CREATING AN ECOSYSTEM

Oman 2020 | AGRICULTURE & FISHERIES | INTERVIEW

Beyond setting up successful projects, OFIC seeks to incubate new ideas and mentor SMEs to further boost the local agricultural sector.

Saleh Al Shanfari
BIOGRAPHY

Saleh Al Shanfari, in addition to being CEO of Oman Food Investment Company, is also Chairman of A'Namaa Poultry and EC Mazoon Dairy. He is also a member of the advisory committee of the College of Agriculture and Marine Sciences, the Omani Economic Society, the Food Security Committee of the Oman Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and the Omanization Committee within the Ministry of Labor. One of his main areas of focus is agro-investment. He received his education in agronomy from Iowa State University in the US.

What were your main highlights of 2019, and how were they important for OFIC's medium-term strategy?
2019 was a good year, as we successfully completed our first project, Mazoon Dairy. Today, we have other SKUs coming, such as yogurt and laban. Mazoon Dairy has also introduced renewable energy for the first time. The plant uses biogas as another source of green energy produced from animal waste, and the energy from the gas is used for heating and boiling. The wise use of natural resources is embedded in the entire process. OFIC works with international and national players to make sure the entire group adopts sustainable means in all its new initiatives and projects. In 2020, OFIC launched the first firm focusing on producing animal vaccines. It is also building a project to can tuna and sardines in 2020. OFIC will also focus on poultry sector and will most likely see the first product in the market in mid-2021. A number of other small projects will continue to support Oman's food needs and complete the food cycle.

How much product does Oman import compared to what is grown in the country?
We are definitely near to closing important gaps leading to import substitution. In dairy, we expect to be 90-100% self-sufficient in the next 10 years. We will be able to produce more milk in the country by first increasing our herd size and subsequently by improving the productivity of the cows, which is a matter of herd management. We have to do this in a natural, comfortable, and sustainable manner in a controlled environment in line with the best animal welfare practices.

Where else do you see technology being utilized in the agriculture and fisheries industry?
The applicability of technologies to agriculture is infinite. For example, the One Million Date Palm Project is now experimenting with drones to pollinate date palm trees and, in the future, harvest and even transport products to the relevant site or even storage. This technology can be scaled incredibly. Similarly, through an app, we can monitor our livestock. This will allow us to improve production, reduce waste, and control costs, enabling us to provide customers with an affordable end product.

How do you balance the potential to create opportunities for SMEs and the drive toward automation that does away with manual labor?
Whenever technology is applied, new jobs are created for white-collar, tech-savvy people, while downstream opportunities become available for SMEs. As such, to succeed, planning is essential. Mazoon dairy is a huge project that we will have to wait three years for until we see financial returns. The products will compete with imports, which may receive subsidies. Our competitive edge has to focus on the product design, with best practices in terms of finance and management. The need for venture capital is crucial for the growth of SMEs, though there should be new innovative models to attract that funding, whether in terms of productivity per square meter, recycling of materials such as water and soil, or implementing technological tools for monitoring and handling.

What should be the focus of R&D within the SME sector?
Looking at the full cycle, from conceptualization to commercialization, there is a gap in the area of incubation, which is why OFIC decided to launch a project called the Food Techno Park. The idea is to take ideas from their early conceptualization stage, work with SMEs, and lead them through the process of incubation and coaching before introducing them to the right technologies and allowing them to test different types of recipes. The relevant experts can mentor and coach them to reach the prototyping facilities around the ecosystem and then take it to the commercialization level. In the next few years, Oman will witness the birth of a huge ecosystem that will allow all stakeholders and those with new ideas in and outside Oman to come and innovate.