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Interviewing Fabio Domenico Vescovi – Agronomist and Earth Observation Specialist

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Fabio Domenico Vescovi is an Agronomist & Earth Observation Specialist. He is currently Senior Data Scientist & Technical Lead at Cropin. Fabio develops applications of satellite technologies in tropical countries for the insurance sector (drought and floods). He studies crop biophysical parameters to inform an index-based insurance system and develops AI algorithms based on DataCube and Machine Learning. Fabio has had an international career spanning Germany (Bonn University), Italy (OHB) and UK (Airbus). He has also been deeply involved in various African countries, working with different stakeholders to enable easier data-based access to micro-credit and micro-insurance for farmers. Fabio has a PhD in remote sensing applications in agriculture.

You are using satellite data to track droughts and floods to grow crops more efficiently. Which other companies are doing this globally?

At Cropin we use satellite data along with other types of data such as weather data, soil information, agro-climatic conditions, seed genetics, global crop sowing and harvesting patterns, agronomics etc. to create AI models that bring predictive intelligence to agriculture and make it more efficient, productive, and sustainable.

There are a host of organisations in this sector offering services which target this challenging area. We believe that the challenges faced by this sector are many and complex and not one player can solve them all and thus a thriving global agritech ecosystem is a great enabler to truly accelerate progress of the agriculture ecosystem. The industry itself is at an evolving phase and technology adoption in the global agriculture arena is still a long way to go. Arable land across the planet is estimated to be 1.4 billion hectares and in terms of being able to digitize and impact the planet’s agri-value chain, the agritech sector is still miles away, but we sure are headed in the right direction.

Why are you passionate about the agriculture sector? What has inspired you to be a part of this field?

My family and ancestors were all Italian farmers and despite growing up in an urban environment I always had a passion for environmental sciences, agriculture and the socio-cultural connections between our environment, our people and myself.

Tech-enabled services for farmers can be unaffordable for many farmers in a country like India. Do you think India can implement them at a mass scale?

We are very aware that farmers will face challenges to afford high-end digital and predictive intelligence solutions which brings a meaningful difference to their lives. This is the reason Cropin works via a B2B and B2G business model. We work with large food processing companies, food retailers, seed and agri-input manufacturers, agri-lenders and insurers, governments and development agencies who in turn work with huge numbers of farmers and large areas of farmlands. So, the cost of the technology is borne by our customers and the benefits of higher efficiency, improved yields, lower inputs costs and better sustainable operations benefit all the stakeholders including the farmer. Another important benefit of our B2B and B2G approach is that it also helps us create impact at scale in global agriculture vis-à-vis working directly with individual farmers.

What is Carbon farming? Which countries is it being implemented in?

Carbon farming is a new term but an old practice. I think that people practiced Carbon farming since the time agriculture was invented. One of the simplest examples of Carbon farming is the circulation of organic matter in the form of manure from the stall to the soil. In turn the soil provides food to the animals in the stall. There were many similar Carbon cycles and sub-cycles across people and cultures, where organic matter was recirculated and eventually regenerated.

Nowadays this circularity in Carbon has been slowly destroyed by a mixture of industrial and commercial processes, which though very productive, are not sustainable for the environment.  Just to give you a negative example, Europe is a strong importer of soya, sunflower, and cereals from Brazil, which is now clearing their forests and depleting their soil organic matter to farm these products. However, there is no process in place to return that Carbon from Europe to Brazil to the soil from where it was taken. Only money is returning. We were able to put in place a system which is perfect economically but unsustainable ecologically. Like in a bank, what the soil gives us is a loan, not a donation.

How can AI be used for sustainable agriculture?

Digitization and AI can be leveraged at scale to increase efficiency, productivity, and sustainability in farming. To leverage AI for farming, Cropin undertakes the complex process of ‘agri asset computation’ which brings together satellite imagery, historical and forecasted weather data, soil information, agro-climatic conditions, seed genetics, global crop sowing and harvesting patterns, agronomics, and other farming insights all under one umbrella to build knowledge graphs for hundreds of crops and crop varieties across the globe. This data is then used to build AI models for any farm plot, region, country, or crop in the shortest possible time. This provides insights and recommendations on various aspects of farming operations – from selecting the right crops and seeds, the right time for sowing and harvesting, the optimal use of water resources and adoption of the right farming practices etc. All this enables much more sustainable farming.

At Cropin, we have already computed 0.2 billion acres of farmland in 12 countries, and we have an ambitious target to compute and build predictive intelligence “on-tap” for 1/3rd of the planet’s cultivable lands by 2025. By doing this, we are helping solve planet scale challenges such as food security, environmental sustainability and better livelihoods for farmers.

How can farmers be empowered globally?

Farmers are supposed to be the most empowered category in the world, they should dominate even kings, like for example in the American and French revolutions. But the world has become oblivious to this. People forget about farming and the role of farmers, especially the small holder ones. Nowadays if you ask a European child: “Where does this milk come from?”, the answer you may get is: “Well, from the fridge!”. So, milk is perceived as an industrial product and this is ironically not wrong, because the number of industrial processes occurring on every drop of milk from milking to drinking is overwhelming. So, behind a common farm or diary product, we do not see a natural environment anymore but rather a complex system of industrial procedures.

Farmers can be taken onboard of the political arena only if they speak the language of marketing, behave like industrial entrepreneurs, have the knowledge of engineers, act like politicians and talk like salesmen! How can we figure out the farmers role in a complex society which forgotten the importance of farming?

Even in climate change, the only ones empowered to make a significant change on millions of hectares are the small holder farmers. They can play a key role in agro-forestry and Carbon sequestration, much more than any other industrial process. But they are not aware of the processes and of their potentials, and neither is society. We need an educational process involving both agricultural and industrial sectors to raise awareness on their potential.

Finally, a personal question – Is doing a PhD and life as a researcher fulfilling?

It is, but I must accept that the academic context of a PhD and the lifestyle of a researcher moving across various countries to attend congresses are so different than the cultural context and environmental conditions of a farm. I can’t simply mix the lifestyle of a farmer and that of a researcher. Anyway, whenever I try to do so or I spend some few days in a family-run farm in an African context (e.g. currently I am writing from a small holder farm in Mwingi, a rural area in central Kenya, not even completely electrified) then I get the best results of my research and I grow in the knowledge of how the farming world really is, when we speak about farming, even Carbon faming. My lovely farmers and I dream to raise our common voice and bring awareness on the real role which farming and research can play together: my PhD is not a barrier, it is the way to open my mind to their culture and learn more.

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A Labour Government Should not Frighten the Horses

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The UK general election is likely to mean changes, but Gulf citizens need not be too worried.

By James Drummond

If the tension was killing you, now you know. If it wasn’t, then be aware that a general election in the United Kingdom will be held on July 4 – less than six weeks away.

For the hapless Rishi Sunak, it looks like a case of “If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well it were done quickly.” Polls indicate that after 14 years of conservatism, real or imagined, voters are likely to elect a new Labour government.

What does this mean for us here in the Gulf?

The six Gulf states are certainly exposed to Britain. The extent of GCC holdings in the UK is enormous, ranging from Qatari ownership of the Shard building in London, stakes in the Sainsburys supermarket chain and Barclays bank, to Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid’s Godolphin stables in Suffolk.

Manchester City and Newcastle United football clubs are owned by Emirati and Saudi interests, respectively. Kuwait’s wealth is managed by the Kuwait Investment Office near St Pauls Cathedral.

Labour has been careful to detail very few policies (or hostages to fortune, as its strategists may see it), but last week, David Lammy, the likely new foreign secretary, outlined a further campaign against dirty money.

Britain is a “corruption services centre”, while London is a “hotbed of kleptocracy”, Mr Lammy said. He said that he wanted to reward whistleblowers and clamp down on “enablers” of financial crime.

Given the paucity of public announcements, Lammy’s speech is significant, because it implies that the incoming government is likely to act. Fighting financial crime is relatively uncontroversial and attracts cross-party support – although in the UK’s case with limited success.

British politicians have made similarly grandiose statements before. But after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, London has moved particularly against Russian dirty money, and sanctioned individuals. It finally introduced an obligation mandating the disclosure of beneficial owners of property.

Overseas trusts are also now required to disclose their ultimate beneficial owners, and there is now greater transparency when registering entities at Companies House.

This seems to have had only limited effect, however. Last week Andrew Mitchell, the deputy foreign secretary, cited estimates that 40 percent of the world’s dirty money still passes through London.

Spotlight on Corruption, a non-governmental organisation, wrote in October last year that “major reform is needed to how lawyers and accountants, the property sector and company formation agents are regulated for money laundering.” Lammy may choose to take further action against these and other professionals.

Other so-called enablers include retired politicians, some of them in the House of Lords, who work as advisors to unsavoury actors. Labour could move to tighten disclosure, although several of its senior former members are likely to lobby against further transparency.

It is also possible that Labour will go further in taxing expatriates. In its limited public commitments, the party has promised to clamp down on “tax dodgers”.

Those with property in the UK already pay tax on rental income they receive, and worldwide assets are subject to Britain’s inheritance tax. Some Gulf Arab families with UK property have been caught by inheritance tax.

A government led by Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, could go further, as the US does, in taxing worldwide income of its citizens, more than 200,000 of whom live in the UAE alone. The argument is that if you have the privilege of carrying the passport, you have an obligation to pay tax.

Another question surrounds nationalisation. Labour is committed to re-nationalising the railways for one, although the infrastructure is already under central government control.

But another target may – may – be England’s water supply network, which was privatised in 1989. Shareholders in various of the rump companies include the Qatar Investment Authority and Adia of the UAE.

The water companies have been the subject of a vociferous campaign, for allegedly paying their shareholders high dividends while neglecting maintenance and investment. It is possible that an incoming Labour government will nationalise the industry.

All that said, the primacy of the rule of law and respect for property rights remain strong in Britain.

Barratt, a mass housebuilder, reported earlier this week that London remains the top choice among world cities for UAE investors looking to buy overseas. The holdings of Gulf states and rights of Gulf citizens in the UK remain secure, even with a Labour government.

James Drummond is Editor-in-Chief of the AGBi

Courtesy: The AGBI.Com


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Kuwait’s Political Crisis Adds to Economic Uncertainty

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Kuwait’s latest standoff is deeply concerning for both the near and long term, writes Andrew Cunningham

The decision by Kuwaiti emir Sheikh Mishal Al-Ahmad to dissolve the country’s recently elected parliament just days before its inaugural session on May 14 presents overseas investors and Kuwaiti citizens with more uncertainty.

The situation raises concerns about the country’s economic prospects over both the short and long term.

Disputes and stand-offs between Kuwait’s emirs and its boisterous parliament are nothing new. Parliament has been dissolved, and the constitution suspended, numerous times over the past 40 years. The country has held four elections in the past four years.

Squabbling between the two sides is rooted in political disagreements and this most recent outbreak is no different.

A major factor behind the latest dissolution is believed to have been parliament’s objection to Sheikh Mishal’s choice of crown prince. Although the crown prince is nominated by the emir, the appointment has to be ratified by the parliament.

But these political, and sometimes personal, disputes have real consequences for Kuwait’s economy and financial system and, ultimately, for the long-term welfare of its citizens.

Kuwait is a prosperous country. If we take a snapshot today, we see it producing nearly 2.5 million barrels of oil per day (bpd), and there are plans under way to increase production capacity to 4 million bpd by 2035.

State foreign reserves are around $930 billion, according to National Bank of Kuwait, the country’s largest bank. With a population of a little over 4 million, its GDP per capita is one of the highest in the world.

Squabbling between the two sides is rooted in political disagreements and this most recent outbreak is no different.

A major factor behind the latest dissolution is believed to have been parliament’s objection to Sheikh Mishal’s choice of crown prince. Although the crown prince is nominated by the emir, the appointment has to be ratified by the parliament.

But these political, and sometimes personal, disputes have real consequences for Kuwait’s economy and financial system and, ultimately, for the long-term welfare of its citizens.

Kuwait is a prosperous country. If we take a snapshot today, we see it producing nearly 2.5 million barrels of oil per day (bpd), and there are plans under way to increase production capacity to 4 million bpd by 2035.

State foreign reserves are around $930 billion, according to National Bank of Kuwait, the country’s largest bank. With a population of a little over 4 million, its GDP per capita is one of the highest in the world.

In March this year, rating agency Fitch described Kuwait’s fiscal and external balance sheets as among the strongest of any of the governments it rates.

But when we look at long-term trends, the picture is more complex and less secure.

Kuwaiti government spending remains overwhelmingly dependent on oil and gas revenues. The government has made almost no progress, over many decades, in diversifying the economy away from oil, or in reducing the huge burden of government salaries and welfare payments.

Oil and gas revenues currently account for nearly 70 percent of total income and, according to IMF projections, will continue to do so for the rest of the decade.

These revenues have served the country well in the past, despite the volatility of oil prices, but such overwhelming dependence looks foolhardy when consumers worldwide are striving to reduce consumption of oil and gas and investors and energy firms have pivoted towards renewables.

Nearly all of the Kuwaiti government’s non-oil and gas revenue arises from overseas investments and from dividends from state-owned companies. Tax revenues account for less than 1 percent of total government income.

Looking beyond the fiscal imperative to diversify the economy is the need to provide employment opportunities for Kuwaiti citizens.

No less than 84 percent of the Kuwaiti workforce was employed by the government at the end of 2022. It is hardly surprising that nearly half of government expenditure is allocated to the salaries of public employees.

Pressure for social spending will increase in the years ahead. A World Bank report, published last year, showed that levels of obesity and Type 2 diabetes were higher in Kuwait than in any of the other GCC countries and nearly double the average in OECD countries.

Partly as a result of this, the World Bank estimated that Kuwait’s old age dependency ratio – the number of people over 65 years old in relation to those of working age – will be nearly double that of its neighbours by 2040.

Kuwait is also a country that is being significantly affected, even today, by climate change. Temperatures during the summer can exceed 50 degrees, making Kuwait one of the hottest places on earth.

These are difficult and complex challenges, both economic and social, but they are hardly unique to Kuwait. That they are, in some cases, more acute in Kuwait than elsewhere is due to decades’ long procrastination and political paralysis.

The government’s General Reserve Fund, which held most of its liquid assets, was entirely depleted in September 2020, according to Kuwait’s own ministry of finance. With AA ratings, the obvious solution was to borrow money – Kuwait’s debt-to-GDP ratio is less than 5 percent. Yet the parliament has still not passed a so-called ‘Liquidity Law‘ that would allow modest issuance of foreign currency debt.

The parliament also held up the introduction of Value Added Tax (VAT), making Kuwait one of two of the six GCC countries not to fulfil a joint commitment to implement a minimum VAT of 5 percent.

Over the past four years, all three of the big international credit rating agencies have downgraded the government of Kuwait.

In their rating reports, all agencies cited a dysfunctional and slow-moving political environment that was reducing the country’s financial flexibility and delaying much needed economic and financial reform.

Politics matters.

It is unrealistic to think that after decades of enmity the ruling family and the parliament will soon form a harmonious working relationship.

But they do need to find some common ground that will enable them to start addressing fundamental economic and social issues while the country still has large financial reserves and strong credit ratings.

Time is running out.

Andrew Cunningham writes and consults on risk and governance in Middle East and sharia-compliant banking systems


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ICD and JSC Ziraat Bank Collaborate to Boost Uzbekistan’s Private Sector

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At the 3rd Tashkent Investment Forum, the Islamic Corporation for the Development of the Private Sector (ICD) and JSC Ziraat Bank Uzbekistan took a significant step forward in their partnership to empower small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and foster economic growth in Uzbekistan. The forum, held in the capital city of Uzbekistan, brought together key stakeholders from the public and private sectors to discuss investment opportunities and economic development strategies for the region. The collaboration between the Islamic Corporation for the Development of the Private Sector (ICD) and JSC Ziraat Bank Uzbekistan is aimed at boosting the private sector in Uzbekistan.

During the forum, ICD and JSC Ziraat Bank Uzbekistan formalized an expression of intent to collaborate on various initiatives aimed at supporting SMEs. One of the key elements of this collaboration is the provision of a Line of Financing (LoF) facility by ICD to JSC Ziraat Bank Uzbekistan. This LoF facility will enable the bank to fund private sector projects as an agent of ICD, thereby providing SMEs with access to the necessary capital to initiate and grow their businesses.

The partnership between ICD and JSC Ziraat Bank Uzbekistan is expected to have a significant impact on the SME landscape in Uzbekistan. By equipping entrepreneurs with the resources they need to succeed, this collaboration will not only support the growth of individual businesses but also contribute to the overall economic development of the country. SMEs play a crucial role in driving economic growth, creating jobs, and fostering innovation, and this partnership will help strengthen the SME ecosystem in Uzbekistan.

JSC Ziraat Bank Uzbekistan, as a strategic partner for ICD, brings a wealth of experience and expertise to the table. As a prominent commercial bank with foreign capital, JSC Ziraat Bank Uzbekistan has a strong track record of supporting SMEs and promoting economic development. The bank’s partnership with ICD further underscores its commitment to advancing the private sector in Uzbekistan and its dedication to supporting the country’s economic growth.

ICD, for its part, is a leading multilateral development financial institution that focuses on supporting the economic development of its member countries through the provision of finance and advisory services to private sector enterprises. By partnering with JSC Ziraat Bank Uzbekistan, ICD is furthering its mission of promoting economic development and fostering entrepreneurship in Uzbekistan and across the Islamic world.

The LoF facility provided by ICD to JSC Ziraat Bank Uzbekistan is just one example of the many initiatives that the two entities are undertaking to support SMEs in Uzbekistan. In addition to providing financial support, the partnership between ICD and JSC Ziraat Bank Uzbekistan will also include capacity-building initiatives and technical assistance programs to help SMEs succeed in today’s competitive business environment.

Overall, the partnership between ICD and JSC Ziraat Bank Uzbekistan represents a significant step forward in supporting SMEs and fostering economic growth in Uzbekistan. By working together, these two institutions are helping to create a more vibrant and dynamic private sector in Uzbekistan, which will ultimately benefit the country’s economy and its people. The collaboration between the Islamic Corporation for the Development of the Private Sector (ICD) and JSC Ziraat Bank Uzbekistan is expected to have a far-reaching impact on the private sector in Uzbekistan.


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