The MENA zone - Middle East and North Africa - is facing major development challenges. Indeed, political and economic instabilities contribute to increase the poverty rate in the area and, as a result, food insecurity. In the region, the demand for food is constantly increasing, mainly for two reasons : high population growth and an increase in the income of the middle class. Therefore, better utilization of agricultural resources, using new « AgriTech » technologies, but also favorable policies, could transform and stimulate the agricultural sector in MENA.
Agriculture in MENA, what forecasts for the coming years ?
A report entitled « Agriculture in Mena - Growth, Trends, Covid-19 impact and Forecasts (2021-2026) », published in 2021 by Modor Intelligence based on data collected for the year 2020, presents an analysis of the current situation of the agricultural sector in the region. This study is based on the following elements : production volume of agricultural consumption and trade in the sector, including imports and exports, as well as future trends in prices of crops such as cereals, fruits and vegetables. The study forecasts that the MENA agricultural market will grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 5.7 percent between 2021 and 2026.
The study highlights two main trends. The first is the region's quest for food self-sufficiency, which would be a « stimulus » for regional production. The MENA region is food insecure, due to extreme weather conditions (aridity, heat, drought) that make agricultural production difficult and natural resources scarce, as well as to the undernourishment of the population due to poverty. The second significant fact for the sector is the growing dependence on imports to fill the domestic gap. Several projects are being implemented to reverse this trend.
Based on the premise that increasing food production would, in part, lead to food security, some states in the region have taken steps, such as Qatar, which, in cooperation with shopping malls and large retail outlets, has developed the « National Product » initiative, promoting « Made in Qatar ». Qatari farmers grow fruits and vegetables in greenhouses and add the official « National Product » label, highlighting local products. Another example is Morocco, which, according to a report, « The State of Food Insecurity in the World » published by the FAO in 2020, « has made significant progress in reducing hunger », thanks to maximizing the production of large agricultural areas and aid to small farms : cereal production had thus « increased from 777,120 metric tons in 2016 to 3,008 metric tons in 2018 ».
The technology at the service of agriculture in the Middle East
According to the FAO, by 2050, « annual cereal production will have to increase to 3 billion tons, compared to 2.1 billion tons produced today ». In the Middle East, 28% of the region's total population of 296 million, 84 million people, depend exclusively on agriculture. While « agriculture accounts for only 13% of the region's GDP », the agricultural sector could thus play « a strategically important role in promoting resilient food systems, keeping critical economic sectors alive, and providing the basis for many economies ». But how to transform the agricultural sector by making it more efficient ? Since the 2010s, the region has relied on new agricultural technologies - AgriTech - to solve problems related to fertile agricultural soils and water shortages.
The Middle East is now renowned for the number of innovative start-ups that have emerged. Designed « to increase and improve the performance of the agricultural sector, while using less energy and more sustainable methods », these technologies rely on data analysis, the Internet of Things (IoT) and artificial intelligence (AI), among other things. Aware of the food emergency, the GCC countries, « at the forefront » of the « AgriTech movement », are investing heavily in public-private partnerships and collaborations. So far, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has made the largest investment, $100 million, as part of its « National Food Security Strategy ».
Through innovative and sustainable farming methods, AgriTech offers clear advantages such as « soil-less agriculture », which uses 90% less water than conventional fields. Called « vertical farms », these farms are being developed in high-rise buildings in cities, following the FAO's recommendations for « urban agriculture ». The first in the Gulf, « Badia Farms », is located in the UAE. Other initiatives, in Jordan, the start-up « Tulua » creates and manages aquaponic systems, a method « aimed at generating higher yields without waste » and the UAE is developing a revolutionary new technology : to make infertile land fertile via « non-intrusive soil reclamation based on liquid natural clay (LNC), a nanoclay that transforms unproductive desert land into fertile soil ».
Contact Rania Khedhir, Senior Consultant in charge of Agribusiness recruitments for Morgan Philips Executive Search, Africa & Middle-East.