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Fri 24 May 2013 11:32 AM

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Food for thought

Food security is now high on the government agenda as Qatar looks at becoming self sufficient. Arabian Business Qatar meets Widam CEO Ahmad Nasser Sraiya Al Kaabi, who is expanding the livestock business to meet the demands of his country

Food for thought
Ahmad Nasser Sraiya Al Kaabi oversees a business empire that comprises more than 40 companies.

He may have started off earning about $800 a month on his first job, but Ahmad Nasser Sraiya Al Kaabi has a come a long way since then. He’s now at the helm of Al Sraiya Holding and Widam (previously known as Qatar Company for Meat & Livestock Trading, or Mawashi), which is engaged in the trading in livestock, meat, animal feeds and meat derivatives in addition to management of slaughterhouses. Al Kaabi also oversees a business empire that comprises more than 40 companies.

Al Kaabi started his career with the family business and worked his way up after starting in the administrative section of the outfit. When he was just shy of 30 he took over the holding company. Today, Widam transports livestock, fodder and meat products to facilitate trade; manages the automatic and national slaughterhouses; owns a branch in Sudan for the trade of meat and animal feeds; and uses the latest technology in processing its range of products according to international standards and specifications.

The company, which trades on the Qatar Exchange, saw its net profit surge by around 29 percent last year to QAR75m ($12.9m) compared with the same period in 2011. In 2009, the company posted a QR18m ($4.9m) profit.

The performance of the company today stands in stark contrast to the condition it was in when a new board of directors took over the company and decided to restructure the business.

A development strategy was put in place, and investment went into the training of staff, applying international standards in the company.

“Once all this was set, the company started operating fresh and the profits were almost doubling,” says Kaabi. The company has grown stronger financially and has also become a dominant market player in line with the rising demand for meat, which is expanding at about 30 percent a year.

Now, Widam is looking to tap into the industries of fish and poultry as part of its long-term plan to play a key role in the country’s food security plans in line with the government’s objectives.

Qatar National Food Security Programme, which was launched in 2008, aims to reduce Qatar’s reliance on food imports and look at ways of being able to produce more of the country’s requirements domestically without having to fly everything in from abroad.

The emirate currently imports 90 percent of its food requirements. A food security master plan should be announced this year and it would take ten years to be implemented, according to Fahad Bin Mohammed Al Attiyah, chairman of the Qatar National Food Security Program (QNFSP). One of the initiatives included in the master plan is to set up some 1,400 agricultural farms covering a total area of 45,000 hectares.

“Currently we are working with livestock and meat, and the vision is to expand towards poultry and in the future fish,” Al Kaabi says.

“For poultry we are in the process of getting the land from the government. We did the plan and the study and we submitted it to the government but now it’s up to the government to decide when it will be giving the right land to Widam to build the farm with a poultry section.”

Currently only twelve percent of the demand for poultry in Qatar is met domestically. Widam believes it can help increase that to meet 30 percent of local demand once it enters the poultry business. Entering the business, however, is contingent on the government providing the land necessary to house a poultry farm. Qatar has a territory of about 11,571 sq km, smaller than the state of Connecticut in the US or around one fifth the size of London.

“When the slaughterhouse was in Abu Hamour, it was an empty area, and now it’s surrounded by urban development, so the government wants to take a wise decision and pick up a place taking into account the urban development of the country, environment issues and this is why it’s taking time to pick up a place and give it to Widam to build a poultry farm,” says Al Kaabi.

Widam provides about 80 percent of the meat in Qatar with around 70 percent of what it supplies coming from Australian sheep.

“Australian meat in Qatar is cheaper than in Australia,” says Al Kaabi and figures show a wide gap between the prices in the two countries. If one kilo of Australian sheep costs QR 42 ($11.54) in Australia, the price to the customers in Qatar is only QR 14 ($3.85), as the government covers the difference to make sure that everyone in Qatar can buy meat for a reasonable price, says Al Kaabi.

Limited water and land are the main issues related to Qatar’s food security concerns. The emirate, like other neighboring Gulf countries, relies on desalination plants to meet its water needs.

Clearly, water wastage is an issue as the GCC countries want to grow their own food at home and 80 percent of the water used in the region is for agriculture purposes.

However, that only yields between five and fifteen percent of the food requirements, according to Nicholas Lodge, agricultural expert at the Abu Dhabi-based consultancy Clarity. Water availability is expected to fall by 50 percent by 2050 and hit widespread acute levels in 2025, according to Lodge.

Al Kaabi believes there are areas in Qatar that can be transformed as well as vertical development taking place.

Vertical farming might come to Qatar within months as Khalid Ahmed Abdulah Misned, chairman of Al Ahmedia Trading and Contracting, is expected to start the construction and setting up of vertical farming factories in the next year. Through importing the technology from South Korea, less water will be used to grow crops and less space, lower energy requirements and a smaller labour force are required.

With these new methods, some crops can be harvested in 35 days. Vegetable consumption of residents in Qatar is now being studied, and growing ‘made in Qatar’ plants could be the way forward towards self sufficiency.

Qatar National Food Security Programme

Qatar is planning to develop 1,400 farms in the Gulf state as part of plans to improve food security issues.

Fahad Bin Mohammed Al Attiyah, chief executive of Qatar National Food Security Programme (NFSP), said the farms would be helped through the introduction of technology in production processes or the training of labour.

Al Attiyah said the programme will develop those farms to become more able to meet Qatar’s food needs.

He added that a legislative framework would be set up to “support, revitalise and develop this sector” in terms of research, education and marketing. The plan will be completed by 2014, he said.

He confirmed in comments published by Qatar News Agency that Qatar is working to prepare a comprehensive plan that also includes water security.

He said that water must be provided sustainably, which meant that desalination plants should rely on renewable energy such as solar energy.

Qatar has one of the highest rates of world consumption of water.

The Qatar National Programme for Food Security was established in 2008 as an initiative by heir apparent Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani.

QNFSP’s objective is to develop a sustainable food security policy for Qatar by increasing and enhancing domestic agricultural production, and strengthening the reliability of food imports from abroad.

It is a seductive vision, and Qatar’s vast wealth as the world’s top liquefied natural gas exporter will allow it to mobilise the best technology and equipment. But many economists and agricultural experts say Qatar’s plans do not make economic sense — and that there is little need for them, given the small size of the population.

“They don’t have that much land they can put into production; much of it is desert. And Qatar has a very small population,” said Abdolreza Abbassian, senior economist at the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation in Rome.

“They import almost the entire cereals that they need for domestic consumption, something like 200,000 tonnes a year, which they cannot really produce. What they produce domestically is minimal. I don’t really see much prospect.”

Abbassian suggested the country might be better off focusing its investment on agricultural land in more temperate climates.

“Given the size of the country and the amount of imports which is rather modest, I would be surprised if it’s really such a need to resort to such an investment, which is far more capital- and labour-intensive,” he said. “Why would they do that rather than purchasing land globally?”

Qatar’s environment is hostile to agriculture, characterised by extreme heat, water scarcity and high soil salinity. Average precipitation in depth is just 74mm per year, compared to the United Kingdom’s 1,220 mm, FAO data shows. Only about one percent of Qatar’s total land area of 11,571 sq km is arable, according to the FAO.

Also, many experts do not see a strong need for Qatar to increase its food security. Although it is located in a volatile region of the world, its huge foreign currency reserves and comparatively small population mean it could probably arrange adequate new sources of food imports fairly easily in an emergency.

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Qatari 7 years ago

A very wise strategy for Qatar to secure its own food. I hope QNFSP and Fahad Bin Mohammed Al Attiyah read this comment.
In Qatar we have a very high demand for farms and a very limited supply, farms prices range between 20 to 70 million QAR. I wish that the 1,400 agriculture farms will be sold to the local population to get the private sector into the plan. This will give the local population a chance to grow their own food.

Anon 7 years ago

What with their passion for fast junk food and ever increasing levels of obscene obesity, its no wonder they need to secure their next meal. Sad country, dismal future.

Fatima 7 years ago

@Qatari: if only QNFSP would listen to their constituency instead of getting expensive consultants to dream up unrealistic plans. One wonders what they've been doing on this so-called little 'master plan' since 2008. We need more leaders like Al Kaabi.