Oct 31 2011
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Making food secure
Model agricultural city launched
90% of the country's food requirements are met by imports. The country's limited storage areas and packaging facilities increase its difficulty in obtaining a diverse mix of import as a result of which there are fluctuations in supply and price rise. The issue of food security has therefore been identified as an extremely important national priority and it is in this context that the agricultural city concept evolved.
Mohamed bin Ahmed Al-Obaidly, Chairman of the
Qatar Chamber of Commerce and Industry
) Agriculture and Environment Committee, says the reason investors shy away from the agricultural sector is the difficulty of marketing agricultural products and the high costs involved, compared to imports. He highlighted that the committee had put forth the idea of setting up a model Agricultural City at the fifth annual consultative meeting with Prime Minister HE Sheikh Jassem bin Hamad bin Jabor Al-Thani.
The Agricultural City concept came out of studies done by the Agriculture and Environment Committee. The City was planned with the aim of ensuring food security in Qatar while caring for the environment. It also aims to market the Agricultural City as a tourist destination and create a number of agricultural-related industries. The idea was approved and is now in the early stages of development.
This was in context to the comprehensive development and building of a robust and productive economy based on agriculture, industry, education, health and recycling investments while moving away from reliance on finite natural resources, construction and real estate, which are features of a primary economy.
What are the principal challenges facing the agricultural sector in Qatar, and the reasons why it contributes to such a small share of GDP?
Does investing in Arab countries for agricultural purposes make business sense?
Investing in Arab countries is not a profitable investment. It is not just because of the political tensions. There's also the bureaucracy, formalities, and investment laws that are centuries out of date, and the immaturity of the executive branches in Arab countries. It is time the Arab states got their act together. The investments that have been made in other foreign countries are already yielding results, though they were made later than those in the Arab countries.
What solutions is the committee suggesting to address the obstacles faced by the agriculture sector?
The first solution the committee has proposed is specialisation. We're looking at ways of making the best use of the existing situation and non-independent farms. We can move them away from activities they're engaged in at present that have nothing to do with farming, although they give the same return, towards focusing on a single category of vegetables that can be marketed in a scientific way. This won't happen without expertise and resources being available. This comes under domestic food security in the event of any crisis occurring in the countries where we have invested.
There are a number of other challenges to which the Agriculture Committee could also give some thought, such as the reluctance of young people to work in the agricultural sector for social reasons, and the low level of private sector investment in farming, as well as the lack of local investment in the agricultural sector.
Is it necessary to establish an agricultural bank in Qatar to finance agricultural investments?
I don't believe there is any necessity to set up an agricultural bank in Qatar at present since Qatar Development Bank (QDB) currently plays this role. Setting up an agricultural bank isn't a simple process. It would require billions of riyals' worth of agricultural projects to justify the scale of investment, unless the bank expanded its operations to include international investments and financing, in which case it would become economically viable and fit the philosophy of specialised agricultural banks in other countries with vast expanses of agricultural land.
Is it true that Qatari banks are reluctant to finance agricultural projects and investors in the agriculture sector?
Financing is a thorny issue, and we can't blame the farmers for that. The commercial banks aren't interested in agricultural finance because they feel profit margins are small and risks are high. We will be raising farmers' and investors' financing problems again with QDB, whose role it is to deal with them. Farmers complain about QDB's maximum financing limit of QR1 million, which is inadequate for the purposes of agricultural projects. I do hope any farmers with specific complaints will come to the Agriculture and Environment Committee at QCCI , as we welcome all complaints and for our part will investigate them thoroughly and try to resolve them.
We recently sent out 2,000 questionnaires to businessmen, investors and farmers about the agricultural sector and only 20 investors replied, most of them members of the Agriculture and Environment Committee, which shows how little interest there is among investors.
Which organisation is responsible for preparing a full study of the Agriculture City project?
The Agricultural City idea is still only at the beginning of its journey. We have done some studies that need to be taken further. There are specialist studies being undertaken by the Agriculture and Environment Committee, Ministries of Environment, Municipality and Urban Planning; businessmen and specialists in the agricultural field, looking at all the problems associated with the project to put in place a sophisticated mechanism to safeguard the rights of new and existing farmers and consumers. It will be discussed at future meetings of the committee to find the best ways of realising the concept. There will be consultation with the relevant official bodies. There is a whole value-chain from production to processing to exports that is being formulated.
Will QCCI be directly responsible for the project?
The project is a joint venture and decisions will be made by the higher authorities. QCCI cannot implement it on its own, but will have a big hand in working for the success of the project, as it is its own brainchild.
Have you carried out any studies to identify a site for Agriculture City? And what conditions will the site have to meet?
We have done some research to try and designate land where the city can be set up close to the ports and the industrial area, and although it will be difficult to balance all these requirements, it will nevertheless need access to transport links. It will use high-tech polyhouses to create model farms for vegetables, ornamental trees and certain fruits and crops for daily consumption that don't need vast amounts of space, and will run on renewable energy. Agriculture City will also engage in livestock rearing and fish farming, and will have markets for the distribution of produce. There will be storage facilities on site so as to avoid having to transport perishable produce elsewhere, with the aim of getting it safely to consumers in accordance with health and safety requirements. We are also looking at setting up food processing plants in collaboration with global brands to produce - what in international terms will be - Qatari products.
How will this enormous project be financed?
The project will have its own foundation set-up. As we said, it's a national joint-venture (JV) between the public and private sectors, with the state as the main stakeholder - since the return will be seen in the long term, in the form of food security - and it will be based on the principle of active partnership between the private and public sectors. Agriculture City will benefit from foreign investment in technology, the founding of research and development centres and the hybridisation of agricultural products on behalf of the State of Qatar.
How long do you think it will take for the concept to materialise and see the light of day?
Internationally, several organisations have indicated a desire to invest and get involved in developing food processing services and technology for power generation and polyhouses. I wouldn't like to put an exact time on it, but I hope the idea will be implemented soon.
Will the project run separately with Hassad Food Company's work in this area, or in cooperation with it?
The project will be complementary to Hassad's investments to ensure food security, and we will draw on its broad expertise in agricultural investment and the practicalities of land reclamation. The company is an active partner and we hope its participation will contribute to the success of the project.
Will Mawashi (Qatar Meat and Livestock Company) be merging with the project, or will it operate in parallel to meet shortfalls in demand for meat and meat products?
Mawashi shares the concept with us and is represented on the Agriculture and Environment Committee, but Hassad is now in the process of taking over Mawashi, which will become just a distributor of Hassad's output.
What about the existing farms? How will they be involved?
The project will not replace farms currently in production. They will complement it and benefit from the technology used by the project, which will itself gain advantage from the locations of such farms.
Qatar has very little water resources. How will you tackle this water shortage?
The project will make use of technology to desalinate seawater using renewable energy, and recycle sewage water, which will in turn increase the fertility of the soil.
Do you think technology can solve all the problems of the agriculture sector?
The main problem faced by the agricultural sector in Qatar is the salinity of its soil and water. It can't produce enough food, or even any worthwhile supplement, so most of the food we consume comes from abroad. There is therefore no alternative but to use technology and modern methods of cultivation to diversify sources of supply and water.
A firm called Aquiess claims to have the technology to generate rains. What do you think of it, and would you make use of it in the Agriculture City project?
I have no idea about the scheme. We wouldn't want it to be tested here unless it is proved successful in other countries. We don't want any hype, but although there has been no suggestion of using it in the Agriculture City project, as artificial rain-making is normally done on huge farms covering vast, open areas, Qatar would of course benefit if the technology is successful in making the weather less harsh, especially in the summer.
© Qatar Today 2011
© Copyright Zawya. All Rights Reserved.
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