INTERVIEW: Metito lays out strategy to keep region watered

Illustration by Luis Grañena
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Updated 17 May 2021

INTERVIEW: Metito lays out strategy to keep region watered

  • Rami Ghandour, managing director, explains why Middle East must realize ‘water is not free’

The Middle East’s water challenge is summed up in one stark statistic: The region is home to 6 percent of the world’s population but has just 1 percent of its fresh water.

Rami Ghandour, managing director of global water company Metito Utilities, knows these and similar figures by heart. He can tell you how much of the population of Egypt inhabits water-intensive cities (97 percent) and how much water the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) region consumes per capita compared to the US (significantly more).

“I think the first thing is a realization that water is not free. It is something which is quite costly. Therefore, people need to take care of it,” he told Arab News.

Metito has been taking care of water in the region, and the world, for more than 60 years, after its foundation in Lebanon in 1958 by the serial entrepreneurial Ghandour business family whose members are still big shareholders.

It is a world-leading company in the water infrastructure sector, operating sewage, water treatment, and desalination facilities in 46 countries, and is increasingly playing a leading role in the global drive toward more renewable and sustainable use of the world’s resources.

So, is Metito a utility, or an infrastructure company, or an environmental operation?

“You can check all the boxes if you like. Historically, I’d say we were an environmental company in that what we do is desalinate water, supply water to people, treat wastewater and recycle water, both industrial and domestic. Then also more recently we’ve expanded into the renewables energy sector,” Ghandour said.

The Metito group, backed by big investors such as Mitsubishi of Japan and the investment arm of the World Bank, is organized along three business lines: A design and build unit that covers the full spectrum of the engineering, procurement, and construction process, which to date has executed more than 3,000 projects around the world; the utilities and investments division offers project finance, consulting, and management services; while the chemicals unit develops environment-friendly chemicals and specialist treatment solutions for customers.

“We maintain an arm’s length arrangement between the different companies on purpose but are able to develop projects — that is at the heart of what we do — and deliver those to people to enable both environmental improvement and also basic human development and needs,” Ghandour added.

Water — cheap, free, or subsidized — has long been taken for granted in the Middle East, even as the pressure on its supply has increased with rising population, agricultural and industrial usage. Ghandour thinks that mindset has to change.

“There are obviously jurisdictions in the region, including here in the UAE, where full market price is being charged, full cost recovery and taxes are being charged. But there are other areas where there are heavy subsidies in place and that does result in encouraging wasteful behavior,” he said.


BIO

BORN: Beirut 1975

EDUCATION

  • Master’s degree in chemical engineering from the University of Cambridge
  • MBA in finance and entrepreneurial management from Wharton Business School

CAREER

  • Process engineer, Bechtel London
  • Management consultant, Boston Consulting Group, New York
  • Managing director, Metito Utilities
  • Director, Metito Group

Public education programs — such as encouraging people to turn taps off and wash the car less frequently — obviously play a part in public awareness, but the bigger challenges are more structural.

For example, the biggest consumer of water in the region is not personal domestic consumption, but agriculture.

Governments — including that of Saudi Arabia — have had some success in encouraging more efficient use of water for farming, and new technologies such as hydroponics and vertical farming can also encourage optimal use of water resources.

Some countries too have taken a more radical approach, buying farmland in other parts of the world with better water supply, growing food there, and then importing it back to the Gulf.

But Ghandour pointed out that there were other simple and effective ways to optimize water efficiency. Leakage and water theft were big problems in some countries. “People are just helping themselves and there isn’t the regulation and the enforcement to make sure that it’s not a problem,” he added.

Reuse of water was also an area of great potential. The example here was Singapore, which has made great strides toward reusing water in the domestic, industrial, and agricultural sectors.

In the Gulf, one of the sights that sets environmentalists’ nerves on edge was the liberal use of precious water on golf courses or green public spaces, in areas that would naturally be arid desert.

However, Ghandour noted that an increasing proportion of that was recycled water that may not be fit for human consumption, but which was perfectly acceptable for irrigation. Dubai, for example, has a groundbreaking wastewater recycling facility which offers users two taps for different water uses.

Metito is bidding in a project in Botswana in Africa where wastewater is directly recycled back into the consumption and drinking water systems, one of only two in the world that does that.

The company was also looking at the technology behind a pioneering project in California which recycles wastewater directly into the underground aquifers that feed water back into the consumption cycle.

But even if the region optimizes its usage, prevents leakages, and adopts efficient pricing mechanisms, there will always be a need for desalination in a part of the world as arid as the Arabian Gulf.

Desalination has been the mainstay of the basic infrastructure that has allowed the region to enjoy high rates of economic growth over decades, but it has also come under fire from environmentalists, for two reasons: The use of carbon fuels such as oil and gas in the expensive process of turning sea water into usable water; and the extra brine — salty water — expelled into the sea as a by-product.

Ghandour said the second objection was less of a significant factor, pointing out that the Arabian Gulf and Red Sea were open tidal seaways, and also that some desalination facilities in the UAE have been built on the Indian Ocean side of the country, allowing brine to disperse into a wider body of water.

The use of hydrocarbon fossil fuels to produce water was a different matter.

“I would decouple the power issue from the desalination. The good news is that the renewables business model has become much more competitive. Renewable power today is often below the cost of fossil fuels power,” he added.

The megaprojects of Saudi Arabia were the perfect testing ground for this new model. Metito is involved in two solar-powered desalination facilities in the NEOM development, which mix renewable power with sources from the national grid, and it has also won a contract for a huge desalination plant in the industrial zone at Jubail in the Eastern Province. Ghandour hinted that other big Saudi contracts were in the offing.

There are also huge Metito projects on the other side of the Red Sea, in Egypt, including an ambitious plan to irrigate the Sinai desert with treated water pumped under the Suez Canal.

Saudi Arabia’s need for clean, efficient, and reusable water was likely to increase exponentially over the next decade. For example, in addition to the megaprojects such as NEOM and Qiddiya outside Riyadh, there are massive plans to double the size of the Saudi capital by 2030, as well as an initiative to plant 10 billion trees in the Kingdom to help mitigate carbon emissions. Does Ghandour think these ambitious plans are feasible, from the viewpoint of a water expert?

He noted that the way Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries had gone about the task was encouraging, with increasing private sector investment. “I would argue that is typically the most efficient way to deliver these projects with very strong environmental compliance standards in place,” he said, with one eye on the higher standards now required by international private sector investors in line with ESG (environmental, social, and governance) standards.

“It has put everybody in the mindset of the ESG priorities that are there, so everybody is looking at doing projects in a manner that is sustainable, and definitely the Saudis have been very much involved in that,” he added.

And does he think the Kingdom will have the capacity to water all those trees?

“I don’t have the specifics on the plan to irrigate those trees, but I’m sure as an outsider I would say yes. Additional desalination capacity is being implemented at a high rate with these public private partnership projects.

“So, additional sources of water are there, and I go back to the wastewater that can be reused, which is perfect for irrigating trees. There is today a lot of wastewater that is effectively thrown away in the Kingdom. So, it’s something where reuse would be of a significant environmental benefit,” he said.


Egypt has given $9.87bn to low-income families

Updated 35 min 24 sec ago

Egypt has given $9.87bn to low-income families

  • The National Bank of Egypt topped the list of banks that provided the most funding for low-income people

CAIRO: Egyptian banks and mortgage finance companies have provided a total of EGP37.02 billion ($9.87 billion) in real estate financing to 364,900 low-income customers since the government launched the initiative seven years ago.

The Central Bank of Egypt launched a mortgage finance initiative in February 2014, offering subsidized low-interest mortgages to low-income citizens. Interest ranged from 5 to 7 percent, with the price of the homes provided to customers set by the Mortgage Finance Fund.

In total, EGP35.2 billion was provided by 22 banks to 348,700 customers, and EGP1.83 billion was given by eight mortgage finance companies to around 16,200 customers.

The National Bank of Egypt topped the list of banks that provided the most funding for low-income people, with a total of EGP9.85 billion given to 95,900 customers. Second on the list was Banque Misr with total financing amounting to EGP7.7 billion given to around 74,800 clients.

In third place was the Housing and Development Bank with EGP5.74 billion given to 63,700 customers, followed by Banque du Caire in fourth place with total financings amounting to EGP2.7 billion and 30,900 customers. Rounding out the top five was the Commercial International Bank with EGP2.04 billion and 17,700 customers. The Industrial Development Bank came in sixth, with total financing of EGP1.48 billion and around 14,000 customers, followed by the United Bank of Egypt with EGP967.5 million for about 7,900 customers and the Arab African Bank with EGP939.2 million for about 8,600 customers.

Qatar National Bank Al-Ahli contributed funds amounting to EGP881.8 million for 7,800 customers, followed by BLOM Bank Egypt in 10th place with total funds of EGP483.9 million provided to more than 4,600 customers.


Saudi Arabia’s female-only rival to Uber sees growth in first year of operations

Updated 42 min 11 sec ago

Saudi Arabia’s female-only rival to Uber sees growth in first year of operations

  • Leena started business June 2020 and has already seen average monthly growth of 25 percent

JEDDAH: June 24, 2018 was a changing point in Saudi Arabia. As the ban on women driving was lifted, and female drivers got behind the wheel, it was one of the standout moments for the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 program.

Female-only car showrooms followed; thousands of women signed up for lessons and driving licenses, Saudi women competed in professional racing competitions and American carmaker General Motors told Arab News last month that 65 percent of the buyers for one of its models were all women.

Therefore, with the advent of disruptive digital platforms like Uber and Careem, it was only a matter of time before a female-only version, with female drivers for passengers, was born.

Leena was officially granted a license by the Saudi government in April 2019 and began operations in June last year.

The company provides taxi services for women, and the drivers — named “Captainahs” — are, like global rival Uber, all freelance operators. However, the difference here is the passengers are all exclusively women as well.

Despite launching at the height of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, demand has been high, with the company reporting average month-on-month growth of over 25 percent.

Leena was founded by a small group of young colleagues whose primary objective was to offer women a comfortable alternative, while also maintaining their independence. 

“We came up with the idea in 2018, around the time women were granted the right to drive,” the CEO and co-founder of Leena, Mohammed Al-Aqeel, told Arab News. “We were debating all the pros and cons of creating an organization centered around women and driving, and found an overwhelming amount of pros — one of which would be to contribute in decreasing the percentage of unemployment among women.”

Despite all the positives, Al-Aqeel’s research found that common negatives from women were complaints about harassment, a lack of privacy and, at worst, even violence, when they took regular taxis.

While everything was ready to launch in 2019, Al-Aqeel said the pandemic did create a lot challenges, but the team has addressed them.

“Every registered ‘Captainah’ is immediately informed of the new regulations and terms related to COVID-19 that they must adhere to,” he said, adding that while the authorities have not made it mandatory for drivers to be vaccinated, Leena has encouraged all “Captainahs” to do so, and the majority have had their injections.

HIGHLIGHT

Leena provides taxi services for women, and the drivers — named ‘Captainahs’ — are, like global rival Uber, all freelance operators. However, the difference here is the passengers are all exclusively women as well.

Initial demand has proved positive, to the extent that the company often does not have enough drivers to meet the number of ride requests. “Our demographic of drivers are women and we have to understand that a lot of them have familial responsibilities which they will prioritize, and since ‘Captainahs’ are freelance workers, they have the freedom to choose their own working hours to help accommodate their personal lives,” Al-Aqeel said, adding that the company is working on this issue, and has a backlog of new drivers waiting approval to receive their licenses and join the team.

Leena is also planning to launch a marketing recruitment campaign soon to attract more drivers. “We expected to do well just based on the surveys and studies we did when Leena was only an idea, and we found an overwhelming majority of people like the idea and are in support of it,” Al-Aqeel said.

Leena has been self-financed but in order to expand to the next level it will need to look at external options. “As of today, all finances that have gone into Leena are from our own initial capital. The team and I are about to embark on an investment round to find investors to sell shares to,” Al-Aqeel said.

Looking to the future, regional rival Careem was bought by Uber for $3.1 billion. Al-Aqeel said he would be interested in an approach, but he is reluctant to sell Leena outright.

“Of course, if we had an offer we would consider it and discuss it as a team, but we won’t compromise or dispense Leena’s initial mission and cause.

We will have conditions, one of them being that Leena stays exclusive to women,” he said. “We have thought of an exit strategy, but we will preserve some shares in the company. We won’t sell the entire company.”


UAE’s RAW Coffee Co. expands to Saudi Arabia

Updated 50 min 48 sec ago

UAE’s RAW Coffee Co. expands to Saudi Arabia

  • The company is not planning to distribute through supermarkets but instead plans to replicate its business model in the UAE

JEDDAH: Saudi Arabia is the fastest-growing coffee market in the Middle East, expanding at an annual rate of 9.6 percent, according to research in late 2019 carried out by the organizers of the Middle East Coffee Conference held in Riyadh.

As a result, UAE-based RAW Coffee Co. has expanded its distribution network to Saudi Arabia and is eventually hoping to set up a physical presence in the Kingdom.

“We would say that the KSA specialty coffee scene is catching up to the more established UAE industry both in quality and knowledge, which is a very exciting time,” Kim Thompson, the co-owner and managing director of RAW Coffee Co., told Arab News. The company has teamed up with DHL to process its orders in the Kingdom.

“We have completed establishing our KSA business licensing and are currently exploring opportunities based out of Riyadh. At the moment, we roast and deliver fresh from our roastery in Dubai to the commercial customers in KSA that we supply, one of which is L’ETO Cafe, which has branches in Riyadh, Jeddah and Dammam,” Thompson said.

The company is not planning to distribute through supermarkets but instead plans to replicate its business model in the UAE, where it will distribute directly to customers and through third-party cafes, before eventually setting up its own operations in the Kingdom and potentially a chain of branded cafes.

RAW is not the first UAE-based coffee brand to announce expansion plans in the Kingdom this year. Emirati Coffee in April told Arab News it plans to open its first Saudi branch in July. CEO Mohammed Ali Al-Madfai reported that the company had seen a 3,135 percent increase in online sales in 2020.


Startup of the Week: Botola Meals offers healthy diets

Updated 55 min 40 sec ago

Startup of the Week: Botola Meals offers healthy diets

JEDDAH: Obesity is a growing issue in Saudi Arabia. A study by the Sharik Association for Health Research found that the rate of obesity among Saudi adults totaled 35.6 percent in 2020.

Besides health issues, another study by the US-based University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, in collaboration with Saudi Health Council and the World Bank, found that obesity increases the risk of death by COVID-19 by 48 percent, and may make vaccines against the disease less effective.

In a bid to help those suffering with their weight, entrepreneurs Mohammad Faden, Nofal Al-Jefri and Mohammad Al-Harthi in November 2019 set up Botola Meals, a healthy meal-prepping service. 

Botola is the Arabic word for heroism. “It may directly symbolize athletes and achievements, but in fact it is a deep philosophy,” Faden told Arab News. “Whatever the individual’s ambition to reach that goal is, it is in itself an achievement and a mark of heroism,” he added. Al-Jefri highlighted the fact that consumers are prone to purchasing meals that are quick to prepare. “We believe that the market needs and lacks this type of project specialized in healthy fast food, and when you specialize in a particular field, it enhances consumer confidence in your product,” Al-Jefri said. “Clean Eating Matters” is the restaurant’s slogan. Al-Harthi said that Botola Meals offers healthy diets that are not about depriving yourself, but about balance. “We also want to educate people about the importance of investing in themselves and their health in an easy and convenient way,” he said. Botola Meals also prepares customized plans to cater to the specific needs of customers, such as monitoring ingredients that cause allergies and eliminating carbohydrates if a customer is following a paleo diet.

“We sit down with the customer and cooperate as much as possible in providing what suits them,” Faden said.

The startup meal service sold about 45,000 meals in 2020 — roughly 120 meals a day.Botola Meals has one branch in Jeddah’s Al-Salama district, and is planning to open a second branch in Riyadh in 2023. The startup’s long-term plan is to expand across the Gulf and beyond.


Saudi Arabia aims to be Egypt’s top trading partner

Updated 14 June 2021

Saudi Arabia aims to be Egypt’s top trading partner

  • Saudi investors are especially interested in the water desalination and water treatment sector, says Egyptian Trade Minister

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia plans to be Egypt’s top trading partner within five years, said Saudi Commerce Minister Majid Al-Qasabi.

He made the pledge at the Egyptian-Saudi Joint Trade Committee on Monday.

The minister highlighted the presence of 6,225 Saudi companies operating in Egypt with investments amounting to some $30 billion.

At the same time, 518 Egyptian are estimated to operate in the Saudi market, with 285 Egyptian brands in the Kingdom.

Saudi investors are especially interested in the water desalination and water treatment sector, Egyptian Trade Minister Nevine Gamea told Asharq Business.

She added that the cooperation between the two countries was reflected in the trade volume, which exceeded $5.5 billion in 2020.

The volume of Egyptian investments in the Kingdom reached $1.4 billion at the end of last year, she added.