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

INTERVIEW: Hummingbird Technologies and Saudi Arabia team up on food security
Illustration by Luis Grañena
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Updated 26 October 2020

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

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.


Gold edges lower as US Treasury yields rise

Gold edges lower as US Treasury yields rise
Updated 18 October 2021

Gold edges lower as US Treasury yields rise

Gold edges lower as US Treasury yields rise

BENGALURU: Gold edged lower on Monday as a rise in US Treasury yields dented its appeal, although a risk-off sentiment in wider financial markets limited losses for the metal.

Spot gold was down 0.1 percent at $1,765.14 per ounce by 1:35 p.m. EDT (1735 GMT), while US gold futures settled down 0.2 percent at $1,765.70.

“If yields keep rising, the headwinds will remain significant for gold,” OANDA analyst Craig Erlam said.

“Unless markets start to price in bad news for the economy and stock markets, which may be a rational next step if policymakers insist on tightening even as the recovery remains sluggish and downside risks significant.”

Sentiment in wider financial markets remained weak as economic growth in China slowed, while a relentless surge in oil prices fueled concerns about elevated inflation.

US benchmark 10-year Treasury yields climbed as investors ramped up rate hike bets, while the dollar index held steady.

While gold is seen as an inflation hedge, it also contends with the greenback for safe-haven status. Reduced central bank stimulus and the prospect of interest rate hikes push government bond yields up, weighing on non-yielding bullion.

Other precious metals also dipped, with silver down 0.3 percent at $23.21 per ounce and platinum slipping 1.8 percent to $1,035.29. Palladium shed 3.3 percent to $2,005.07, its lowest in over a week.


New York makes registration mandatory for crypto lending platforms

New York makes registration mandatory for crypto lending platforms
Updated 18 October 2021

New York makes registration mandatory for crypto lending platforms

New York makes registration mandatory for crypto lending platforms
  • State’s attorney general directs unregistered outlets to cease operations

RIYADH: New York has made it mandatory on cyrptocurrency lending platforms to register with the Office of the Attorney General if they wish to operate in the state or offer their products to New Yorkers.

New York Attorney General Letitia James on Monday said these steps are aimed to protect New York investors and markets from exploitation by high-risk virtual currency schemes.

The official also ordered the closure of two cryptocurrency lending platforms in New York and three other platforms were directed to provide information about their business.

“Cryptocurrency platforms must follow the law, just like everyone else,” James said.

The move comes weeks after the attorney general won a court order forcing the closure of cryptocurrency exchange Coinseed.

“My office is responsible for ensuring industry players do not take advantage of unsuspecting investors. We’ve already taken action against a number of crypto platforms and coins that engaged in fraud or that illegally operated in New York,” he said.


Saudi Venture Investment Co. launches initiative to support startups

Saudi Venture Investment Co. launches initiative to support startups
Updated 18 October 2021

Saudi Venture Investment Co. launches initiative to support startups

Saudi Venture Investment Co. launches initiative to support startups

RIYADH: The Saudi Venture Investment Co. has launched the “Investment in Accelerator Funds and Startup Studios" initiative, the Saudi Press Agency reported on Monday.
It is part of the company’s efforts to support startups in the Kingdom in the seed and pre-seed phases.
SVC has investments worth SR1.1 billion ($293.2 million) in 20 funds.
The company has supported around 116 startups since its establishment in 2018 till the end of the third quarter of 2021.
 


Saudi Arabia sees gasoline, diesel demand rise in 2021

Saudi Arabia sees gasoline, diesel demand rise in 2021
Updated 18 October 2021

Saudi Arabia sees gasoline, diesel demand rise in 2021

Saudi Arabia sees gasoline, diesel demand rise in 2021

RIYADH/CAIRO: Average motor and aviation gasoline demand in Saudi Arabia jumped to 470 thousand barrels per day (kbd) in 2021, compared to 455 kbd in 2020, data compiled by Arab News from Jodi revealed.
Calculations made for 2021 were up to August, the year’s latest data point so far.
The data reflects a recovery in gasoline demand as the effects of the pandemic start to taper off. However, the demand is still below the pre-pandemic levels. Average gasoline demand used to cross 500 kbd before 2020 in the Kingdom.
The data for 2021 is incomplete and a 12-month dataset might lead to a different conclusion.
Saudi motor and aviation gasoline demand reached 471 kbd in August, which was a marginal decline from the previous month's 473 kbd. In annual terms, 2021 recorded a 9kbd fall in demand as compared to last year's August, which stood at 480 kbd.
Similarly, the Kingdom’s average diesel demand slightly increased to 497 kbd in 2021, up from 492 kbd in 2020. Nevertheless, it is still below pre-2020 levels. In 2017-19, average diesel demand was above the 520 kbd mark.
Diesel is mainly used by trucks and hence could be roughly used as a gauge for the intensity of goods shipments across the country.
In August, the demand for diesel reached 532 kbd, which was moderately higher than the same month last year by 11 kbd. It was also noticeably greater than the previous month’s demand as it recorded a monthly increase of 41 kbd.


Bitcoin rises near 6-month high, as ETF launch date approaches: Market wrap

Bitcoin rises near 6-month high, as ETF launch date approaches: Market wrap
Updated 18 October 2021

Bitcoin rises near 6-month high, as ETF launch date approaches: Market wrap

Bitcoin rises near 6-month high, as ETF launch date approaches: Market wrap

RIYADH: ProShares is set to launch a Bitcoin futures exchange-traded fund on the New York Stock Exchange on Tuesday, in what would be a first for institutional investors in the US, New York Times reported.

The ETF will provide institutional investors and retail investors exposure to Bitcoin, who cannot legally or do not want direct exposure, through a brokerage account.

“When we have a Bitcoin ETF in the US, billions and billions of dollars will flow into Bitcoin that under no circumstances would have found their way into Bitcoin otherwise,” MicroStrategy CEO Michael Saylor said.

Stablecoins

Asset-backed stablecoins do not pose a systemic risk to the US financial system and should not face a new set of rules, a major cryptocurrency lobby group told US regulators on Monday, as tighter oversight of the fast-growing technology looms.

Stablecoins — digital tokens usually backed by reserves of dollars or assets from gold to other cryptocurrencies — have ballooned during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As a result, the President’s Working Group on Financial Markets — which comprises top US regulators including the Treasury and Federal Reserve — is focusing on them as part of wider efforts to rein in crypto.

The group is widely expected to publish in the coming months a report detailing the risks and opportunities of stablecoins.

Adoption

The Central Bank of Brazil released a report showing that Brazilians have bought more than $4 billion in cryptocurrency imports since the beginning of the year.

The report also shows that Brazilians have consistently earned more than $350 million in cryptocurrencies every month since January.

However, according to some analysts from the central bank, this number is likely to reach twice its value this year.

Brazilians investing in cryptocurrencies abroad are likely to triple the amount invested in American shares, according to Bruno Serra the director of monetary policy of the Central Bank of Brazil.

Crypto regulation

Nasdaq-listed crypto exchange, Coinbase has published its proposal for crypto regulation after more than 75 meetings with stakeholders in government, industry, and academia.

“Today we’re launching our Digital Asset Policy Proposal, which we hope will help chart a course for clear regulation of cryptocurrency and web 3.0 in the US. It’s critical to bring clarity to this space and ensure America remains a financial leader,” Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong tweeted.

ATMs

Popular BTM Operator, Bitcoin of America, recently announced their newest addition to their Bitcoin ATM machines.

Ethereum is available now for buy and sell at Bitcoin of America ATM locations due to its growing popularity,  it also offers Bitcoin and Litecoin options online and at their BTM locations.

Trading

Bitcoin, the leading cryptocurrency in trading internationally, traded higher on Monday, rising by 1.62 percent to $61,891 at 6 p.m. Riyadh time.

Ether traded at $3,769, down 1.94 percent, according to data from CoinDesk.