Healthy prospects: Why Emirati entrepreneur Mahmoud Bartawi is launching a new startup

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You started Mealzap earlier this year – can you tell us more about the platform and why you decided to set it up?

Since I previously owned and operated a basket of healthy food brands – including Under500 – in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE, the experience gave me an insight into the challenges faced by healthy food brands. As a healthy food brand on other aggregators, visibility is low and you always feel outnumbered by the ‘non-healthy’ food brands.

On the flip side, healthy eaters are constantly looking for food that tastes good and so we created a platform that focuses purely on healthy food restaurants. We wanted a place for discerning consumers to find a wide variety of healthy food options and meal plans and that’s how Mealzap was born. On Mealzap, you can choose from a pre-set plan or customise your own meal plan.

Have eating habits among consumers in the UAE changed significantly in recent years?

Dubai is forging the trend towards a healthier lifestyle with a strong focus on wellness gaining traction among residents. The Dubai 30×30 fitness challenge happens every year in November and is a testament to the leadership and their vision towards a healthier lifestyle. Abu Dhabi, Ajman and the other emirates have also seen similar trends and we have seen an increase in fitness wearables, gyms, sports events and all aspects relating to a healthier lifestyle.

That said, the fact still remains that the GCC has among the highest obesity rates in the world. While up to 31 per cent of women in the UAE and 25 per cent of men are in the obese category, the obesity figures stand at 31 per cent of men and 42 per cent of women in Saudi Arabia, according to data compiled and released by the World Obesity Federation (WOF) last year.

Poor diets and fast-food consumption are the leading causes of the year-on-year increase in obesity rates and unhealthy diets are a significant risk factor for depression and anxiety.

Mealzap is taking on the challenge of making a change, starting with Dubai, with plans to expand across the GCC in our first year of operations.

The term ‘healthy’ is often thrown around extensively. In your opinion, what constitutes healthy food?

I completely agree that the term ‘healthy’ can be used in many ways that seem to contradict one another and there seems to be a new kind of fad popping up every day. However, there is a common understanding and agreement on the scientific approach – counting calories.

Using this method, you can accurately calculate how much your intake is and how much energy you are burning off.

Mealzap bridges the gap between healthy eaters and their meals, allowing them to choose dishes in a few simple steps. Our technology will empower consumers to make better choices and ultimately lead a healthier lifestyle.

Also, ‘healthy food’ is often subjective – based on an individual’s requirements. Does your platform offer customised options?

Customisation is at the core of our offering; we empower users with the ability to filter dishes by allergies and preferences such as vegan, low-carb and keto. In the backend, our machine learning AI-based platform studies user choices and creates algorithms that support customised options.

You decided to establish Mealzap even as the region is still looking to recover completely from the Covid crisis. Why?

I understand that Covid-19 has had a negative impact on many sectors, however deliveries have gone up – particularly when it comes to food.  The ‘unboxing experience’ has moved from a differentiator to a must-have – brands that did well were the ones that caught on to this trend early and focused on better communication and packaging.

Covid has managed to convince people to become more health conscious and we witnessed the growth of many healthy food brands to cater to the sharp rise in such consumers. We believe that the number of healthy consumers will continue to rise and they will also constantly look for better variety. Mealzap is the platform that connects a community of healthy eaters with a community of healthy restaurants.

What are the main challenges you faced in setting up the business?

Finding the right co-founders. I believe in teamwork and you need to be working extremely hard towards your vision for you to attract talent that is also just as passionate and ambitious as you are to join you on the journey.

Looking ahead, do you see strong potential for the healthy food segment to grow further in the UAE?

We studied different user personas and found the gym to be a starting point for most healthy consumers. Most people walk into a gym and the typical question they ask a personal trainer is “How do I look like you?”, to which the general answer is “Food is 70 per cent of the way you look, get on a meal plan”.

While economically developed, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are still considered developing markets for gyms and fitness. When compared with Western countries such as Sweden, the US and the UK, GCC countries have room to grow and can potentially double their number of registered gym members in the next five years.

This potential of growth for gym members means that there will also be a growth in demand for healthier food options as residents transition to a healthier lifestyle.

Another contributing factor is the growth in healthy food restaurants which are springing up in major cities all over the world. Education is also on the rise and is also a key factor that is directly correlated to the growth in healthy eating habits and a healthier lifestyle.

Also, what is your vision for Mealzap? Where do you hope it will reach?

Mealzap’s vision is to empower people looking to lead a healthier lifestyle. In the next five years, we are looking to connect healthy consumers with a platform for the entire ‘healthy’ ecosystem in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE . Our mission is to connect the world on a healthier level and we want to reach every individual that is on that journey.



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