Nayef bin Hamrour AlAmeri had the idea for his business when he was a living a long way from home, in London.
In fact, that was pretty much what inspired him.
“I had an issue; there were no dates," says the Emirati, a former banker from Al Ain. “Then I started buying dates, getting my family to send them and then I looked at the best way to promote them there. This is how the dates business came about."
He started Mafnood, an Emirati word that means unique, two years ago.
But it is more than just about the business of selling dates – it sells gift boxes, chocolate, soft nougat, macaroons, multiple varieties of dates and, of course, dates covered in chocolate. It is the first high-end Emirati company of its kind.
“When it comes to normal wholesale dates, there are plenty of companies. Tens and tens of them. But we are the only Emirati company that presents them in the right way. Our clients are, for example, Jumeirah Group, soon big airlines, big hotels and Starwood Hotels," says Mr AlAmeri, 28, the company’s chief executive. Boxes cost anywhere from Dh50 to Dh1,000, and Mafnood will be selling a lot more of them over the next few weeks. Sales during Ramadan last year accounted for 20 to 30 per cent of its annual business.
“During Ramadan we follow our Prophet Mohammed where we eat three dates when we break our fast. It’s a fantastic gift to be given to your friends, your colleagues, your family," he says.
This year will be the company’s second Ramadan and there is every indication it will be significantly busier than the last. The company has introduced online ordering, which gives customers the chance to choose from a selection of gift boxes with either dates or dried fruits, or a combination of the two.
“As I was coming to speak to you we took a couple of big orders and we keep on taking them," says Mr AlAmeri.
In fact, sales have increased by 500 per cent annually since the business started two years ago, a reflection of a wider industry trend, according to analysts.
“In recent years, the dates market has become more popular year-round.
“This is mainly because of the greater variety of dates on offer, as for instance Khodri, Medjoul or dates with ingredients such as nuts, fruits, chocolate and others," says Monique Naval, a research analyst for Euromonitor International.
“Dates are becoming a regional trademark and customers choose dates as a gift or souvenir. Dates are one of the Ramadan symbols, so we expect to see the largest monthly growth of the sales of dates all around the world, including the UAE," she says.
The company produces the dates on its own farms in the UAE and Saudi Arabia – 50 to 60 per cent of the dates it sells are produced at its Al Ain farms.
Mr AlAmeri, who comes from a Bedouin family, had been an equity trader from the age of 16. He started working in the banking industry when he was 18, while he was still studying. He worked in Dubai for ABN Amro for a time but decided to move to HSBC for the career opportunities. Initially working in Abu Dhabi for the bank, he later moved to London, where he devised the idea for his business. It was a while before he actually started it, after leaving HSBC and returning to the UAE to work for the government for a year. He admits the decision to become an entrepreneur was risky, but it has paid off. Mr AlAmeri has since started another company, Bin Hamrour Enterprises, which he intends to use to establish other food concepts. And he has big plans for Mafnood.
At the moment, it has a signature store in Nation Towers in the capital and also sells its products in Galleries Lafayette in Dubai. But it is aiming for 10 stores in the UAE during the next five years.
Operating in a growing industry, it’s certainly possible; sales of confectionery in the UAE have increased by 12 per cent since last year, at Dh1.7bn, according to Euromonitor.
Mafnood has no plans to limit its growth to the UAE. It has received requests for franchises from the GCC and India and expects the first, in Qatar, to open by the end of the year.
“It’s not a one-shop concept. I created this to be franchised. If it’s only going to be five or six shops I wouldn’t have bothered with it.
“I believe in the franchise concept and I expect, I hope in the next 10 years, to have 50 to 60 shops globally," says Mr AlAmeri. “I am looking forward to that."