On June 9th, the GeoTech Center of the Atlantic Council and the empowerME Initiative hosted a private roundtable on record with Vita F&B Capital Managing Director Camel Abdullah, CEO & Co-Founder of Pure Harvest Smart Farms Heaven Kurtz, and GeoTech Center Nonresident Senior Fellow and Founder of Bold Text Strategies Daniella Taveau, moderated by empowerME Director Amjad Ahmad and GeoTech Center Deputy Director and Senior Fellow Stephanie Wander.
Below is a summary of the key points raised by the discussants.
- Wander initiated a conversation that links emerging data capacities and technologies directly to agriculture and food production: “Data capacities and new technologies will have a major impact on geopolitics, global competition and global opportunities. The GeoTech Center recently released a new report that offers practical and actionable recommendations that will enable the world to peacefully use data capacities and new technologies for useful purposes, including transforming agriculture and food security. “
- Ahmad presented the current status of Agritech in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA): “Given the scarce farmland and water supply, the food security of the region is at risk and many are heavily dependent on imported agricultural products. Add climate change and rapid urbanization and the region is a ripe environment for innovation. “
- Kurtz emphasized that the Middle East has the ability to produce food cheaply because there is an abundance of the essential resources at the core of food production: sun, CO2, nutrients, water, land, energy, taxes and capital. In his view, “If you can solve problems like climate, raise capital and work together in all sectors, including government, then there is an opportunity for MENA to be the cheapest food producer in the world.”
- Abdullah highlighted three areas where we need to improve agriculture efficiency: seed technology to use less water and keep crops at higher temperatures; Irrigation technology, to plant with salt water and to reduce evaporation losses; and digital technology to highlight the best land areas for planting.
- Abdullah underlined the general applicability of existing research and development facilities. Governments can use payments to incentivize farmers’ R&D, and if we connect well-funded local universities with farmers, we can integrate new technologies into the existing market.
- Abdullah says: “The food waste in this region is still among the highest in the world. Governments have recognized that they need to mandate a change in people’s minds about healthy food consumption as important and about food waste patterns. Culturally, our social events revolve around ample food displays that are thrown especially during the holy month of Ramadan. We can use new technology to turn discarded food into animal feed and partially address this problem. “
- Food loses half of its shelf life before it reaches the supermarket and supermarkets are not going to take any chances selling a product in the last few days so throw the groceries away. Taveau pointed out that inefficiencies in the ports are the cause of much of the lost durability. Overhauling the ports and streamlining efficiency will be important to maintaining the longevity of the food supply.
- To maximize the usefulness of data, we need to leverage existing technology. We don’t need special technology designed to collect data from farmers when we have phones every farmer already owns. Andrew Mack, CEO of Agromovil and non-resident Senior Fellow of the GeoTech Center, emphasized that distributing more technology or resources is not the key to collecting more data – we need to maximize the existing technological infrastructure of smallholders.
Investing in domestic and local agriculture
- Abdullah noted that governments are lacking vital household services, especially after the pandemic, and are unable to sustain exorbitant spending on food imports. Governments need to create a sustainable farming system by supporting local farmers.
- Kurtz added that the private sector is also leaning towards local agriculture. He believes that market forces will lead us to a world with more locally produced food.
- Abdullah stressed that we still have a lot to do to ensure local food production. Supermarkets make the most money because they are closest to the end customer, while the farmer takes the greatest risk.
- Mack emphasized the importance of protecting local farmers in the market. He pointed out that farmers are going out of business. The average age of a farmer in several countries is 58 and they tell their children to graduate and get a job in another field. Worldwide, 1.5 billion people work in agriculture, 570 million of them smallholders. Smallholders are too important politically and economically to be ignored.
- Ahmad added that consumer behavior will enhance the ability of agricultural technologies to be relevant, profitable and investable. He questioned consumer trends and preferences, especially for fresh products from the region and the willingness of consumers to pay a premium for these products.
- Kurtz responded by pointing out that there must be someone selling and buying this stuff on the commercial side. At the moment, this trend is very important for socio-economic disparity. For the middle and upper classes, the calories of a product and the knowledge that their foods are grown locally are becoming increasingly important.
International and regional cooperation
- Taveau argued that we must accept that the MENA region will continue to get a large part of its food supplies from neighboring countries like India, which is a close ally of many MENA countries and has significant amounts of arable land. Hence, food security for the Middle East requires investments in other nations as well as investments in the region itself.
- “In developing greater independence in supply chains, it is always important to ensure independence globally,” said Taveau. We cannot survive without each other and should come to terms with the fact that we get the greatest food security with our partners. “
- Kurtz emphasized that regional actors should further coordinate their efforts inside and outside the GCC in order to build a sustainable food market. The introduction of technology and the improvement of food production increase profitability and make this common goal more attractive.
- When describing the importance of cooperation over competition, the General Director of the Abu Dhabi Investment Office, SE Dr. Tariq Bin Hendi on how important it is to build partnerships and how healthy competition between nations is as it enables more creative solutions to pressing problems in the AgriTech field.
- Taveau firmly believes that we need long-term economic viability to tackle food insecurity in the MENA region. Sustained attention is required to move forward in addressing this persistent problem. Taveau warned that people can be reluctant to embrace and adopt new technology. The agritech industry needs a good, segmented marketing strategy to combat societal problems that arise on the path to innovation.
- Abdullah concluded that we need to have a method of changing consumption that corresponds to that of changing production.
- From a capital perspective, individual access to capital, especially venture capital, is the key to developing solutions, commercializing them and establishing new companies that can create jobs and economic prosperity in these countries, said Kurtz.
- Futurity CEO Jack Bobo defined efficiency as “reducing friction in the system”. This can happen both in regulatory and technological terms and across the entire food chain. During the COVID-19 pandemic, efficiency means short-term arrivals when the population is dwindling. He recommended a balance between play and friction in the system.
- According to Abbas Zuaiter, Managing Member of Zuaiter Capital Holdings, long-term investments like a 30-year green bond could make investors more likely to get involved and stay in the region.
Hezha Barzani is an intern at Middle East Programs. Matthew Goodman is a consultant at the GeoTech Center. follow him @ matt_goodman22.