How does Astra Grain fit within the broader Astra Group?
MAZEN DAQQA Astra has three main sectors: food, industrial, and services. Within Astra Foods there is Astra Farms, Astra Supermarkets, and Astra Grain. Astra Foods has a huge plot of land in Tabuk, and over the years, it has become one of the biggest in the world for quail production, and one of the biggest in the Middle East for flowers. We export these products worldwide. We also have a small factory where we produce homemade cheese, honey, jam, and dairy products. Equally important, we are in charge of processing the feed for our chicken and quail farms. Astra Grain buys its products directly from farmers across the world and sells them on a wholesale basis within Saudi Arabia. We also have the distribution for Fonterra, which is one of the biggest dairy firms in the world.
Saudi Greenhouses is part of the Desert Growing collaborative. What special expertise do you bring?
MOHAMED ABDULLAH AL-RASHEED Saudi Greenhouses has been in business for 30 years. We started our first greenhouse, measuring 8ha, in 1983 and have developed our expertise in Saudi Arabia ever since. We know the climate and needs of the greenhouse business. Around five years ago, we decided to develop the business in a professional way to solve the challenges faced by the country, and started the Desert Growing consortium. We work with Prins Group for the construction, Stolze for the installation of the greenhouses, and Hoogendoorn for climate control. Later, we included Rijk Zwaan for the seeds. The idea is to bring all these companies together and work as a team to develop the business together. We have a goal to develop a training center in Saudi Arabia that will teach Saudis how to grow the best quality vegetables in greenhouses.
Where do you import most of your products from?
MD We get our products from all over the world. Whenever I visit a country that I do not know much about, I visit the traditional market to search for local specialties. For example, I recently visited Vietnam, took some photos of the market, and asked contacts to find these items for me. Several months later, we started importing dried fruits from Vietnam. These are beautiful items but Southeast Asian countries and a number of Eastern European nations do not always know how to market them. China dominates the market and India is strongest in trading because it is the biggest and always affects market prices.
How has the horticulture industry advanced in Saudi Arabia, and what challenges does it face?
MAR The greenhouse business in Saudi Arabia has developed significantly as a result of cooperation with Denmark, though the business was introduced by Dutch companies in the 1980s. We have sunlight and labor, but there is a lack of expertise. However, we are developing and training people in a bid to catch up with other markets. As per Vision 2030, we are working to reduce the import reliance. For example, we are 100% self-sufficient in terms of cucumbers, potatoes, onions, and melons, and we import 40% of our tomatoes. As for investors, the sector remains a high-cost business, and there are not that many investors. That being said, the opportunity is there, even though there are many challenges.
How would you evaluate 2017 for the food sector?
MD 2017 was not the easiest year for the Saudi economy. However, the food sector has largely been spared from some of these difficulties. Our business is basic and it will not run out of business because it is a traditional business. Times of slow economic growth are also opportunities to become more efficient. For example, we like to take over companies and revive them. Recently we took over Arabian Roastery, which had 32 branches but was facing financial difficulties. Today it provides great added value to our business activities and is performing well for us.
What is the regional potential of your operations? How have you moved to expand?
MAAR We started the greenhouse project in Abu Dhabi six years ago, and we are eyeing more projects in the UAE. With our knowledge of the climate and growing conditions, our expertise can be of use throughout the region. We participate in many horticultural and agricultural fairs in the GCC, and there are opportunities ahead. We see international expansion opportunities in desert regions.