INTERVIEW: Cash is no longer king at Middle East checkouts, says Network International CEO Simon Haslam

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Updated 06 September 2020

INTERVIEW: Cash is no longer king at Middle East checkouts, says Network International CEO Simon Haslam

  • The Dubai-based executive explains why folding money is a thing of the past

Here is a personal insight into the changes in regional retailing during the pandemic: Spinneys shoppers have virtually given up paying with cash.

The big queue in my local branch in Dubai is now for the automated payment machines, rather than the physical checkouts, and even at the tills payment is overwhelmingly by card or phone app rather than cash.

I talked to Simon Haslam, Dubai-based CEO of Network International — the company that processes most of those electronic payments in the UAE and beyond — to find out why. “COVID-19 is accelerating the shift from cash to digital. What’s so exciting about my business is that the Middle East and Africa is one of the last regions where this shift is happening, and that presents big opportunities for us even with the short-term disruption of the pandemic,” he told Arab News.

After many years in the payments and banking business with some of the biggest corporations in the world and in places as varied as Brazil and eastern Europe, Haslam joined Network in 2017 and led the company to an initial public offering (IPO) in London last year.

But even his wide experience could not have prepared him for what happened earlier this year.

“We were having a good year until February, and then the lights just turned off. We noticed first that fewer Chinese were coming and spending, and then the situation changed rapidly. By the end of April volumes were 60 percent down,” he said.

In normal times, about 25 percent of his business comes from foreign visitor spending, which virtually vanished overnight when air travel was halted, also hitting online payments for flights, a significant part of Network’s volume.

 

Things have improved since the UAE began to reopen, and he said that domestic volumes are now 90 percent back to pre-COVID levels.

But there has been a distinct shift in retail behavior. Network experienced a 60 percent growth in online business by the end of June, and although this is “flattening” now that malls and stores are open again, it could have permanent effects.

“There has been a shift to ‘omni-channel’ shopping, with people browsing in the malls and then going home to buy online, for example, or ‘click and collect,’ when shoppers choose online and then go to the store to pick up,” Haslam said.

Some analysts have forecast the “death of the mall,” but he does not agree. “I don’t believe so. Malls in this part of the world are destinations in their own right, especially in the summer,” he said.

But, as my Spinneys observations suggested, the move away from cash seems irreversible. Before the pandemic, about 80 percent of transactions were in folding money, a stark contrast to Scandinavia, for example, where 90 percent of transactions are cashless. But that has changed across all groups of consumers, from the most affluent down to the less well-off, as measured by Network’s customer metrics.

The Middle East and Africa have all the ingredients for that change to quicken — sustained long-term economic development, a young tech-savvy population, and advanced payment systems like the ones Network provides. Even the hit to spending from the pandemic will prove to be only temporary. “COVID-19 is just a short-term disruption in that long-term transition,” he said.

Haslam believes that anything like a return to pre-pandemic normality in the UAE will depend on what happens with tourism. “We are open for business, but people are still not willing to travel,” he said.


BIO

BORN: North London, 1961.

EDUCATION

  • Tottenham Secondary School.
  • Fellow, Chartered Institute of Bankers.

CAREER

  • Various positions, HSBC. 
  • Head of Credit and Risk, Citigroup credit cards.
  • President and CEO, Elavon.

The transition is also happening in Saudi Arabia, which has lagged behind other parts of the region in the move away from cash. Network had big plans for the Kingdom before the pandemic struck. “We announced pre-COVID that we intended to enter Saudi Arabia. We’ve been excited and bullish about it for a long time and we said we would spend $25 million on establishing our business there primarily through the build of a data center and . . . our platform, because in Saudi Arabia you have to have technology on the ground, because that is their rules,” he said.

Network had discussions with the Saudi Arabian Monetary Authority to use its technology in a “sandbox” trial. It was already doing business in the Kingdom via its big UAE partner Emirates NBD.

The pandemic has delayed that initiative, but not for long. “We wanted a more solid economic outlook, and we are fortunate we have the balance sheet and the liquidity. Our ambitions in the Kingdom are not diminished, but paused,” he said.

The Saudi project will restart toward the end of this year, but again exact timing will depend on how quickly borders and airports will reopen. “We have to physically have staff there on the ground,” he said.

Haslam believes Network’s move into the Kingdom should not be seen as a threat to its existing payments structures or its banking systems. “I’m not going to market there and take their customers. I’m an enabler for them to provide digital technology to banks and financial institutions. We’re going to help drive the changes of Vision 2030,” he said.

 

The Saudi launch will be the second big international expansion for Network since the IPO. Last year, it paid $288 million for the Kenya-based payments business DPO Group, mainly with money raised via the London listing, to get ownership of the biggest payments group in Africa with a presence in 19 countries.

“DPO ticks all the boxes. It was top of our acquisition list and had been for some time,” Haslam said.

Other acquisitions could follow, but none are likely to be as big as DPO, at least for the time being. Growth in market share is not dependent on buying businesses, he added.

The financial firepower for “selective acquisitions” was one of the reasons for the listing in London, as well as the “strong governance and liquidity” of the UK capital. “We chose the London Stock Exchange because we are an international business growing rapidly. A lot of emerging markets investors have their headquarters in London, and both the City and the US have a long history of understanding payments systems,” Haslam said.

The listing valued Network at some £2.6 billion ($3.5 billion) soon after trading began in the shares in April 2019, and was an opportunity for some long-term investors, including Emirates NBD, to cash in their investment in Network, although ENBD remains a shareholder with 5 percent of the stock.

Long-term partner Mastercard holds 9.9 percent of the shares and has the “same desire” to improve the payments systems in the region. Network has relationships with all the other main credit card companies, too.

The stock initially performed well, but halved in the period between last December and April, when the full ravages of the pandemic were becoming clear.

Other forces may have been at work on the share price also. UAE-based companies were coming under investor scrutiny as the full extent of the NMC Healthcare fraud was emerging; Finablr, another Emirates financial payments company, was also crashing because of the management links it shared with NMC. Meanwhile, Wirecard, yet another financial payments firm, was in its death throes after an attack by determined fraudsters.

Did Network shares suffer because of a perceived connection with these scandals? Is there an inherent vulnerability in financial technology companies that leaves them prone to fraudulent attack?

Haslam does not want to talk about specific cases, beyond saying that his business model was “fundamentally different” from that of the German company Wirecard. But he is quick to point out some other contrasts between his company and the fraud victims. “Where Network is different is that our business has not grown out of a founder-led model. We have a team of experts who for many years have been working in companies governed by UK and US regulators, and who are used to operating in that kind of environment.”

He also pointed to the long list of blue-chip investors who came on the share register at the time of the IPO . “None of them have been selling, and they all participated in fund-raising for the Africa deal,” Haslam said.

It appears likely that when the airports open and the tourists return, Network International will get back on the expansion path once more. Who knows what the Spinneys checkout will look like by then?


INTERVIEW: Hummingbird Technologies and Saudi Arabia team up on food security

Updated 25 October 2020

INTERVIEW: Hummingbird Technologies and Saudi Arabia team up on food security

  • UK agri-tech entrepreneur explains how SALIC has invested in sustainable farming

Will Wells, CEO of Hummingbird Technologies, is scrutinizing our food, right down to the lettuce on a supermarket shelf.

“Every time somebody buys lettuce in Europe, the chances are that Hummingbird has analyzed that lettuce,” he told Arab News. Since last year, the Saudi Agricultural and Livestock Investment Company (SALIC) has probably had a good look at it too.

Last year SALIC — owned by the Public Investment Fund with a mandate to optimize investment in food and farming in the Kingdom and around the world — became a big investor in Hummingbird with a £7 million ($9.1 million) financial injection into Wells’ company.

It was an investment with big implications for agri-tech — the fast-growing sector that applies advanced digital technology to farming and food production — but also for global food security and Saudi Arabia’s plans to become more self-sufficient in sustainable foodstuffs.

Hummingbird, which Wells described as “my baby” after he set it up four years ago, develops the software used by drones and satellites to produce high-resolution maps that farmers can use to forecast crop stress, identify diseases, pests and weeds, and optimize food yields.

“If you’re an agricultural company and you say to me ‘I want you to show me every single soya bean in Brazil, or every single sugarcane plant in India,’ we could do it in a millisecond,” he said.

“Think of us like an MRI scan for plants. We use satellite data, robots, and drones to help farmers see problems in their crops. The result is immunotherapy, not chemotherapy. By analyzing millions and billions of pixels of crops from space, we can help people use fewer chemicals, improve supply, and monitor the entire digital food supply chain,” Wells said.

With a team of 65 people — mainly scientists — in his London office, Wells uses artificial intelligence (AI) techniques to analyze billions of pixels to prevent such problems. The technology he has developed can also assist in making food production more sustainable by measuring and evaluating agricultural techniques that minimize carbon-intensive practices.

“We can make the difference between sustainable and unsustainable agriculture. Technology like this can connect the dots,” Wells said.

“I want to emphasize the sheer quantity of software and hardware solutions in agri-food — weather stations, soil sensors, driverless tractors, robotic harvesting, spot-spraying weed devices. Hummingbird’s role — rather like the MRI scan — is to talk to all of that technology. We link up and integrate with everything else on the ground,” he added.

Hummingbird grew out of work done by scientists at London’s Imperial College and other technology organizations, and was backed by some prestigious investors in early-stage funding, including the European Space Agency and James Dyson, the British inventor and entrepreneur.

It has operations and clients across the world, from Latin and North America, throughout Europe and Russia, and down to Australia.

The Saudi connection came when SALIC opted to use Hummingbird technology for agricultural projects at farming land it owns and manages outside the Kingdom, including big investments in the Ukraine and Australia.


BIO

BORN: 1983, London.

EDUCATION: MA, Edinburgh University.

CAREER

  • Investment analyst, Highclere International Investment.
  • Founder and CEO, Hummingbird Technologies.

“SALIC was a customer first, but they liked the technology so much they decided to back it,” Wells said. SALIC’s £7 million participation in the last round of financing makes it a major investor in a start-up that is valued at more than £20 million.

But Wells has much bigger ambitions. “Can an AI business for agriculture hit the same unicorn status, like those in health technology and fintech, that we’ve seen in recent years? The potential size of the market we’re going after is absolutely enormous.

“We’re trying to disrupt a multibillion-dollar chemical market, and we’re trying to unlock a multitrillion-dollar carbon market. There are so many ways AI and data science can improve food and farming,” he said.

“We are doubling and tripling every year, and expanding fast. We analyze millions of hectares of farming land every month, and we see billions of dollars of efficiency in each market we look at. You don’t have to be a silver bullet to hit ‘unicorn’ status in those conditions. People who have expertise in AI and crops make up quite a small list,” Wells added.

SALIC has been investing for some time in agricultural assets outside the Kingdom. Two years ago, it made the biggest in a series of investments in the Ukraine’s abundant farming lands with the purchase of Mriya, one of the country’s largest farming landowners in the rich grain and vegetable producing areas in the west of the country, combining it with an agricultural asset purchased earlier.

Last month, SALIC imported and sold its first batch of grain from Ukraine, unloading 60,000 tons of wheat in Jeddah, as part of the Kingdom’s strategy to support foreign investments in agriculture and help to ensure food security in Saudi Arabia.

In 2019, SALIC bought more than 200,000 hectares of land in Western Australia, including its first foreign investment in sheep-raising land, in one of Australia’s largest-ever farming land deals. 

Hummingbird technology can be used at the new acquisitions to enhance productivity and eliminate disease. SALIC also has ambitions in Canada and India.

But Wells also sees “immense” opportunities within the Kingdom itself. Food security has always been a national objective, and is one of the pillars of the Vision 2030 strategy to diversify away from oil dependence.

Earlier this year, the National Grain Company was set up, a partnership between SALIC and the National Shipping Company to oversee trade, handling and storage of grains in the Kingdom.

“We are looking to expand and have a local agricultural presence. Saudi Arabia wants to grow more fruit and vegetables in the country, and to do so locally and sustainably. We have expertise in producing foodstuffs efficiently, and that expertise can be put to good use there,” he said.

Wells said that the Vision 2030 strategy “speaks to the needs of consumers everywhere.” He added: “Ordinary people and consumers everywhere, not just in Saudi Arabia, are increasingly asking where their food is coming from, and this is a major factor for a company like ours. We are an enabler of self-sufficiency.”

The Hummingbird business also fits in perfectly with the emphasis on high-technology and the knowledge economy that is central to the Vision strategy, nowhere more so than in the NEOM megacity planned in the Kingdom’s north west.

There are more immediate applications too. Wells is working on an algorithm for date-palm production across the Middle East region that he believes has great potential. “But ultimately we can analyze any plant from space, whether it’s in the middle of the desert or in a field in Brazil, and therefore we’re actively seeking local partners, especially university professors who specialize in plant pathology,” he said.

Hummingbird can also be critical to the Kingdom’s plans to reduce its carbon footprint as part of the Circular Carbon Economy strategy to tackle climate change.

“What we’re able to do from space is measure activities within food and farming that sequester carbon. To put it plainly, if a farmer or a farming business uses the Hummingbird map, and as a result of that uses less nitrogen as fertilizer, or sprays fewer chemicals, they have a lower carbon footprint, or potentially even a positive carbon outcome,” Wells said.

“By measuring things like biodiversity and soil health from space, we are able to distinguish between a farm that is sustainable, and a farm that’s not. At the heart of it is a ‘green’ outcome,” he added.

At some stage, Hummingbird will come back to the investor table for more funds. “We’re a high-growth start-up and in due course we will be seeking new investment. It is part of our journey and we have many more market opportunities too,” he said.

“Some people might call it a ‘land grab’, but we’re expanding into geographies where there are millions of hectares of farmland that have not yet been analyzed like this. It’s still very much a frontier market,” he said.

The link-up with SALIC could just be the connection that takes Hummingbird along the way to being an Arabian unicorn, but there is a broader ambition beyond the financial — to change the way the global food and agriculture business is seen.

“Food and farming has been demonized as a cause of climate change by many people. But there is a way to produce food efficiently and sustainably. It’s our job to sit right in the middle of that. 

“The aim is to take a sector that has been blamed for climate change, and make it carbon positive. That is the goal here,” Wells said.