Using smart technology to cultivate fresh greens

The Natufia Smart Garden gives households total control over the greens they want to consume without depending on the climate or the seasons. (Supplied)
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Updated 04 March 2023

Using smart technology to cultivate fresh greens

  • Food tech firm adopts penetrative pricing to drive food security in Saudi Arabia

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia is in overdrive to achieve its ambitious goals of diversifying its economy and further uplifting the quality of life without compromising its commitment to sustainable living.

Its measures have created a rich environment conducive to innovation and investment and witnessed mushrooming startups developing novel ideas supported by different institutions in the public and private sectors.

One of those entities is the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology which has emerged as a beacon for innovative ideas and a home to the most diverse startups in the region.

Its venture, Natufia Labs, is contributing toward ensuring food security in the Kingdom. 

In 2014, the company pioneered a hydroponic kitchen farm that automates plant growth through a self-contained case that provides optimal water, lighting, and nutrients to cultivate fresh greens throughout the year.

Called Natufia Smart Garden, the technology gives households total control over the greens they want to consume without depending on the climate or the seasons.

With the smart kitchen garden, though, you place the seed pods within the nursery of the cabinet to germinate. After about 10 days, the pod turns into a plant. It is then moved to the growth chamber, and 30 days later, you have fresh green produce devoid of pesticides or preservatives.

The technology can sow over 40 varieties of seed pods and can grow almost 32 plants simultaneously, including basil, chilies, kale, lettuce, cherry tomatoes, and chamomile, to name a few. But the technology came with a price.

At $13,000, the product was a luxury and a preserve of the uber-rich. Weighing 270 kg, it was a hardware-intensive technology that commanded huge manufacturing costs coupled with the logistics challenges of sourcing parts from different parts of the world. 

“Our first clients were chefs in France and private clients in California. These were people who loved food and cooking, and for them, Natufia was an extension of their gardens. They told us it was something they wanted for years,” Gregory Lu told Arab News, who set up the company in 2014 in Estonia after spending the better part of his life selling dream homes across Europe.

What also went in the company’s favor was its environmental commitment because here was a product that curbed packaging, pollution, food miles, and toxins.

So, what turned this one-time realtor into an environmentalist? In 2012, after advising high net worth individuals on lucrative real estate opportunities, the law graduate found his true calling as he purchased an olive plantation in Sicily.

“I was able to reconnect with nature and produce olive oil in the most natural way, without fertilizer, pesticide, and excess watering,” said Lu. This enthusiastic embrace of natural living inspired Lu to dream of a farm for every household.

In 2018, Natufia Labs joined the Techstars Dubai Accelerator Opening Class and closed a $1.2-million seed round led by Butterfly Ventures, Techstars, and the Dubai-based Ginco Investments.

I was able to reconnect with nature and produce olive oil in the most natural way, without fertilizer, pesticide, and excess watering.

Gregory Lu, Natufia Labs founder and CEO

However, when the COVID-19 pandemic engulfed the world, it highlighted the fragility of the global supply chains and their impact on food security. It made it harder for farmers and food producers to get their produce to market.

For instance, according to the General Authority for Statistics, food and beverage in Saudi Arabia recorded the highest annual increase of 14.4 percent in July 2020, primarily due to a 19 percent increase in vegetable prices and 18.2 percent in meat prices.

With limited mobility and increased demand for home deliveries, transportation costs also shot up, burdening the food basket further. The July 2020 GASTAT report further revealed that transportation costs in Saudi Arabia increased by 7.3 percent, mainly from a 13.9 percent increase in vehicle prices.

The lightning had struck, furthering Lu’s resolve to reach the masses.

In 2021, Lu finally received a helping hand from the unlikeliest place nearly 4,000 km away from his base camp: KAUST.

It not only awarded $2 million to Natufia Labs through its venture capital investment arm, the KAUST Innovation Fund, but also offered a residency at the KAUST Research and Technology Park. Lu soon perfected the art of production and lowered the price. Later, Lu realized the only way he could push the envelope was by designing a product that was smaller in size and more compact in shape than the Natufia Smart Garden.

In the fall of 2022, it launched Natufia One, a smaller and semi-automated version of Natufia Smart Garden, which was entirely developed at KAUST. Weighing 65 kg, Natufia One ventured into the market.

Lu now plans to raise new investments to increase production capacity and triple the firm’s distribution network before the end of this year. He also hopes to launch a slew of new products in 2024.

The plans are encouraging, considering the Kingdom is on a war footing to localize the country’s food industry by 2030.

Saudi stc group launches Tali Ventures for emerging tech investments 

Updated 12 sec ago

Saudi stc group launches Tali Ventures for emerging tech investments 

RIYADH: Emerging companies and innovative technologies are poised to receive an investment boost with the launch of Tali Ventures, a specialized firm founded by stc group. 

The communication giant’s new arm aims to create added value by adopting cutting-edge solutions and business models, the Saudi Press Agency reported.  

The fund has already commenced investments in several emerging projects, notably the Nile Co., specializing in network equipment solutions, the Rewaa platform focusing on inventory management, and the NearbyPay platform, a digital payment solutions company. 

Saudi banks’ money supply surges 10% to reach $726bn in January

Updated 58 min 7 sec ago

Saudi banks’ money supply surges 10% to reach $726bn in January

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia’s money supply surged 10 percent in January to reach SR2.72 trillion ($726 billion), the central bank data showed.

The growth was primarily driven by a substantial rise in banks’ term and savings accounts, which recorded a rise of 31 percent to reach SR864.32 billion. The overall figure, however, also includes currency outside banks, demand deposits, and other quasi-money deposits.

Since the Saudi riyal is pegged to the US dollar, the rise in interest rates is also seen as a source of motivation for depositors who want to pursue more profitable avenues particularly term deposits known for their higher-yielding nature.

Fitch Ratings also noted that the liquidity boost in Saudi Arabia could be linked to a significant rise in funds from government-related entities.

According to the agency, the rise in these GRE accounts suggests that these entities chose to invest their surplus liquidity in higher income-generating deposits with commercial banks, rather than with the Saudi Central Bank, also known as SAMA.

It highlighted that these deposits serve as an expensive source of funding for banks, which has significantly increased the average cost of funding due to heightened competition in the financial market.

Reflecting on the changes, demand deposits, which constituted a 53 percent share of the money supply a year ago, now stand at 48.42 percent, with a growth rate of only 1 percent during this period.

Despite the elevated cost of funding for Saudi banks, the increase in interest rates also bolstered profits on their asset side, as higher borrowing rates resulted in greater income.

Based on data from Bloomberg compiled by Arab News, the net income of listed Saudi banks surged by 12 percent annually in 2023, reaching SR69.96 billion.

Among these, the Saudi National Bank held the largest share at 29 percent, equivalent to SR20 billion. Notably, the most significant growth in net income was observed in Saudi Awwal Bank, with profits soaring by 45 percent to reach SR7 billion.

During 2022, SAMA increased key policy rates seven times followed by an additional four times in 2023. In its July 2023 meeting, the central bank last raised its repo rate by 25 basis points to 6 percent, reaching its highest level since 2001. This move was in line with the measures taken by the US Federal Reserve as part of its efforts to combat inflation.

Saudi Arabia has nevertheless demonstrated exceptional resilience and stability in managing inflation. This success can be attributed to the steadfast implementation of robust government policies designed to safeguard the economy.

Central to this stability is the Saudi Consumer Protection Association, a vigilant guardian of fair pricing practices for essential goods and services. The Kingdom’s strong regulatory framework ensures that consumers are shielded from unwarranted price escalations, fostering an environment conducive to business.

Furthermore, Saudi Arabia’s commitment to social welfare is evident in its comprehensive policies. The Kingdom has strategically invested in initiatives such as subsidies on essential goods, affordable housing schemes, quality education programs, and accessible healthcare services.

A prime example of this commitment is the Citizen Account Program, a cornerstone of support for low- and mid-income families. Through this program, the government provides crucial cash transfers, alleviating the financial strains caused by the rising cost of living.

In January, Saudi Arabia maintained stable inflation at 1.6 percent, holding steady from December 2023, as reported by the General Authority of Statistics.

The primary driver of the inflation rate was the cost of rent, given their significant weight of 21 percent in the Saudi consumer basket.

Nevertheless, according to data from Trading Economics, the Kingdom ranked the second-lowest among G20 countries in terms of inflation, following Switzerland, which recorded a rate of 1.3 percent.

Looking ahead, Fitch Ratings anticipates that the cost of funding will continue to be sensitive to shifts in the Fed rate. However, the agency expects the average net interest margin, a crucial measure of banks’ core profitability, to stay at approximately 3 percent.

Fitch also projects a 10 percent growth in deposits for 2024, driven primarily by term accounts. The proportion of demand deposits will likely decrease, falling below 50 percent of total deposits.

The agency’s predicted Saudi banking sector financing growth stood at 10 percent in 2024, well above the Gulf Cooperation Council average of 5 percent but down from an estimated 12 percent in 2023 and 14 percent in 2022.

RSG partners with Amazon Payment Services to introduce online transactions

Updated 13 min 30 sec ago

RSG partners with Amazon Payment Services to introduce online transactions

RIYADH: Saudi tourist destinations, The Red Sea and AMAALA, will soon offer online transaction options through a recent partnership with Amazon Payment Services. 

Initiated by its developer Red Sea Global, the deal aims to provide a comprehensive suite of payment solutions tailored to meet the needs of RSG’s customers, according to a statement. 

This aligns with RSG’s vision of providing exceptional experiences for its travelers, as stated by Ahmed Ali Al-Sohaily, group head of technology at RSG. 

He said: “By collaborating with Amazon Payment Services, its best-in-class technology ensures convenient, secure, and efficient payment processes for our guests.”  

RSG said it seeks to collaborate with partners who share similar values in making a positive impact on both people and the planet. Currently, more than 90 percent of Amazon Payment Services’ electricity comes from renewables, with a goal to reach 100 percent by 2025, the release added. 

“We are excited to support Red Sea Global and its customers through this new partnership that allows us to enhance the payment experience for luxury travelers through our innovative and tailor-made payment solutions,” said Peter George, managing director at Amazon Payments Services.

“Our payment methods fully and seamlessly integrate with Red Sea Global’s infrastructure, making their offering even more accessible, reliable, and easy to use,” he added. 

Last week, in an interview with Arab News on the sidelines of the Human Capability Initiative in Riyadh, RSG Group CEO John Pagano highlighted that Red Sea has recently opened its first two resorts, including the Six Senses Southern Dunes and The St. Regis Red Sea Resort. 

By the end of this year, the group intends to launch four additional resorts, he disclosed.  

“Meanwhile, we’re busy working on 19 other resorts, 11 at Red Sea and eight at AMAALA, all of which are going to open next year,” Pagano said in that interview.   

In terms of operations, the CEO added: “We’re open for business today. The airport is running. So, we have eight flights a week in and out of the Red Sea direct.”    

The destination is currently regularly receiving guests from the local and regional markets, including Europeans as well, he added. 

“So, we’re in that capacity-building mode where people are now starting to learn about the destination,” Pagano concluded. 

Australia’s University of Wollongong joins top global institutes in Riyadh expansion 

Updated 03 March 2024

Australia’s University of Wollongong joins top global institutes in Riyadh expansion 

RIYADH: Saudi students will gain increased access to high-quality higher education as reputable institutes, including Australia’s University of Wollongong, secure licenses for branches within the Kingdom. 

The Saudi Ministry of Education and its investment counterpart announced the issuance of an approval to the Australian public research university during the recently concluded Human Capability Initiative Conference in Riyadh, the Saudi Press Agency reported.  

This move is a part of the preparations to establish its branch in the Kingdom, in collaboration with the Digital Knowledge Co., to provide innovative, globally recognized education for international and local students across various higher schooling levels. 

The collaboration with Digital Knowledge Co., known for its high-quality expertise in schooling and training, aligns with Saudi Vision 2030, aiming to attract foreign university branches and increase private sector involvement in higher education by 2030. 

The University of Wollongong holds the 14th position among the best modern universities worldwide, ranking in the top 1 percent of institutes according to the 2024 QS World Index. 

The SPA report added that, during the same event, the two ministries also signed a memorandum of understanding with Arizona State University and Cintana Education to establish a new institute and an affiliated school in Riyadh. 

The MoU with ASU and Cintana Education outlines the framework for these institutions, emphasizing high-quality education, research, and innovative programs to contribute to economic success and influence future generations in the Kingdom. 

The tailored programs aim to meet the increasing demand for international education in Riyadh, aligning with the priorities of Saudi Vision 2030. This includes specializations in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, as well as economics, along with the training of educational staff. 

SPA added that the launch is scheduled after the completion of the required studies by the signing parties of the MoU. 

In 2005, ASU had 20 undergraduate and four graduate students from Saudi Arabia. By 2017, these numbers surged to 682 undergraduate and 103 graduate students, according to its website. 

The university emphasizes 13 areas of study, with engineering being the most popular among half of the students, while one in five are pursuing degrees in business. Other fields of study include liberal arts, global management, public service, and education. 

AUS adds that the Saudi Arabian Cultural Mission and Aramco have sent multiple delegations to the educational institution to explore how the university accommodates sponsored Saudi students. Such cultural missions have resulted in 126 Aramco-sponsored scholars currently enrolled at ASU.

WTO’s Abu Dhabi Declaration to empower least developed nations  

Updated 03 March 2024

WTO’s Abu Dhabi Declaration to empower least developed nations  

RIYADH: The least developed countries are set to benefit from the Abu Dhabi Declaration at the 13th WTO Ministerial Conference, improving global supply chain access. 

Trade deals, aimed at fostering new agreements, will extend international trading system benefits to more nations, following intensive negotiations, as reported by the UAE’s official news agency, WAM. 

Members have agreed to implement Special and Preferential Treatment for Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures and Technical Barriers to Trade. This effort supports producers in the least developed countries, facilitating their global supply chain access, the WAM report stated. 

The report added that the current measures of SPS constitute a staggering 90 percent of non-tariff trade barriers, posing a significant obstacle for smaller nations and being viewed as discriminatory. 

In a significant development for developing countries, ministers approved a decision responding to a 23-year-old mandate. The aim is to revamp special and differential treatment provisions for improved precision, effectiveness, and operational functionality. 

The UAE Minister of State for Foreign Trade and MC13 Chair, Thani Al-Zeyoudi, described the declaration as a significant milestone for the UAE and global trade. 

“It has been a momentous week for Abu Dhabi, for the UAE, and for global trade. I would like to thank the delegations from every member for their diligence and dedication to the negotiation and for their ceaseless efforts in making the global trading system more robust, more efficient and, most importantly, more accessible,” he said. 

The minister added that even in areas where final agreements have not been reached, issues that previously seemed unsolvable can now be unlocked — clearing the way for further progress in the coming months.  

Substantial progress has also been achieved in dispute resolution, as there is now an agreement to fulfill the MC12 mandate by establishing a comprehensive and efficient Dispute Settlement system by the end of 2024. This entails the adoption of various reform pathways by the participating members. 

Regarding e-commerce, members have agreed to extend the moratorium on customs duties for electronic transmissions for an additional two years. This decision implies that trade involving purely digital products and services will remain tariff-free until MC14 in Cameroon. 

Ministers also adopted a ministerial decision to extend the moratorium on non-violation and situation complaints related to the agreement on Trade-related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights until MC14. 

“Delivering the Abu Dhabi Declaration of outcomes is a true testament to the value that members continue to attach to the WTO and its pivotal role in ensuring an orderly global system of trade rules,” said Al-Zeyoudi. 

“With the adopted Abu Dhabi Declaration, we have demonstrated that we can deliver to ensure the global trading system remains a vital engine of growth and development for nations around the world. We must build on these significant achievements and remain united for global trade,” he added.  

The WAM report quoted Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, director-general of the World Trade Organization, stating that the global body serves as a foundation of stability and resilience in an economic and geopolitical landscape filled with uncertainties and exogenous shocks. 

“Trade remains a vital force for improving people’s lives, and for helping businesses and countries cope with the impact of these shocks. Let us get some rest, then regroup and resume,” she said. 

MC13, hosted by the UAE’s Ministry of Economy and the Abu Dhabi Department of Economic Development, took place at the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Center from Feb. 26 to March 2.