Using smart technology to cultivate fresh greens

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

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.

China’s exports tumble in May as global demand falters 

China’s exports tumble in May as global demand falters 
Updated 23 sec ago

China’s exports tumble in May as global demand falters 

China’s exports tumble in May as global demand falters 

BEIJING: China’s exports shrank much faster than expected in May while imports extended declines with a grim outlook for global demand, especially from developed markets, raising doubts about the fragile economic recovery. 

The world’s second-largest economy grew faster than expected in the first quarter thanks to robust services consumption and a backlog of orders following years of COVID disruptions, but factory output has slowed as rising interest rates and inflation squeeze demand in the US and Europe. 

Exports slumped 7.5 percent year-on-year in May, data from China’s Customs Bureau showed on Wednesday, much larger than the forecast 0.4 percent fall and the biggest decline since January. Imports contracted 4.5 percent, slower than an expected 8.0 percent decline and April’s 7.9 percent fall. 
“The weak exports confirm that China needs to rely on domestic demand as the global economy slows,” said Zhiwei Zhang, chief economist at Pinpoint Asset Management. “There is more pressure for the government to boost domestic consumption in the rest of the year, as global demand will likely weaken further in the second half.” 

Highlighting the extent of the weakness, the data shows trade was worse even than when the port of Shanghai, China’s busiest, was shut down due to strict COVID curbs a year earlier. 

The figures also add to a growing list of indicators that suggest China’s post-COVID economic recovery is quickly losing steam, bolstering the case for more policy stimulus. 

Demand Squeeze  

Asian stocks fell into the red after the data as did the yuan and the Australian dollar, a commodity currency that is highly sensitive to swings in Chinese demand. 

China’s post-pandemic stock rally has faded as small-time investors turn bearish on equities and double down instead on safer assets amid a stuttering economic recovery. 

The economy has been hit by a double whammy of faltering demand at home and abroad with the ripple effects felt across the region. 

South Korean data last week showed shipments to China slid 20.8 percent in May, marking a full year of monthly declines, with Korean semiconductor exports dropping 36.2 percent, suggesting weak demand for components for final manufacture. Chinese imports of semiconductors fell 15.3 percent, as the market for the consumer electronics exports that include such parts softened. 

Demand for raw materials broadly weakened with coal imports pulling back from the 15-month high hit in March, amid soft appetite from the power and steel sectors. Copper imports slid 4.6 percent in May from a year ago. 

China’s official purchasing managers’ index released last week showed factory activity shrank faster than expected in May. 

The PMI’s subindexes also showed factory output swung to contraction from expansion while new orders, including new exports, fell for a second month. 

While economic growth beat expectations in the first quarter, analysts are now downgrading their forecasts for the rest of the year, as factory output slows. 

The government has set a modest gross domestic product growth target of around 5 percent for this year, after badly missing the 2022 goal. 

“Looking forward, we think exports will fall further before bottoming out later this year,” said Julian Evans-Pritchard, head of China economics at Capital Economics. 

“Although interest rates outside of China are near a peak, the lagged impact from the sharp rate hikes is set to weaken activity in developed economies later this year, triggering mild recessions in most cases.”  

World Bank offers dim outlook for the global economy in face of higher interest rates

World Bank offers dim outlook for the global economy in face of higher interest rates
Updated 28 sec ago

World Bank offers dim outlook for the global economy in face of higher interest rates

World Bank offers dim outlook for the global economy in face of higher interest rates

WASHINGTON: The global economy is likely slowing sharply this year, hobbled by high interest rates, the repercussions of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the lingering effects of the coronavirus pandemic.
That’s the latest outlook of the World Bank, a 189-country anti-poverty agency, which estimates that the international economy will expand just 2.1 percent in 2023 after growing 3.1 percent in 2022.
Speaking to reporters Tuesday, Indermit Gill, the World Bank’s chief economist, called the latest findings “another gloomy report.” The bank, he said, expects “last year’s sharp and synchronized slowdown to continue to this year into a sharp slowdown.”
“By the end of next year, a third of the developing world will not meet the per-capita income level that they had at the end of 2019,” he said.
Still, the bank’s latest Global Economic Prospects report marks an upgrade from its previous forecast in January. That estimate had envisioned worldwide growth of just 1.7 percent this year.
The Federal Reserve and other major central banks have been aggressively raising interest rates to combat a resurgence of inflation, set off by a stronger-than-expected rebound from the pandemic recession, persistent supply shortages and energy and food price shocks caused by the Ukraine war.
But the global economy has proved surprisingly resilient in the face of higher borrowing costs, and the World Bank predicts that growth will accelerate to 2.4 percent in 2024.
The United States has continued to generate unexpectedly robust job gains — employers added 339,000 workers in May, far more than economists had forecast — even though the Fed has raised its benchmark rate 10 times in the past 15 months. In its report Tuesday, the World Bank upgraded its forecast for US economic growth this year to 1.1 percent. Though weak, that is more than double the growth the World Bank had envisioned in January.
The eurozone, which represents the 20 countries that share the euro currency, is expected to post collective growth of 0.4 percent this year. That, too, marks a slight upgrade: In January, the World Bank had expected no growth at all for the eurozone this year. Europe, struggling with higher energy prices caused by the Ukraine war, enjoyed relief from a surprisingly warm winter, which reduced demand for heat.
The World Bank upgraded its 2023 outlook for China after Beijing late last year relaxed its draconian zero-COVID policies, which had restricted travel and hammered its economy. The world’s second-biggest economy is now expected to grow 5.6 percent in 2023, up from 3 percent last year. The World Bank envisions Japan’s growth decelerating to 0.8 percent this year from 1 percent in 2022. It foresees India’s growth slowing to a still-strong 6.3 percent from 7.2 percent last year.
The bank predicts that global trade will slow markedly this year. It foresees a sharp drop in the price of energy and other commodities this year and next.

Kuwait’s non-oil sector to grow 3.8% in 2023: IMF  

Kuwait’s non-oil sector to grow 3.8% in 2023: IMF  
Updated 06 June 2023

Kuwait’s non-oil sector to grow 3.8% in 2023: IMF  

Kuwait’s non-oil sector to grow 3.8% in 2023: IMF  

RIYADH: Kuwait’s non-oil growth is projected to increase to about 3.8 percent in 2023 on account of a robust expatriate community, the International Monetary Fund has forecast.   

While overall growth is anticipated to drop to 0.1 percent this year, the non-oil economy will be strengthened on the back of the financial stimulus and partial recovery in the employment of expatriates, according to the IMF’s latest analysis of Kuwait.

The county’s advancement will occur despite the slow growth of real credit, said the report, adding: “Benefiting from high oil production and prices, Kuwait’s economic recovery continues.” 

The report noted that Kuwait showed adequate recovery from the effects of the pandemic, and inflation has been controlled given the limited spillover from higher global food and energy prices. 

This resulted from managed prices and subsidies, as well as the general tightening of monetary policy in line with major central banks.  

Kuwait’s fiscal balance has developed since its overall fiscal surplus is expected to have increased by 22.5 percent of the gross domestic product in 2022, up from 6.4 percent in 2021.   

As for the country’s external balance, the current account surplus is estimated to have increased to 33 percent of the GDP last year, up from 26.6 percent in 2021.   

Additionally, the country’s financial stability has been preserved as its banking sector sustains an efficient level of capital and liquidity.  

Economic threats  

The instability of oil prices and production brought on by external factors pose risks to Kuwait’s external balance, public finances, growth and inflation, according to the report.   

Kuwait’s economy could also be at risk of the slowdown in global growth due to further tightening of monetary policy or pressures in the banking sectors of major advanced economies.   

The report also noted that the country is susceptible to the delay in implementing the necessary financial and structural reforms, which could lead to the continuation of the current public fiscal policy.   

In turn, this might damage investor trust, while limiting progress towards diversifying economic activity and boosting its competitiveness.  

“The dominance of oil in the economy, coupled with global decarbonization trends, necessitates fiscal reforms to reinforce sustainability, and structural reforms to boost non-oil private sector-led growth,” said the report, adding: “Political gridlock between the government and parliament has hindered reform progress, which could be made now from a position of strength.”

Dammam hosts important fish and algae conference and exhibition

Dammam hosts important fish and algae conference and exhibition
Updated 06 June 2023

Dammam hosts important fish and algae conference and exhibition

Dammam hosts important fish and algae conference and exhibition

DAMMAM: More than 100 companies from 35 countries descended on the Dhahran Expo for an under-the-sea experience during the International Conference and Exhibition of Algae from June 4-6.

The event, organized in conjunction with the International Fisheries Exhibition — known as SIMEC — played host to 16 workshops in a dedicated interactive space where seafood was offered to visitors, videos were on display, and experts were on hand to discuss everything related to algae and fish.

The exhibition was held under the patronage of the Eastern Province Gov. Prince Saud bin Nayef bin Abdul Aziz, the Ministry of Environment Water and Agriculture, and the National Livestock and Fisheries Development Program.

Abdul Majeed bin Saad Alshehri, chairman of the conference and SIMEC, said: “In this major global event, we proudly bring together global expertise and international expertise that will further advance food processing industries, develop human capacities, localize cutting-edge algae, and aquaculture technologies … I am fully confident that (IACE will) come up with tangible and actionable recommendations that will transform the algae and fisheries industries.”

The hybrid modality conference was presented in both English and Arabic — with headsets providing simultaneous translations for those requiring it. 

The aim of the three-day gathering was to target businesses from the algae sector as well as to increase awareness regarding the potential for algae cultivation. 

Another goal was to attract investors, inform government representatives of updates in the sector and engage stakeholders from the algae and aquaculture production chain. 

It was also a chance for the global community to exchange information and form potential collaborations among academic researchers working on algae biotechnology.

The main conference sponsor, NEOM, had several interactive spaces within the exhibition and hosted several workshops.

There were other forums led by experts from around the world, including local Saudi universities and companies. 

The Dhahran Expo space was also divided into booths with informative experts passing out brochures and samples of fresh seafood.

One such exhibitor was Julien Ropert, export manager from Le Gouessant in France. 

He traveled to Saudi Arabia for the first time in order to participate at the exhibition and to speak on a panel. 

With over 30 years of experience in fish feed manufacturing, Le Gouessant brought its expertise in sustainable fish farming nutrition to the space. 

Having worked for Le Gouessant since 2016, Ropert is the technical sales manager aquaculture based in France but in charge of Africa and the US. 

Saudi Arabia is a new target as they hope to expand into the Middle East.

“I came to this exhibition to see the Saudi people because I saw videos on the internet on many occasions and it’s a huge country with huge capacity and the government is increasing the sector of the efficiency of fish farming,” he told Arab News.

His hope is that he will be able to secure some partnerships within Saudi Arabia in the imminent future in relation to fish farming.

Saleh Bukhamseen, the award-winning underwater cinematographer whose short film “The Whaler” won the Science Award at the 2022 Nice International Film Festival, spoke to Arab News about the importance of algae in the region. 

“We are here at the exhibition to show the people how important algae is and and how it’s important for the whole ecosystem,” Bukhamseen told Arab News.

He emphasized how everything within nature is connected. The green turtle is a vital creature in the controlling of algae since it serves like a mini-cleaner in the water. 

The turtle nibbles on the algae to prevent it from taking over and completely covering and blooming over the coral reef — which is home to a huge population of fish. Coral reefs provide around 25 percent of the fish consumed from the whole ocean and sea. Algae serves as an important source of food for those sea turtles.

The exhibition held in Dammam was significant because the nearby waters produce larger fish meant to be eaten. In the Red Sea, on the opposite coast, those fish are more colorful but are “tiny” and thus not suitable for mass consumption. 

The waters in Dammam are more rocky and shallow and as a result, allow for sea creatures to thrive. The Red Sea is deeper and better for diving.

The next SIMEC AquaFish exhibition will be held at the Riyadh International Convention and Exhibition Center in early 2024.

NEOM secures $5.6bn to develop 1st phase of residential communities for workforce

NEOM secures $5.6bn to develop 1st phase of residential communities for workforce
Updated 06 June 2023

NEOM secures $5.6bn to develop 1st phase of residential communities for workforce

NEOM secures $5.6bn to develop 1st phase of residential communities for workforce

RIYADH: Developmental work is fast gaining pace at Saudi Arabia’s futuristic city NEOM as the giga-project finalized contracts worth SR21 billion ($5.6 billion) to build the first phase of residential communities for the workforce.

In one of the world’s largest public-private partnership deals for social infrastructure, NEOM signed up some of the leading Saudi developers to build 10 communities across the smart city that will accommodate an additional 95,000 occupants upon completion of the first phase. 

According to a press release, the preferred bidders who will invest in developing this first-phase residential project include Alfanar Global Development, Almutlaq Real Estate Investment Co., Nesma Holding Co. and Tamasuk Holding Co.

Tamasuk Holding Co. will be investing in the project through two separate partners — Al Majal Al Arabi Group  Co. and the Saudi Arabian Trade and Construction Co.

The deal goes well with the $500 billion project’s plan for more private sector participation in developing the city’s infrastructure.

“NEOM has selected some of the leading companies in Saudi Arabia as partners in delivering and operating temporary communities with world-leading services and infrastructure,” said Nadhmi Al-Nasr, CEO of NEOM. 

He added: “The newly formed partnerships mark an important milestone for the region and are a testament to the capabilities of our team and partners who rapidly achieved financial close on a record amount.” 

The project owner revealed that the temporary residential projects, used by the workforce during the construction period of NEOM, will be built sustainably, using relocatable modular units which can be repurposed once the communities are no longer needed. 

These residential communities will also include a wide range of lifestyle facilities, including swimming pools, entertainment venues, multi-purpose sports fields, cricket ovals and outdoor courts for other sports.

“We are elated to partner with NEOM on this multi-nodal infrastructure project and to contribute to NEOM’s vision of disrupting the conventional approach to urban living. This is in line with our commitment to deliver high-quality solutions in a sustainable manner,” said Sabah Al-Mutlaq, vice chairman of Alfanar Global Development.

NEOM said the second phase of the temporary residential project is expected to be issued to the market in the coming months as it is reviewing interest from investors with plans to shortlist pre-qualified participants from now.

Mohammed Al-Balwi, chairman of Tamasuk, said: “We are immensely proud to be NEOM’s infrastructure partners. Together with Almajal and SATCO, we are committed to delivering the infrastructure that will facilitate the wider and rapid development of NEOM.”

The giga-project is being developed to attract additional investors for its commercial assets. With the signing of the multibillion-riyal investment, NEOM looks to achieve the project’s goal of having a direct economic impact on the region through developing local competency and creating jobs while advancing the use of sustainable solutions in construction.