The Malaysia Halal Week, an extravaganza of three main Halal events, will begin in earnest with The World Halal Forum (WHF) 2011 from Monday 4-6 April. The industry-driven forum will be followed immediately by The World Halal Research, a scholarly meeting of minds summit from 6-7 April and The Malaysia International Halal Showcase (MIHAS) on April 6-9.
Halal Media managed to get up-close and personal with Abdalhamid Evans, Director of The World Halal Forum, who promises sweeping changes and aims to re-structure WHF as a membership-based organisation for the future.
HM: Okay, let’s start with the basics. What is The World Halal Forum, what are its objectives and to what extend has that been achieved since first held in 2006?
AH: We started the WHF with an incredible degree of enthusiasm and vision. I think it is fair to say that the WHF, especially in its first year, really put the Halal sector on the map as an economic force. We had Nestlé, Tesco and McDonald’s all on the first day talking about their involvement in the Halal market, and I think it was a real eye opener. It certainly was for us!
Here were three leading global corporations all on the Halal platform. Some of the business people who attended commented that it changed their lives, and there are still initiatives that can be traced back to that first WHF event, such as the formation of the American Halal Association.
In 2006, we were the first platform to use the term ‘Global Halal Industry’ and to come up with some statistics as to the size of the market. We really created a way to talk about this new market phenomenon, a new global market paradigm really, based on belief in God and adherence to a set of values and practices that are based in the Qur’an and Sunnah. This is old, but it becomes something new when it is applied to the 21st century food industry, and because of the complexity of the marketplace …who is producing, and who is consuming… the Halal movement cuts across geography, race, culture and religion. The WHF, through the speakers and the delegates, set the language and the narrative for this new market paradigm. When we saw Time magazine do a cover story on Halal in 2009, we knew that we were right. This is big.
HM: You mentioned in your statements earlier that there will be major changes in how World Halal Forum is to be run beginning this year. Why do you need to institute changes?
AH: Well, what really happened was based on the feedback that we got from the delegates: everyone was talking global halal standards, and this was the main outcome from the WHF 2006. At that time there were not that many countries that even had national Halal standards –only the South east Asian countries– and so no one was really sure at that stage what was actually possible in terms of developing international Halal standards, or even who would do it. It took a couple of years to see how to tackle this. One of the main resolutions from the 1st World Halal Forum in 2006 was the setting up of an international non-profit organisation called The International Halal Integrity Alliance (IHI), to spearhead the industry’s cause in Halal.
IHI started work on this formidable task and the most important aspect of IHI’s standards development process was that they were using ISO protocols to develop the various modules to enable a complete farm-to-fork set of standards. They developed technical committees to tackle around ten different modules, using peer-reviews for corrections and revisions. These modules will cover the entire supply chain. This task is around 60% completed.
The Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) has officially recognised IHI Halal standards initiative, and there is a direct link via the Islamic Chamber of Commerce and Industry. This is ultimately very important, as it will enable IHI to rollout a full supply chain network of compliance that can become the benchmark for OIC countries, most of whom have not yet developed Halal standards. In this respect, IHI is a significant achievement of the WHF that is well on the way to fulfilling the demand from the delegates in 2006/7.
HM: One of the main criticisms of WHF is that despite the word ‘World’ in WHF, it never left Malaysian shores. On that note, how is Halal practiced, viewed and implemented in the rest of the world?
AH: Actually it did venture overseas with the WHF Industry Dialogues in several countries from 2007 onwards. But the real change was when we organised The WHF Europe series. The first was in The Hague in 2009, and it seemed clear to us that London would be a very good choice for the next location. There was a lot of support from the UK in The Hague, and London is such a key strategic location. Things that happen in London have resonance, and the Halal sector in the UK is well established, complex and also full of problems.
As with most other Western countries, Halal is totally unregulated. There is a disconnect between the food industry and the Halal industry. The food industry is highly regulated, has very stringent health and safety compliance standards and in the UK, the whole sector is very highly evolved. Halal, on the other hand, is lagging far behind. There is no regulation of the certification bodies, and they have in many ways ended up as the de facto jurists, auditors and certifiers of the industry…as well as having, in many cases, substantial financial interests as well.
What the Halal industry must do is to comply with the existing structures within the food industry, i.e. clear and readily available standards, independent third party audits, ethical and transparent fee structures. And this system has to be overseen…and be answerable to an independent accreditation authority. This really is the key point. For the countries with Muslim governance, the state authorities will regulate the Halal compliance process. For the Muslim minority countries in the West, it is a different story. The Muslim communities have to create the organisations that can become the accreditation authorities. This is not so easy. There is a mine-field of obstacles that have to be negotiated.
But we made some real progress in London, and I think that we set the trend for what is going to become the next ‘layer’ in the Halal sector. The IHI Alliance has agreed to work with the Muslim Council of Britain in the UK, and with the Islamic Society of North America, with the help of the American Halal Association, in the USA to develop accreditation authorities in the respective countries. This will take time and real determination, but it is certainly do-able and the WHF is definitely going to support these initiatives.
HM: When you say there will be revamp in store for WHF this year, what exactly do you have in mind?
AH: For 2011 in Kuala Lumpur we are going to go back to our roots in a way. Now that the IHI has really made significant progress with the standards development process, and is emerging as a viable accreditation authority, the WHF can widen the lens a bit, and look at some of the broader issues. It seems appropriate as we begin a new decade to look at the bigger picture, so we are taking the theme “Towards a Halal Economy – The Power of Values in Global Markets”.
This theme ties into the statement made by the Malaysian Prime Minister, Dato Seri Najib Tun Razak in his WHF Keynote Address in 2010, “We need to think beyond industries and move into the realm of a Halal Economy, a value-based economy rooted in trust, integrity and fairness”. This really goes to the heart of the matter. Values are the foundations of a Halal Economy, and this makes them a powerful force in the marketplace. The more the global economy is shaky, the more sound, ethical, human values have strength. They become a market force.
Consumers all over the world, regardless of their faith or culture, or even their income level, are fed up with being treated as if they are simply yet another commodity… the one that coughs up the cash! Too many of the major corporations, most notably the banks, have behaved with such cynicism and lack of collective responsibility, and people are really ready for a new kind of market paradigm, one that is based on ethical, moral and spiritual values. That is Halal. Halal is not about the products. The products are really the result.
Halal is embedded in this rise in the demand for ethics and morality in business practices and the products that are put out in the marketplace. It is really a global shift of awareness, part of a megatrend that will continue well beyond this coming decade. Halal represents a new market paradigm.
HM: To what extent are these issues reflected in the programme for WHF 2011?
AH: One of the main issues we want to drive forward is that the convergence of Halal with the world of Islamic finance is inevitable. Inevitable. It is just a questions of where, when and how. But it is going to happen. We want to bring this idea out into the open in a way that really makes it clear. These two industries that have their basis in the Qur’an and Sunnah have to get on the same page. There are too many parallels and shared values. They are inextricably linked. They actually both need each other to move forward into the next phase of growth.
We will be looking at finance, accreditation, marketing, geopolitics, media influence, travel and hospitality, and in each session, we will be bringing the people that we consider to be among the thought-leaders in their field. Not necessarily the Big Names from the Big Corporations, but the people who are right on the cutting-edge of this unfolding market, the ones who have learned how to surf on the breaking wave of this new market force. That is who we want to hear from, the ones who are shaping the Halal economy as it emerges.
Malaysia needs to hear from these people also. The local Halal agenda has got a little bit stuck, understandably, in conventional thinking over the past couple of years. A wave of cutting-edge thinking did come out from Malaysia a few years ago, and these ideas have really taken root in other parts of the world. So there is now a wave coming back, especially from the West, from the UK, Europe and the US, and these ideas are very influential, they will resonate strongly on the global platform.
I am not going to list all the speakers! It will take too long, but the WHF 2011 programme is up at www.worldhalalforum.org, you can download it.
HM: So you will not be continuing the debate about standards this year?
AH: We do not need to. We have been freed from having to debate whether stunning is Halal or not! These are matters for the IHI Alliance and their technical committees, and for the Ulema and Fuqaha. We are looking past the Holy Grail of one global Halal standard, as it is clear to us now that this is not going to happen. And it is not the point. Differences of opinion are inevitable –actually they are healthy. What we need to see in place are systems of verifiable compliance to clear standards, coupled with clear labelling. Then the consumers can see what they are buying and they can decide. We do not have to give them one standard. We need to give them a system they can trust.
We will explain our position on all these matters at the WHF…and then we will go on to explore where the market is heading. This year we want to look upstream and around the bend in the river, to try and give the delegates a view of where all of this is heading.
We feel that we are heading for Halal 2.0, and we hope to come away from the WHF with a vision of how that will look.
HM: Any final thoughts?
AH: I know that there may well be people out there who are thinking…Oh just another conference on Halal, is it really worth the effort to go? But this is a new recipe, and I sincerely believe that delegates will come away from this year’s event with a renewed sense of where we are heading, and what is possible. We have a big agenda for the WHF for the coming years, and people will get not only a taste of that this year, we will also see that we all have important contributions to make…together. Make the effort, it will be rewarding.