OVER the years you get used to hearing incredible stories about Saudi Arabia and the pursuits undertaken by that country and its neighbours in the Emirates.
At some point if you’re fortunate you might even see for yourself the wonders they have achieved in the deserts of the Middle East and understandably declare them to be very clever people.
Some of the stories we hear are downright incredible but turn out to be true.
One of my favourite is around Prince Mohammed al-Faisal, who was Saudi Deputy Minister of Water and Agriculture – a sensible combination of departments in that part of the world.
In 1977 he proposed a US$100million plan to tug a 100 million-tonne iceberg for eight months from the Antarctica to the Arabian peninsula for desalination into drinking water for his people.
Can you imagine that?
The plan was seriously considered and got to the point where calculations showed the iceberg would get to Cape Town but not much further, so they did more scientific calculations to fix that. It hasn’t happened yet but was certainly very clever.
A short while ago, seated in a whole different desert, I heard about the Saudis again but this time pursuing something different from icebergs and water.
Discussing fields of corn we had driven past in the desert, my friend – Jether Lubandi – mentioned that agriculture was so heavy in Arizona that there were even foreign countries involved.
“Man!” he declared in his Texan drawl, “We even have a controversy brewing here because of the Saudis taking hay from Arizona!”
What?! Hay?! Dried grass?!
I initially thought we had a communication problem because of the blistering heat and our attention to thirst-quenching activities which could have reasonably meant he wasn’t talking clearly and I wasn’t hearing properly.
Later on, I checked up on the story and shook my head.
The clever Saudis were at it again, and their level of strategic thinking had me applauding.
Some large Saudi-owned food companies have been quietly but steadily buying up farmland in both Arizona and California, and planting alfalfa hay there which they export to their countries to feed their cows.
Pause for a minute and think about that in some detail.
While doing so, please remember that Arizona and California are not only dry – they have in recent years been struck by severe drought.
One story in 2016 told how a Saudi-based company, Fondomonte Farms, had bought up 1,790 acres of farmland in California for US$32million – that’s (today) US$17,900 per acre or Ushs68million an acre. Try and compare that with prices of land from Arua to Zirobwe, then return to the main point here.
Their strategy, the Americans complained after working it out, was to use American water sources to grow hay which they export to feed Saudi cows in their own desert. That way, they are preserving their own water for use on other things while using American water to grow the hay to feed their cows.
Clever. VERY clever.
The Saudis had clearly worked it out. Go out there and buy land but ensure it is good for agriculture, and then use up the water growing stuff that you need. Then transport it back to your home using fuel whose most likely origin means YOU are earning from the transportation – while preserving your own water for other things you will need into the long term.
The internet says the company leading the onslaught is Almarai (the Arabic word for ‘green pastures’) which is the mother company of Fondomonte.
As far back as 2012 Almarai bought 30,000 acres of land in Argentina for the same purpose and this year is said to own more than 15,000 acres in California and Arizona – all under alfalfa.
Almarai, says the reports, has 93,000 cows that eat all this alfalfa to produce milk that goes into products sold in the Middle East, Africa (check your local supermarket and duuka) and…in the United States of America!
Yo! These guys understand business!
Now, where could we come in here and why should we care?
It takes Fondomonte about a month to move containers of alfalfa from the United States to the Gulf of Arabia. So, let’s ask ourselves – how long would it take that alfalfa to go from Uganda to the feeding troughs in the Arabian desert, if the alfalfa were grown here instead?
If all that hay can grow in the deserts of California and Arizona, how much would grow in lush, tropical Uganda kweli? Don’t we have land that’s cheaper than Ushs68million per acre that we can avail to our Saudi friends, and access to more water than the people in American deserts?
If lush, tropical Uganda is being used to grow even more high value things then perhaps we should irrigate the dry parts of the country and immediately bring the value of that land up to Ushs68million per acre (four years ago) or grow alfalfa there.
Should we be averse to exporting grass for foreign cows then lazima we should study their model and make it work here.
93,000 cows? I know of WhatsApp groups where ten percent of the members claim to have more than that combined.
Why are they not becoming Africa’s largest dairy and food processing company to match Almarai in the Middle East so we keep the alfalfa for ourselves?
The Saudis are very clever. That’s not to highlight other people who, clearly, ARE NOT!