat imports from New Zealand because it no longer recognised the halaal certification bodies in that country.

That could affect about 70 000 tons of imported beef every year and comes barely a year after a similar ban, this time because of labelling issues. It would be borderline fair to say that Muslims are having the world bend over backwards to serve their needs but that doesn’t mean plain sailing for the faithful in a world of suppliers who want their money but do not share their faith.

In mid-June the British Food Standards Agency published a study showing that some chicken served in fast-food restaurants had been injected with extracts of pig protein as part of so-called bulking agents that increase the weight and succulence of meat.

The inclusion of porcine products had not been disclosed, leaving Muslim consumers wondering if they had consumed meat their faith considers inherently unclean.

Phillip de Wet

Phillip de Wet

Phillip de Wet writes about politics, society, economics, and the areas where these collide. He has never been anything other than a journalist, though he has been involved in starting new newspapers, magazines and websites, a suspiciously large percentage of which are no longer in business. PGP fingerprint: CF74 7B0F F037 ACB9 779C 902B 793C 8781 4548 D165 Read more from Phillip de Wet


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