Qatari firm seeks to bring welfare, profit sharing to agriculture ventures

The National | December 12. 2009

David Lepeska

Qatar has embarked on a food-security programme to make it more self-sufficient and help the communities around its farmland projects in developing countries.

Like most Gulf countries where water scarcity makes farming nearly impossible, Qatar imports about 90 per cent of its food.

“We will be self-sufficient in things that can be produced in Qatar,” said Mohammed al Hajri, the chairman of Hassad Food, which is the strategic agriculture investment arm of the Qatar Investment Authority.

“Things that cannot be produced in Qatar, like wheat, rice and sugar … we will go wherever it is suitable to invest to help guarantee supply.

“We will make contracts with good local operators with good financials,” said Mr al Hajri. “We will invest in those companies to develop and expand new markets.

“We plan to use our know-how, financing and management to help establish that market. This will benefit the local people.”

Hassad Food has signed a US$68 million (Dh249.7m) deal with A’Safaa poultry in Oman to build a chicken farm in Qatar. It is also working on a $500m agreement to grow wheat, rice and other crops on up to 100,000 hectares in Sudan.

A recent report by the Economist Intelligence Unit showed that GCC spending on food imports is forecast to more than double to $49 billion from $24bn by 2020.

The UAE has spent $100m for 400,000ha of farmland in Sudan, while Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah Initiative for Agricultural Investment Abroad aims to build farms mostly in Ethiopia and Sudan.

Qatar has bought more than 40,000ha of farmland in Sudan and a similar tract in the Philippines.

In May, the International Food Policy Research Institute estimated about $30bn had been spent globally on between 15 million and 20 million ha of land.

Opponents say it impinges on local farmers’ rights and undermines the host country’s food security.

Jacques Diouf, the director general of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), warned of an emerging neo-colonial approach.

The World Bank and FAO are expected to publish a code of conduct for buying overseas farmland this month, as guidelines are vague.

But Mr al Hajri said Hassad Food’s projects would invest in domestic agribusinesses rather than making closed-door deals with governments. Locals will share in the profits and produce, he said.

The firm has also formed partnerships with eight Qatari charities, including humanitarian, medical and livelihood groups, to improve the lives of the workers on their farms.

Mr al Hajri said Hassad planned to announce grain and livestock deals in Turkey and Australia soon.
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