In December 2013, state-owned Qatar Development Bank (QDB) launched a soft loan scheme for people in the farming sector and those in poultry, fish and livestock breeding businesses. The idea was to encourage the private sector to increasingly participate in food production to ensure food security for the country over the medium to long-term. The government also has a scheme to distribute land for farming.
Rightly, therefore, Qatar’s food security programme largely focuses on the private sector’s involvement, for, without their active participation and support no economic pursuit can succeed. We know rather too well that as part of this programme, through Hassad Food Company, huge swathes of land have been bought for agricultural production in countries like Sudan and Australia, among others.
By the middle of 2011, media reports began trickling in suggesting that a study was conducted which identified a multi-billion dollar Agricultural City Project for possible launch by the private sector. Not only could it make Qatar self-reliant in food, but, eventually, it would add Qatar to the list of food exporting countries. The proposed city’s proponents at Qatar Chamber, representative body of the private sector, claim the project, if launched, would make Qatar a regional agricultural hub.
But exactly how, no one knows. Officials at the Chamber are not even willing to say when the project idea was mooted and when the proposal was submitted to the government for approval after studies. However, from the tone and tenor of those involved with the project it is clear there is disappointment in the business community over a lack of response from the government. But nobody will admit this for fear of offending government officials.
The brain behind the project, Mohamed Ahmed Al Obaidly, tells bq magazine in an interview that he cannot discuss details unless it is approved by the government. “It is still an idea so we can share details only after its official approval,” he says of his favourite project. He is the main man behind the project by dint of being the head of the Chamber’s Agricultural and Environment Committee.
Mohamed Ahmed Al Obaidly, head of Qatar Chamber’s Agricultural and Environment Committee
For Qatari planners it should be a disturbing realisation that many of the estimated 1,400 farms in the country are lying defunct, with the country continuing to rely on imports for at least 90 percent of its food needs. Al Obaidly adds: “This is in addition to more than 3,000 enclosures (animal camps usually located in remote areas and near beaches). While those enclosures cost the country, their sole purpose is to entertain their owners. The proposed project combines entertainment with production, thus, contributes to the economy.”
Private sector participation
Highlighting the role of the private sector, Al Obaidly says, “This is a private sector initiative, and we always urge concerned departments to study and implement their initiatives. The private sector contributes to the wellbeing of the state and should be encouraged. Today, when we talk about food security, there must be a partnership between the private and public sectors.”
But one has to ask how vital is the private sector’s contribution versus the role played by the government? “In the beginning, it will be costly to achieve food security, which is the strategic phase and the government clearly plays a big part, like it is currently doing. But then comes the role of the private sector as it will make sure that it generates revenues. The private sector has the experience and expertise to make this happen. The agriculture city will benefit everyone as it will serve Qatar on several levels. It will serve SMEs, entrepreneurs, markets, consumers, merchants and vendors, individuals, and the state. It serves all aspects of food security and it reinforces the relationship between the public and private sectors.” Al Obaidly explains.
Some businessmen believe that major real-estate companies will take on the role of the private sector. But as far as the proposed agriculture city is concerned, it is estimated that from 4,000 to 5,000 Qatari companies, whose details have yet to be revealed, will be involved. “In some cases, there will be partnerships between Qatari and foreign companies but Qatari companies will always have the priority. The role that will be given to foreign companies will not do any harm to Qatari businessmen, as they will only support Qatari companies and businessmen, not compete with them,” says Al Obaidly.
From media reports that have been appearing from time to time from as far back as 2011, it seems the proposal is for an Agricultural City that might cover a massive area and accommodate large solar-powered greenhouses on the lines of those operating in the Netherlands.
In an old interview, published by a local daily, in December 2011, Al Obaidly said the idea for the Agricultural City was inspired by Spanish and Dutch experiences in the field. In yet another media interview, also in 2011, he added: “The project will focus on fruit and vegetable growers, as well as livestock and fisheries, because the country’s small size prevents large-scale production of grains”.
The project, according to him, was under discussion at the time. Basically, the entire project is likely to be modelled in a way that it ensures mass commercial production of all kinds of produce as well as ready-to-use food like canned juice, processed meat and fish, for local use as well as for exports. “The one thing the City won’t have is production of feed for these industries,” he tells bq, indicating another opportunity for businesses.
An idea of what the proposed City would be like can be had from the fact that in an interview published in a local newspaper early in February this year, Al Obaidly said that a separate section in the City would be reserved for hatcheries and there would be some 300 to 400 large ones. The hatcheries proposed would have three sections, namely, for egg production, chicken breeding for sale in the local market and for meat production and processing. Massive production would mean exports as well.
Al Obaidly says that while a rising population was putting immense pressure on egg and poultry products, there was just one poultry farm in Qatar which was not able to meet more than 10 percent of local demand since it lacked modern machines and methods.
Retailers remind bq how fresh chicken was available at chicken shops all over the country before the bird flu scare led to their disappearance literally en masse and overnight. The meat used to be fresh and cheap: about QR 10 to QR 12 for a freshly slaughtered chicken. Now, packaged fresh chicken weighing about 600 grams on average and imported from neighbouring Saudi Arabia can at times cost more than QR 20
A world first
Al Obaidly tells bq all the technologies suggested for the project are accredited technologies that have proven track record and can function perfectly in Qatari conditions. Shedding more light on the value of the project, Al Obaidly says: “It will be the first of its kind may be in the world, not just in Qatar, as it will involve industry, agriculture, logistics, recycling, and it will also generate energy. Currently, there are agro parks but there are no agro green cities in the same comprehensive concept as the proposed city.
“It took five years to prepare the study and we started with all the challenges facing the private sector and the government pertaining to food security. What does the consumer need? The consumer needs good prices, sustainability, and quality. He doesn’t care how this can be achieved, which is the producer’s issue. The producer needs financing, stable prices, technology, land, as well as guidance and support,” he says of the project, not quite sure when the government will give it the go-ahead.
The proposed City will increase Qatar’s strategic food reserves to a year from six months now, he adds as though trying to convince the government to give the project its nod soon.
This article originally appeared in the 1st May 2015 issue of bq magazine ( http://www.bqdoha.com/ ) and is reproduced here for the obvious reasons of its intrinsic interest as well as possibly widening the discussion of this interesting topic.