WATER WE DO

Oman 2017 | AGRICULTURE & FOODSTUFFS | REVIEW: AGRICULTURE & FOODSTUFFS

Tight water resources have not stopped Omani agriculture companies from innovating new techniques and taking advantage of resources—all in order to attain food security and greater self-sufficiency.

Oman's agriculture and fisheries sector reached a value of USD1.4 billion in 2015, signaling the stark growth of a long overlooked segment of the economy, but one that is positioned to provide security for the country. As oil prices drop, Oman looks to build the foundations for a self-sufficient nation, as well as potentially export its crops. Regardless, experts agree that food production in Oman should be increased, and the private sector is expected to be the main source of investment going forward. Public sector goals include developing value chains, enhancing food security, creating jobs, and improving the competitiveness of Omani products.

Geographically, Oman benefits from three distinct climate zones that can provide the right environment for a variety of crops. Meanwhile, the Sultanate is home to a thriving livestock population and a natural habitat for an array of producible fish. The total cultivated area of Oman rose to 20% in 2015, while 50 parcels of land were distributed to young Omani farmers as part of a pilot program for fostering more local production.
Technology has edged to the forefront in terms of establishing an agriculture sector that is sustainable and secure for many years to come. To that end, local producers, as well as international companies operating in Oman, have looked to form key partnerships that can offer knowledge transfer in addition to setting aside hefty funds for R&D. Much of the work toward building a more knowledge-based agriculture sector is sponsored by government initiatives.

FISHING FOR SUPPORT

Oil and gas products may take center stage when it comes to the Omani economy, but fishing has always played a significant role in local culture and business. Capitalizing on this vital resource, the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries is working on a fresh approach to the sector. It began with the opening of a new fishing port in Barka, which was finalized in 2015 at a cost of USD36 million. The facility, which is designed to accommodate not only fishing, but also tourism, was launched in 2015 to increase the value of fishing within the national economy. The basis for development in the sector is R&D, which the government authority believes is key to the success of the agriculture sector as a whole.

The total catch weighed in at 257,000 metric tons in 2015, representing an increase of 20% YoY. Meanwhile, the value of the segment rose to a value of USD447 million, with an estimated total value of approximately USD1.1 billion when the entire value chain is accounted for. However, the fisheries contribute to the national GDP in another way: the sector provides an increasing amount of jobs for Omani fisherman, with 2016 seeing the total number of registered fishermen rise to 46,000.

Putting its R&D capacity to the test, the government encourages the sector to use technology to maintain fish stocks; state-of-the-art systems are in place to prevent overfishing and to monitor activity. The Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries employs a team of researchers to report annually on the health of the fishing stock and where improvements should be made. Once the reports are received, the authority reassesses its policies and applies any necessary changes upon the recommendations of experts in the field.

With room for improvement, the ministry is aiming for a larger piece of the economic pie. “Our aim for growth over 2016 is 10%. In 2015, we saw 22% growth. We do not want to push the stocks to the extreme, but at the same time the government is keen to support the sector," HE Dr. Hamed Said Al-Oufi, Undersecretary of Fisheries Wealth at the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, told TBY “We want to keep our promise to the government that this sector will achieve the promised growth rate, which is 10-20%. We expect more production and a greater contribution to the economy in terms of employment, the GDP, and also in terms of food security." Indeed, the fishing industry is unique to Oman's food security in that it is the only food for which the Sultanate is completely self-sufficient already. Oman currently exports over 50% of its fish production.

For the future, the ministry is targeting to produce over 480,000 million tons of fish. At current rates of production and growth, the target appears to be well within reach, especially if innovative strategies are put into play. For example, one of the government's main research centers is currently carrying out experiments for new and efficient ways to breed and farm scallops, an undertaking that will surely help the country achieve its goals in the fishing sector..

ADVANCED TECHNIQUES

Although local weather conditions are not conducive to many crops, agriculture companies have sought creative solutions through the use of technology and innovation. Water & Life Agriculture operates one of the first and largest hydroponic farms in Oman. The company has taken on the challenge of improving greenhouse technology in the Sultanate, supplying heavy capital that could eventually make its hydroponic farm sustainable, even in the summer months. “There is scope and potential for diversified agriculture and horticulture in this country," Dereck Jakobi, General Manager of Water & Life Agriculture, told TBY “In horticulture, there is more scope for expanded vegetables and fruits, but also poultry, dairy, and floriculture in Oman. We may not make Oman self-sufficient, but we can certainly increase its food security." Water & Life Agriculture began as a bulk tomato producer, and as of 2016 the enterprise sells tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplants, peppers, and potted herbs in supermarkets across Oman. In 2H2016, the company diversified its crop portfolio substantially to include exotic varieties of eggplant and tomatoes. In order to proceed with new crop development, the company places a special focus on customer awareness, exposure, and education.
Although 100% of its produce is sold in Oman, the company has plans to begin exporting products in the long term. Water & Life Agriculture's short-term goals are to distribute hydroponic products at a number of additional major retail outlets, showcasing what can be achieved in Oman, and reducing the quantity of food that needs to be imported. Once local demand is satisfied, the company will begin export plans for its farms. Water & Life Agriculture's current production capacity is 3,000 tons, with production expected to go up to as much as 3,800 tons in 2017.

STRATEGIC MARKET

Oman, as a geographically and ethnically diverse nation, has also attracted agriculture-oriented companies from abroad that seek to capitalize on its potential as a distribution channel and sample market.
Brazil-based BRF, which operates in Oman as Sadia, has been using Oman as a base to develop its brand in the Middle East for over 25 years. “We are leveraging it as a base to better understand consumers and test new business models that can be scaled up for the rest of the region," Matheus Leao, Commercial Country Manager of BRF, told TBY “[Oman] was the last piece of the puzzle to complete our distribution network in the Middle East." By collaborating with the Omani authorities in group discussions and in developing long-term plans, BRF has played an instrumental role in setting the stage for future growth in the agriculture sector at large. BRF prides itself on being able to hire from a talented Omani labor force, which makes its business not only more sustainable, but also more local. “Our vision in Oman is to become a truly local company, managed and operated by locals who will coordinate our actions within the region," Leao continued. In recent years, BRF has invested more than USD250 million to consolidate its distribution network by acquiring long-term partners in the region. For decades, its products have been in markets such as Saudi Arabia, UAE, Kuwait, Qatar, and now Oman. In Oman, the company injected nearly USD64 million into the full acquisition of Al Khan Foodstuff in June 2016. Meanwhile, in 2014, BRF acquired an initial 40% of operations of Al Khan Foodstuff, with an option to acquire the remaining 60% within three years. By entering the market through a local partner, BRF has had the distinct advantage of holding on to local traditions while introducing new techniques and technology to the sector.

Looking ahead to 2017, BRF's main objective is to hire, promote, and train local Omanis, who the company perceives as the future leaders of the business, as well as the source of growth in the agriculture sector in Oman.

STORAGE

Currently, Oman imports about 60% of its food requirements, with a mandatory requirement for all products to carry details including country of origin, ingredients, origin of animal fat, production and expiry dates, name and address of the manufacturer, and special storage, transportation, and preparation instructions.
Much of what Oman imports and produces is stored in vast warehouses throughout the country. The Public Authority for Stores and Food Reserve has planned for not only Oman's current food storage capability, but also for the coming agricultural expansion being implemented in the nation. There are five warehouses in total, located according to population density in Muscat, Sohar, Nizwa, Salalah, and A'Sharqiya. Rice, wheat, lentils, and oils are some of the key products that are stored in warehouses, many of which are chilled facilities. With government support, Oman's private sector is looking to increase the capacity for more sensitive products, including wheat, milk, and tea. Sohar Port and Freezone will soon feature an entire new wing dedicated to the handling of agricultural bulk. This new addition is expected to support Oman's goal of building strategic food reserves.

Dereck Jakobi
DERECK JAKOBI
General Manager, Water & Life Agriculture
Ali Habaj
ALI HABAJ
CEO, Atyab Investments