How are MENA nations moving to bolster food security?

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– Russia's invasion of Ukraine has intensified the risk of regional food insecurity

– Many MENA countries source a significant share of cereal imports from the region

– In the GCC, government initiatives are seeking to bolster food self-sufficiency

– North African agri-tech start-ups work to boost productivity 

Nations in the MENA region have been intensifying efforts to increase their food security, with Russia's invasion of Ukraine the most recent geopolitical event to underline the fragility of global supply chains, as well as the importance of agricultural self-sufficiency.

Together, Russia and Ukraine account for around 29% of the world's wheat supply, pointing to the significant risk – in terms of both availability and price – to major grain-importing countries as a result of the escalating conflict.

Egypt is the world’s largest wheat importer, with nearly 70% of its supply coming from Russia and Ukraine, according to 2019 figures from MIT's Observatory of Economic Complexity. The UAE, for its part, sources around half of its wheat from Russia, while Saudi Arabia is the world’s biggest importer of barley, which it uses as animal feedstock, with most of its supplies coming from Russia and Ukraine.

Food security in the GCC

As OBG details in a forthcoming report on agri-tech and food security in the GCC, at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic countries in the bloc imported around 85% of their food. Almost all rice consumed in the region was imported, as well as some 93% of cereals, approximately 62% of meat and 56% of vegetables.

Supply chain disruption triggered by the pandemic had an immediate impact in the region, spurring GCC countries to step up existing programmes to boost food security.

One such example is Saudi Arabia’s Sustainable Agricultural Rural Development Programme 2018-25. Another is Qatar’s ambitious State Food Security Projects 2019-23 plan, which aims to make the country 30% self-sufficient in red meat, 70% self-sufficient in eggs and greenhouse-produced vegetables, 95% self-sufficient in fresh fish, and 100% self-sufficient in fresh dairy products, poultry and shrimp by 2023.

The pandemic also encouraged governments in the region to increase their emphasis on innovation, which is seen as crucial to boosting productivity and improving water management.

Between 2014 and 2020 a total of 33 investment deals in agri-tech start-ups in the wider MENA region attracted some $250m in investment. However, a large portion of this was raised in 2020 in response to the pandemic.

An increasingly prominent agri-tech solution is vertical farming, whereby plants are grown in stacked layers. The UAE in particular is investing heavily in greenhouse vegetable production, and there is considerable potential to scale up vertical greenhouse designs.

In parallel to such efforts, there has been a greater emphasis on regional cooperation when it comes to food security.

Early on in the pandemic, the GCC adopted a Kuwaiti proposal to create a joint food supply network across the bloc.

Triggered by concerns about Covid-19-related disruption to trade, the countries agreed to set up special arrangements at border control and Customs posts, in order to facilitate the movement of basic food and medical supplies within the six-member alliance.

Going forwards, more streamlined regional cooperation could help countries share the burden of guaranteeing food security.

Food security in North Africa

In North Africa, as in the GCC, it is widely recognised that the most sustainable, long-term solution to food security challenges is a shift towards agri-tech, improved water management and green energy. A series of ongoing initiatives in the region are making headway in this regard.

While the short-term picture may be challenging, if such initiatives are consolidated and expanded going forwards, mid- to long-term prospects are more positive.

Egypt offers several examples of such initiatives. Despite being the region’s agricultural powerhouse, Egypt's agriculture sector meets less than half of domestic demand for cereal grains and oilseeds, according to the Middle East Institute, a US-based think tank.

Alongside various government initiatives, a number of Egyptian start-ups are working to address this shortfall.

Wastilizer, for example, breaks down animal waste to produce water, biogas and plant fertilisers. The process enhances the quality of crops, promotes the development of a circular economy – and, because animal waste is reused rather than dumped in rivers, improves water quality.

Elsewhere in the space, the start-up Agrimatic was founded in 2014 and is dedicated to developing soil-less agriculture solutions, while Mozare3 provides an app that connects farmers to institutional buyers, having raised $1.1m in a pre-seed funding round last year.

Likewise, in Morocco, agri-tech is a priority for both the government and private sector.

In 2020 the government launched its Green Generation 2020-30 plan which, among other objectives, aims to increase digitalisation and introduce new technologies.

A leading start-up in the country is AgriEdge, which was set up in 2017 by OCP – a multinational fertiliser company – and incubated at the Mohammed VI Polytechnic University.

The technologies AgriEdge is deploying in Morocco and beyond include precision irrigation, which involves the deployment of satellite images and sensors to manage water use, and can reduce the amount of water used in a given area by 25%.

Similarly, a Tunisian start-up called Ezzarya installs sensors in irrigation pipes and the soil itself, helping farmers to regulate soil salinity and reduce water use.

While the Tunisian agri-tech space is in its early stages, various initiatives are under way to nurture it.

For instance, the Tunisian Agri-Tech Week conference was held in Dakar, Senegal, from March 13 to 17, with a view to building cooperation on food self-sufficiency between the agri-tech sectors of the two countries.

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