JODIA Bazar and its adjoining wholesale markets of spices and food items are bustling with activity ahead of Ramazan.

Most importers have augmented stocks of Iranian dates, Indian spices, Australian and Canadian chick peas and pulses, Canadian pulses and Chinese and American sauces, food colours and preservatives.

Supplies to about 30 secondary wholesale and semi-wholesale markets in Karachi and also to main markets of interior Sindh, Balochistan and lower Punjab are also growing.

Flour millers are reporting higher off-take of super fine wheat flour (Maida) to bakeries and sweet makers for preparation of khajla, pheni and other Ramazan food specialties.

“For several years, the routine drop in sales of average quality of wheat flour during Ramazan has been somewhat compensated by pre-Ramazan higher off-take of maida, the use of which increases not only for preparation of Khajla and Pheni but also for production of branded readymade “parathas”.

Dawn, Wonder and Man-o-Salwa are known for making large sales of ready-to-bake parathas during the holy month.

Normal sales of coarse rice to semi-wholesale markets are somewhat slipping due to an anticipated decline in demand during Ramazan. But the sales of basmati varieties to eateries that remain open at iftar and sehri are on the rise, traders say.

Superstores selling ready-to-cook branded meat and chicken are busy making big purchases ahead of Ramazan as families switch over to them to save time spent on cooking.

A senior executive of a Karachi-based edible oil manufacturing company says that his company has recorded 15pc sales growth in Sindh and Balochistan between April 15-May 15.

“As we get closer to the holy month, the growth rate will further increase,” he hoped.

Far from the bustling physical trade activity, which involves rolling over of billions of rupees, the online food markets are inducting more riders in their delivery teams.

People associated with online food trading and retailing say, the existing desk-staff handling online customer traffic and back-end IT staff are being offered incentives as online retailing of ready-to-cook and prepared food is expected to increase manifold.

Muhammad Irfan, an independent researcher on food retail marketing, says the recruitment of riders by hotels, restaurants and eateries registered with Foodpanda alone has gone up by an estimated 10pc between mid-April and mid-May.

Traders at Jodia Bazar say anticipating a manifold increase in consumption of gram flour and chickpeas from the last week of May (when Ramazan will begin), semi-wholesalers and shopkeepers are buying these items in big quantities.

They say that wholesale sales of packaged milk, imported and local juices, lemon squash and sherbet of various brands particularly Jam-e-Shereen and Rooh-Afza are also on the rise as the holy month is arriving in summer season.

Sugar dealers say sales of sugar for home consumption are slightly higher already, which should compensate the fall that might occur due to lower demand by hotels and eateries in the month of fasting.

A couple of aspects of Ramazan-related food items trade merit a deeper analysis, but due to poor documentation and difficulty in data collection even for non-tax purposes, these aspects remain professionally unexplored.

“Our food trade deficit has been on the rise for years. It would be interesting to know how food imports behave one or two months ahead of Ramazan. That can help us take a more informed view of food trade movement and plan accordingly to keep a check on deficit,” says a senior central banker.

There is a need to examine how the cost of domestic food trade increases when inter-provincial and inter-city movement of lots of food items accelerates.

This can help identify structural flaws in domestic trade systems and will eventually make markets more efficient. And above all, ‘some proxies can and should be used carefully to reach a range of estimates for Ramazan-related expenses so as to monitor annualised changes using a baseline data that is closer to reality’.

Whereas such proxies like additional inflow of home remittances or short-term money withdrawals from banks apparently look suitable for estimating pre-Ramazan spending, their application involve lots of complexities. But an initiative can be taken to come up with some estimates with the help of fintech and modern analytics, central bankers say.

Food market analysts say online food trade is no more limited to cooked food delivery. “Online presence of all leading importers and a vast number of Jodia Bazar traders is changing pre-Ramazan food trading dynamics,” says Raza Imam who works at one of the business houses at Jodia Bazar.

“Instead of getting orders on phones or via fax, we now receive confirmed orders on our website and our mini-trucks loaded with imported and local food stuff rush to the semi wholesale markets at Water Pump in Gulberg and Aligarh market in Qasba colony, Orangi Town.

In last two weeks we’ve dispatched tonnes of chick peas, gram flour and dates to these two markets.”

At the semi-wholesale markets, smart-phones are at work. “Just a week ago, I’d booked 25 orders for packaged Iranian dates (of 100 packets each) from smaller markets in Orangi, North Karachi and Surjani Town.

As I talk to you I’ve showed availability of dates at my godown in Gulberg. Now, shopkeepers from those areas (members of online buyers group) will come one by one and pick up dates from my place.”

This, analysts say, is another area of pre-food Ramazan trade that needs attention for market analysis. “Gone are the days when shopkeepers had to travel long distances to the khajji (dates) market in Lea Market area to replenish their stocks ahead of Ramazan,” remarked Muhammad Irfan, a dealer in khajji market. “Tonnes of dates now move from one place to another without a buyer-seller meeting in person.”

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, May 22nd, 2017