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

Illustration by Luis Grañena
Short Url
Updated 26 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 at the time was valued at more than £30 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.


GCC needs to secure its investment landscape: Report

Updated 07 August 2022

GCC needs to secure its investment landscape: Report

  • Call to focus on frontier sectors based on emerging technologies to attract FDI

CAIRO: Real and perceived political risks, the lack of focus on non-oil sectors, laxity in regulatory policies and a restrictive business environment are some of the factors impeding the growth of foreign direct investment in the Gulf Cooperation Council region, said a recent study.

According to Oliver Wyman’s recent report titled “De-risking the Investment Landscape: High-impact FDI Policies for the GCC,” the region needs to prioritize regulations and policies to de-risk investment. 

This approach should help them attract additional FDIs, the report recommended.

“The best way to attract FDI may be to focus on frontier sectors, which are based on emerging technology, generate high growth, and have few incumbent players to disrupt,” the report stated.

The policies adopted earlier in the GCC were unfocused and aimed to attract all possible investments in all potential sectors, which proved unsuccessful, according to the report.

Although most Gulf countries have been proactive in developing initiatives to stimulate FDI, few have successfully attracted foreign investment in the region.

“Historically, FDI into GCC economies has fluctuated with the rise and fall of commodity prices,” explained Wyman’s report. “However, it has failed to materialize as a consistent driver of economic opportunity in non-oil economic sectors.”

HIGHLIGHTS

• Oman and Bahrain are the only two GCC economies that saw FDI inflows over outflows in each of the years from 2016 to 2021.

• While Kuwait registered FDI outflows totaling $3.6 billion in 2021, it saw a sharp drop from $8 billion in the previous year.

“With such readily available domestic capital, many GCC states have historically not needed to prioritize FDI as a source of development finance,” it added.

The report further revealed that GCC states are becoming increasingly aware of the benefits of FDI and its potential impact on their economies, which could enhance productivity.

Foreign investment provides a good source of finance, promotes interactions of local suppliers and consumer markets, and stimulates human capital by training local workers and employing foreign ones.

As stated by the report, an increased level of private competition, an enhancement in technological know-how and a surge in cross-border activity are additional favorable consequences that arise from increased FDI.

The UN Conference on Trade and Development recently released the “World Investment Report 2022,” which showed that Saudi Arabia and the UAE, two of the largest economies in the GCC, saw 2021 FDI outflows exceed FDI inflows by $4.6 billion and $1.9 billion, respectively. 

The difference for all GCC members stood at $6.4 billion, although a noticeable improvement from 2019 and 2020, where the differences were $11.1 billion and $8.3 billion, respectively.

Oman and Bahrain are the only two GCC economies that saw FDI inflows over outflows in each of the years from 2016 to 2021, according to the UNCTAD report.

In comparison, FDI inflows to Indonesia in 2021 surpassed the outflows by $16.5 billion. Similarly, FDI inflows to Vietnam and Malaysia trumped outflows by $15.4 billion and $6.9 billion, respectively, UNCTAD data show.    

On the other hand, Saudi Arabia witnessed the highest FDI outflows in the GCC in 2021. It recorded $23.9 billion in net outflows in 2021 compared to only $4.9 billion in 2020. It is worth mentioning the Kingdom’s FDI inflows stood at $5.4 billion in 2020.

 The UAE came in second with $22.5 billion worth of FDI outflows in 2021 compared to $18.9 billion the year before, the UNCTAD data showed.

While Kuwait registered FDI outflows totaling $3.6 billion in 2021, it saw a sharp drop from $8 billion in the previous year, the report stated.


Saudi Arabia targets $3.3tr of cumulative investments till 2030, says deputy minister

Updated 08 August 2022

Saudi Arabia targets $3.3tr of cumulative investments till 2030, says deputy minister

  • Saudi Arabia’s regulatory transformation is directly impacting the base economy, Al-Shahrani says

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia has enacted over 600 economic reforms since the launch of the Vision 2030 blueprint in a bid to attract SR12.4 trillion ($3.3 trillion) of cumulative investment and SR1.8 trillion in foreign direct investment inflows between 2021 and 2030 as part of the National Investment Strategy, said a deputy minister from the investment ministry. 

Speaking to Arab News Saad Al-Shahrani, the acting deputy minister for investment promotion in the Ministry of Investment of Saudi Arabia, said the Kingdom achieved an 18 percent increase in foreign direct investment in 2020, even as the global FDI declined by 35 percent due to the pandemic. 

FDI flow in 2021 increased by 257 percent compared to 2020 largely driven by a SR46.5 billion infrastructure deal closed by Aramco with a global investor consortium in Q2 2021.

If Aramco's huge deal is excluded, the Kingdom attracted SR5.3bn in Q2 last year.

Al-Shahrani added that the NIS launched in 2021 is a blueprint for turning the Kingdom into a global hub for business and talent. 

Saad Al-Shahrani

During the interview, the minister revealed that FDI flow in the first quarter of 2022 increased 10 percent to SR7.4 billion compared to the same period last year.

He further stated that NIS helped MISA achieve 49 investment deals valued at SR3.5 billion in the second quarter of 2022, creating 2,000 jobs across industries. 

“These figures are a testament to the sound execution of the government’s strategy and the impact of new reforms, initiatives and investment opportunities,” said the deputy minister. 

He added: “The Kingdom has achieved remarkable progress in many economic and investment indicators, ranking third in Ease of Protecting Minority Investors Index out of 132 countries, for the year 2021.”

Fastest growing among G-20 countries

The deputy minister further noted that the Kingdom achieved the top spot among 22 countries in the May 2022 Ipsos’ Global Consumer Confidence Index. 

Citing the International Monetary Fund’s World Economic Outlook 2022, Al-Shahrani said that the Kingdom is now the fastest-growing nation among the Group of 20 countries, with a growth rate of 7.6 percent. 

“Saudi Arabia’s regulatory transformation is directly impacting the base economy. Alongside healthy demand and investor interest in the oil sector, our non-oil economy has shown strong growth,” he added. 

The deputy minister said that flash estimates of real growth in the gross domestic product in the second quarter showed 11.8 percent year-on-year growth, the highest rate since 2011, supported by the growth in real GDP of oil and non-oil activities by 23.1 percent and 5.4 percent, respectively.

Industrial production on the rise

Commenting on the rise in Industrial Production Index, Al-Shahrani said: “The IPI expanded by 24 percent year on year in May 2022, with manufacturing growing by over 28 percent. These figures are a direct consequence of the government’s active diversification efforts.” 

He also asserted that the Kingdom will become one of the world’s most competitive economies and attractive investment destinations by 2030. 

The deputy minister further noted that digital transactions are rising in Saudi Arabia, aligning with the government’s goal of having 70 percent of all transactions are digital by 2025.

“Policymakers have listened to the needs of investors and have responded appropriately to create an investment ecosystem that rivals the best in the world,” he continued.

Saudi Arabia’s future is tourism

The deputy minister further conveyed that tourism will soon become one of the prime drivers of the Saudi economy as the economic diversification effort continues. 

He revealed that the Kingdom has already issued over 3,500 tourism investment licenses, a crucial leap to achieving 10 percent of the national GDP from tourism by 2030. 

Al-Shahrani added that the Kingdom will welcome over 100 million tourists by 2030 and generate one million jobs in the sector. 

“NEOM, The Red Sea Project, AlUla, Soudah, AMAALA and Diriyah Gate are massive opportunities for investors,” he continued. 

The deputy minister further divulged that the Kingdom’s flag carrier SAUDIA will add 94 new destinations to bring visitors to the Kingdom by 2030. 

Apart from tourism, MISA is also signing deals with companies in the renewables, logistics, and pharmaceutical sectors, the deputy minister added. 

“It is quite clear that the headwinds souring global investor appetite are not blowing in the direction of Saudi Arabia. Government strategy, inspired leadership, talent at every level, well-executed reforms and a clear vision for the future have combined to make the Kingdom an investment powerhouse,” Al-Shahrani said.

Related


Saudi companies to export supply chain prowess to GCC countries

Updated 07 August 2022

Saudi companies to export supply chain prowess to GCC countries

  • We aim to expand our operations to support land services with big companies: SMSCMC’s Ali Alshehri

RIYADH: Five years after Saudi Arabia announced its target to localize 50 percent of its military industries by 2030, companies in the Kingdom are now ready to export their supply chain capabilities.

The Riyadh-based Saudi Maintenance and Supply Chain Management Co. is working on expanding its network with companies around the world.

It is currently in talks with Gulf countries to discuss “the scope of work they can deliver and sign agreements,” Ali Alshehri, head of PR and communication at SMSCMC, told Arab News.

Ali Alshehri

“We have made good progress with some of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries. We can’t disclose anything right now, but we have already established some contact and relationships. Hopefully, in the future, we can announce something specific,” he said due to the sensitivity of the talks and government restrictions.

This move comes after the state-owned Saudi Arabian Military Industries disclosed to Arab News that it is looking at opportunities with allied nations to export Saudi capabilities outside the Kingdom.

SMSCMC has been handling supply chain and logistics for some of BAE Systems’ defense platforms in the Kingdom, including the Typhoon, Hawk and Tornado aircraft.

Aside from the capital, SMSCMC operates in Dhahran, Taif and Tabuk with the same aircraft services.

“We would like to expand our operations to support any technology or land services with big companies in Saudi Arabia, the UK and Europe in general,” Alshehri said.

“We are in a very good position right now to support Vision 2030. SMSCMC has been growing rapidly, and the Saudization of our staff is now 72 percent working in the supply chain, which is a very critical yet relatively new sector in Saudi Arabia,” he added.

Strategic partnerships

Alshehri said they have also worked closely with national partners and bodies specialized in realizing the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 to increase local procurement, including the General Authority for Military Industries — the Kingdom’s defense regulator, and SAMI.

Alshehri also said that SMSCMC, which has over 300 employees and processes more than 12,000 supply chain requests per year, has acquired several high governance standards, including licenses from the International Organization for Standardization and the International Traffic in Arms Regulations.

SPEEDREAD

The Riyadh-based Saudi Maintenance and Supply Chain Management Co. is working on expanding its network with companies around the world.

It is currently in talks with Gulf countries to discuss ‘the scope of work they can deliver and sign agreements.’

SMSCMC has been handling supply chain and logistics for some of BAE Systems’ defense platforms in the Kingdom, including the Typhoon, Hawk and Tornado aircraft.

In addition to Riyadh, SMSCMC operates in Dhahran, Taif and Tabuk with the same aircraft services.

Alshehri said SMSCMC has also received an “establishment permit” from GAMI, which will give them the approval to go beyond the contracts of BAE Systems after previously being under the umbrella of the Saudi British Defense Cooperation Program.

With the Kingdom’s vision at its core, Alshehri said the company had been awarded “golden certificates” in supporting women and youth empowerment and people with disabilities in their working environment and has set up a diversity and inclusion committee to maintain these targets. Among these targets is having women in executive positions within five years.

“We now have females working in our offices in Riyadh in the supply chain operations. We also have some females working in our operations in Dhahran. So we are supporting Vision 2030 not only in numbers but also the culture we are trying to create within our organization and empowering people,” he said.

“We have some targets to increase the number of Saudi nationals in the organization, especially in critical roles like, for example, delivering simulator devices,” he added.

There are 60 executive employees at SMSCMC, including 26 Saudi nationals and 34 expatriates. The target will be to increase the number of Saudi citizens to 40 by 2025 and reduce the number of expatriates to 30. Moreover, 72 percent of the company’s workforce are Saudi nationals and there are plans to increase the number to 75 percent by 2025.

SMSCMC last month signed a defense agreement with General Electric Aviation in Riyadh to further opportunities in Saudi Arabia and beyond, which will include training and technology transfer in supply chain operations in the region and creating jobs for Saudi nationals in the Kingdom.

“Since we have established capabilities at SMSCMC’s supply chain and defense, General Electric would like to sign this agreement with us to utilize our capabilities to support them and increase their operations’ efficiency in Saudi Arabia,” Alshehri said.

Training initiatives

SMSCMC provides a wide range of training programs, some long term, and has also signed agreements with major global training companies to transfer technologies and know-how.

Alshehri added: “Training will be done through SMSCMC and BAE Systems because BAE Systems has a big legacy in the supply chain.

“Some of our employees serve time in BAE Systems’ operations in the UK. They spend a few months there and then return to Saudi Arabia with this knowledge.”

SMSCMC has a bureau in the UK, a registered company with about 80 employees supporting the company’s operations in the Kingdom. It facilitates a lot of the procurement in Britain and Europe in general and can transport the goods to the Kingdom faster.

The negative impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on supply chains and logistics worldwide, Alshehri said, only affected SMSCMC in terms of operations. However, the company managed to deliver all its key performance indicators on time and fulfill its contractual agreements without any issues from 2020 to this year, which was very difficult for many major companies to meet.

“Of course, there were some challenges in the global economy in terms of new business opportunities, but in terms of delivering and continuity and sustainability, SMSCMC delivered the key performance indicators in a very challenging time, which is something we are proud of.”


SABIC drives compliance training business ethics programs to boost corporate governance

Updated 06 August 2022

SABIC drives compliance training business ethics programs to boost corporate governance

  • The chemical manufacturing giant led the implementation of a global trade system that allows automated compliance screening of customers

RIYADH: Saudi Basic Industries Corp. and anti-bribery firm Trace International have successfully provided compliance training to 4,500 third-party business partners since July last year to advance corporate governance in the organization.

According to SABIC vice president of legal affairs Naveena Shastri, each of the company’s third-party business partners, which included suppliers, distributors and contract workers, were trained in four to five compliance training sessions, totaling 20,000 sessions.

Of the 20,000 sessions, 18,090 sessions constituted temporary employees. The company also trained 44.3 percent of its temporary workers in the first half of 2022.

A total of 619 training sessions were conducted for SABIC’s suppliers in the second quarter of 2022.

“In any place we operate, we develop ecosystems where doing business with integrity is the norm,” said Shastri.

BACKGROUND

SABIC was awarded the Compliance Leader Verification for 2022 and 2023 from Ethisphere, a global leader in defining and advancing ethical business practices.

The program offers face-to-face or online training in Arabic, with training materials and formats updated regularly. 
By doing this, Shastri said that the company could ensure that its small and medium business partners understand the company’s compliance concepts.

All SABIC employees are required to attend comprehensive compliance training, refresher courses, and special training on specific topics, such as antitrust legislation, fair employment practices, and trade controls, to build the proper foundation for ethical compliance, she added.

In addition, Shastri pointed out that SABIC led the implementation of a global trade system that allows automated compliance screening of customers with applicable international trade sanctions.

Due to the company’s commitment to corporate governance and ethics, the chemical manufacturing major was awarded the 

Compliance Leader Verification for 2022 and 2023 from Ethisphere, a global leader in defining and advancing ethical business practices, Shastri said.

It was the company’s second consecutive year to receive the award following November 2021.

In previous sessions for its suppliers, the speakers elaborated on the importance of an ethical business model and why stakeholders — both global and regional — are increasingly seeking evidence of effective compliance practices.

The company has been collaborating on this front with compliance organizations such as the Pearl Initiative and Nazaha, the Oversight and Anti-Corruption Authority in Saudi Arabia.

Often facilitated by nongovernmental organizations, SABIC also plays a crucial role in cross-industry collaboration. 

It participates in several global, multilateral anti-corruption initiatives, including the annual Business 20, the official business dialogue forum of the Group of 20 nations and the World Economic Forum.

Due to the company’s size, it ensures that the e-learning courses reach the right people in its supply chain and that trainees have the tools to follow up if necessary. “The company builds capacity, awareness, and knowledge in countries where some of these are new compliance concepts, and sets standards that its suppliers must follow to participate in business activities with SABIC,” Shastri concluded.

Related


UAE intends to invest $1 billion in Pakistani companies — WAM

Updated 05 August 2022

UAE intends to invest $1 billion in Pakistani companies — WAM

  • The move aims to explore new investment opportunities and areas for cooperation in projects across various sectors
  • Emphasizes keenness of UAE and Pakistan to continue cooperation in various fields, including gas, energy infrastructure

ISLAMABAD: The Emirates News Agency reported on Friday the UAE’s intention to invest $1 billion in Pakistani companies across various sectors.

Relations between the UAE and Pakistan date back to the UAE’s formation in 1971, and have since evolved into wide-ranging cooperation in various fields. Pakistan was the first country to extend recognition of the United Arab Emirates, while the UAE continues to be a major donor of economic and financial assistance to Pakistan.

In recognition of the UAE’s humanitarian support to Pakistan, multiple institutions, bridges, airports and hospitals in Pakistan are named after the UAE’s founding father and first president, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, such as the Sheikh Zayed Bridge in Swat Valley and Sheikh Zayed Medical Complex in Lahore.

“An official source in Abu Dhabi has emphasised the UAE’s intention to invest $1 billion in Pakistani companies in various economic and investment sectors,” the Emirates state news agency said.

“The move aims to explore new investment opportunities and areas for cooperation in projects across various sectors, so as to expand bilateral economic relations in the best interest of the two countries.”

WAM added: “It also emphasises the keenness of the UAE and Pakistan to continue cooperation in various fields, which include gas, energy infrastructure, renewable energy, health care, biotechnology, agricultural technology, logistics, digital communications, e-commerce and financial services.”