The mention of Qatar conjures many ideas and images but, unsurprisingly for one of the world’s most water-stressed nations, agriculture tends not to figure. In 2018, just 1.2 per cent of Qatar's land was dedicated to arable farming, and less than 6 per cent was set aside for agriculture, yet the country’s capacity to produce food has been transformed in recent years, as Qatar has delivered on its determination to develop its homegrown food-related industries.
Between 2014 and 2019, Qatar recorded the fastest growth rate in domestic food production in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), with a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 15.2 per cent, compared with a regional CAGR of 4.3 per cent. Between 2017 and 2019 alone, domestic food production reportedly saw a 400 per cent increase, and the country recorded 82 per cent self-sufficiency in dairy products in 2018, having relied on imports for 72 per cent of its supply the previous year.
internationally in the Global Food Security Index and first among Arab nations
Remarkably, Qatar now stands on the verge of becoming a food exporter to its region, and is now ranked first among Arab nations and 24th internationally in the Global Food Security Index (GFSI). In June, the Doha Ministry of Municipality announced that the commercial agricultural projects launched under Qatar’s National Strategy for Food Security (2018–23) are expected to contribute more than QR300mn [$82.39mn] to the state’s agricultural sector.
Owned by the Qatar Investment Authority, Hassad Food is the Gulf state’s agribusiness investment arm, funding projects both at home and abroad with the aim of further securing the state’s food supply. In Qatar, the company has financial interests in key strategic sectors covering the production and marketing of fresh produce, livestock, dairy, animal feed and poultry, and aims to encourage the growth of related services such as refrigeration and warehousing.
Hassad is also committed to funding innovation and R&D (research and development) with many projects aimed at increasing production efficiency and average yields, as well as lowering water consumption via innovative technologies.
The state has a proven track record in partnering with innovative Qatari agribusinesses such as Baladna, which imported 4,000 dairy cows by air, and another 16,000 by sea in 2017 to effect a step change in Qatar’s homegrown dairy production. Two years later, Baladna launched a QAR1.4bn ($380mn) initial public offering (IPO) and was publicly listed on the Qatar Stock Exchange. The company now meets 95 per cent of the country’s milk demand, and is one of the largest livestock and dairy farms in the region.
In a country that records an average maximum monthly rainfall of just 15mm and summer temperatures that exceed 40C, water scarcity is a permanent pressure, but this hasn’t prevented agritech company WadiWater from turning such constraints into a commercial opportunity.
WadiWater has developed a technology that produces potable water from nothing more than the humidity in the air, and its largest units are capable of producing 5,000 litres of fresh drinking water a day. The company recently signed an agreement with IPA Qatar that will enable it to provide innovative technologies to the agriculture industry in Qatar, enabling the use of high-quality irrigation solutions while reducing water waste.
Another success story is Agrico, a family-owned enterprise that has been importing and exporting foodstuffs for seven decades but now operates in what its Chairman, Ahmed Al-Khalaf, calls “agricultural manufacturing”.
Agrico has relied on its own research and tech to build the peninsula’s largest and most technologically sophisticated organic farm and fisheries, enabling year-round food production and improved food security. To achieve this, the company uses hydroponics and aquaponics to support a circular farming model that is both organic and self-sustaining.
The system uses water from Agrico’s fish tanks to irrigate crops such as salads and strawberries, and also employs bacteria to convert fish excretions into organic fertiliser. In a circular system, the crops then purify this water, which can be returned to the fisheries.
“It has taken many trials and failures to get where we are today. We started testing small pilot projects two years ago,” Mr Al-Khalaf explains. “But we now have a system and our own technology, which is not only bankable but also allows very high-tech local food production so we can remain sustainable and self-sufficient year-round.”
Following its first harvest of fresh shrimp, which Agrico currently produces at a rate of a tonne a day, the company aims to raise production to 1000 tonnes a year and to expand its technology and operations into other countries such as Oman, Malaysia, and Iraq. Agrico also collaborates with the Finnish agritech company iFarm to construct high-tech vertical farms, the first of which is due to commence operating in November 2022.
iFarm has reimagined conventional farming, using technology to build highly water-efficient indoor vertical farms in unexpected locations around the world. It recently announced a long-term partnership with Qatar’s Al Sadarah Group, a consultancy firm that owns the private farming company Agrico Organic Farm, to grow a year-round supply of leafy greens, strawberries and edible flowers using sustainable technologies.
“We provide software, data and know-how. There isn’t a significant difference between a crop grown indoors in Qatar and one grown indoors in Finland, once you have controlled the environment,” says Max Chizhov, iFarm’s Co-Founder and Chief Business Development Officer. “But in each location, in each region in which we work, we collaborate with local partners or suppliers who can help expand the reach for each specific market.”
An added benefit is the sustainability of the growing process, powered by solar energy and recycled water. As Chizhov explains: “If we compare iFarm with traditional greenhouse technology, the main difference is that we use 90 per cent less water and 99 per cent less land because we grow high, in layers, and the technology and data help us save water. Also, we don't use any pesticides.”
The partnership’s ultimate aim is to help secure food production by providing iFarm technology to local entrepreneurs and so widen the circle of innovation. This follows Qatar’s strategic National Vision 2030 to cultivate knowledge alongside homegrown food, as the country moves to diversify its economy away from hydrocarbons.
With food demand across GCC predicted to reach 52.4mn metric tons by 2025, up from 46.8mn in 2020, and population growth halving per capita water availability by 2050, long-term food security will continue to be a strategic imperative for countries across the region, and the importance of Qatar’s investment in its vital agritech industry is only likely to grow.