Could macadamia nuts and Hawaiian honey be the next hot commodities in the Middle East?
That’s what state agriculture officials are hoping for.
And they’re looking to attend a food convention in Dubai next year to show off Hawaii’s agricultural exports to the world.
Sharon Hurd, of the state Department of Agriculture’s Market Development Branch, said Middle Eastern countries, including the oil-rich United Arab Emirates and its most populous city Dubai, represent an untapped market for Hawaii’s exports.
She wants to use $10,000 in federal funds to secure a booth for Hawaii at Dubai's Gulfood trade show in February 2016.
Doing so in time to meet the convention’s deadlines requires an exemption to state procurement laws; her request for that exemption is being reviewed.
If the exemption does go through in time, Hurd plans to attend the convention and bring representatives from Hawaii’s agricultural markets with her.
Hurd stressed her trip expenses would also be paid for with federal dollars that come to the state specifically for promoting agricultural exports.
Still, participation in the convention and the trip is sure to raise eyebrows, not least of which because of the barriers that would have to be overcome for Hawaii to become a player in the Middle Eastern market.
For one, there’s the logistics of shipping items to the Middle East.
There’s also the issue of making sure foods meet Halal standards, and would be acceptable for Muslims to eat. Halal food (and packaging) must meet strict Islamic guidelines.
But at a Halal information session the state held in 2014, officials learned that some foods are inherently Halal. They include water, honey, nuts, coffee and fruits.
Hurd said she understands the barriers to entering Middle Eastern markets, but adds those can be overcome.
In 2014, Hawaii’s agricultural exports totaled $122 million; the total so far in 2015 is $98 million.
Japan is the biggest export market; about $49 million in agricultural exports went to the country from Hawaii in 2014, according to Euromonitor International.
Exports to China totaled $19 million in 2014, and South Korea rounded out the top three, with $8.3 million.
Other big countries for Hawaii exports: Canada, Taiwan, Vietnam, Indonesia and Australia.
Just $191,000 in agricultural exports from Hawaii went to the United Arab Emirates in 2014; the total for 2015 so far is $27,000.
What types of goods went to the United Arab Emirates? Cocoa, cereal, and miscellaneous edible prepared foods.
In her application for the exemption to state procurement laws, Hurd notes that the six Persian Gulf states in the Gulf Cooperation Council (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE) have a population of about $40 million people, and produce just a small fraction of the food they consume.
"Hawaii products have not been tested in this market," Hurd wrote. "The few companies that have looked into potential for Hawaii products have reported that our products are in demand."