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First-Mover Advantage: H.E. Mariam Bint Mohammed Saeed Hareb Almheiri, UAE Minister Of State For Food Security In conversation with the first-ever Minister of State for Food Security in the UAE (and the world).

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UAE Food Security Office

Over the course of my conversation with H.E. Mariam bint Mohammed Saeed Hareb Almheiri at Emirates Towers in Dubai in January, there were a few traits about the UAE Minister of State for Food Security that especially stood out. For starters, Almheiri has an extremely amiable personality. Besides putting me at ease almost as soon as I met her, this resulted in a free-flowing conversation that had her sharing not just facts and figures relating to the UAE Food Security Office that she leads, but also a lot of personal insights and anecdotes from her life and career so far. Indeed, it became quite apparent that Almheiri's investment in the work that she does today has been largely driven by the values and principles that her parents had inculcated in her from a young age.

A few examples? She has essentially inherited her Emirati father's passion for the environment, which would explain her uninhibited desire to protect and safeguard it today, while her German mother, who belonged to a farming family, instilled in her a deep-rooted respect and regard for how food is grown and made.

Besides shaping her to be the person she is today, the lessons Almheiri were taught then have proved to be especially pertinent for her current work with the government, where her mandate for food security is defined as "enabling all citizens and residents of the UAE to have access to healthy, safe, nutritious and sufficient food, at reasonable prices in all circumstances, including emergencies and crisis."

H.E. Mariam Bint Mohammed Saeed Hareb Almheiri
Source: UAE Food Security Office

As the first person ever appointed to such a ministerial post in the UAE -and in the world- Almheiri is navigating unchartered territories; yet, she claims that this has been more of a blessing for her than anything else. "Being the first minister responsible for this particular file called food security, it actually empowered me a lot," she says.

"Because no one else had that [role], but everyone was talking about it. Every minister of agriculture, every minister that deals with food, is actually dealing with food security. But we were actually going right to the specifics, and ensuring that we're taking the holistic approach. Because it's not just about growing food. It's about nutrition. It's about strategic storage."

"It's about food waste. It's about having emergency plans in place. So, there's so much in the whole food security domain- there is a clear definition, and it's that the country's citizens [should] have access to safe, sufficient, nutritious food at affordable prices, at all times." As for the fact that the UAE government was being a global forerunner in creating (and appointing her to) this post that seeks to establish the country as "a world-leading hub in innovation-driven food security," Almheiri puts it down to yet another instance of their visionary outlook for the country and its future.

H.E. Mariam Bint Mohammed Saeed Hareb Almheiri with H.H. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum
Source: UAE Food Security Office

And the results of this farsighted approach are showing in the achievements that Almheiri and her team at the UAE Food Security Office have been realizing lately. When Almheiri was appointed to her role in 2017, the UAE was ranked 33rd on the Global Food Security Index, an annual report that assesses this domain on "the core issues of affordability, availability, and quality" in 113 countries around the world. A year later, the UAE moved up to the 31st place, and in December last year, the country made a tenplace leap to be ranked 21st. Now, while this by itself is an impressive showcase of the efforts that the UAE has been making in this arena, Almheiri makes it clear that she and her team have bigger goals to realize.

"Our aim is to be among the top 10 by 2021, and then aim for number one by 2051," she reveals. "So, this is our roadmap." This is thus what has been laid out in the UAE's National Strategy for Food Security, which Almheiri had presented in November 2018. In it, the UAE Food Security Office had listed 38 initiatives it will embark on to realize five strategic goals, which include facilitating global agri-business trade and diversifying international food sources, enhancing sustainable technology-enabled domestic food supply across the value chain, reducing food loss and waste, sustaining food safety and improving nutritional intake, and, finally, enhancing capacity to respond to food security risks and crises.

At first glance, all of the aforementioned aspects of food security might seem like things that are, well, highlevel, and, as such, not really affect regular people like you and me; however, it's the opposite that is actually true, says Almheiri. She points out that the UAE has been built as a hub for food trade, with the country currently importing 90% of its food; however, with the way the global landscape has been changing in the recent past, it can be risky for a nation to place such a high dependence on external sources for sustenance in the long run. "As an example, we know that population is on the rise globally," Almheiri explains.

H.E. Mariam Bint Mohammed Saeed Hareb Almheiri with H.H. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum
Source: UAE Food Security Office

"We're heading towards nine billion, which means we will need more food [to feed them all]- some 50% more food in the next 10 years. Traditional agriculture is already at its limits in terms of land, in terms of water; climate change is making it even harder. So, you've got population rising fast, and you've got traditional agriculture not being able to cope, and so, a food gap is starting to grow. At the same time, we have a lot of distribution problems, like, there is enough food for all, but there's still over 800 million people hungry. And then on the other extreme, there are millions who are now obese, or have heart disease, so, we've got a big distribution problem as well." At the same time, people's attitudes toward food in general are needing a correction as well- Almheiri highlights a United Nations study that had found that a third of the food being produced globally is going to waste.

With factors like these at play, the need for a food security strategy thus becomes more apparent, and for the UAE, this is especially important, so that, as Almheiri puts it, "we're not just food secure now, but also in the future." Of course, this doesn't mean that the UAE is going to be halting its food imports any time soon; however, the nation is seeking to diversify its sources for it, and that involves making use of technology to grow food within the country as well. "So, with this National Food Security Strategy, we basically want to go from being a hub of food trade, to becoming a hub of knowledge about food and food innovations," Almheiri says.

One example of the UAE Food Security Office's efforts in this regard can be seen in it teaming up with Tamkeen (an Abu Dhabi-based company mandated to deliver projects to meet the UAE's vision of knowledgebased development) to run The Foodtech Challenge. With US$1 million worth of prizes up for grabs, The Foodtech Challenge, which kicked off in September last year, is a global competition that is looking for "innovative solutions across the food value chain."

With the deadline for entries slated for mid-February, Almheiri reveals that the contest, which has been inviting ideas relating to food production, food distribution, or food waste management, has so far attracted more than 1,000 submissions from around the world, with the winners set to be declared in April this year.

H.E. Mariam Bint Mohammed Saeed Hareb Almheiri
Source: UAE Food Security Office

Almheiri is visibly excited about The Foodtech Challenge, and it's easy to see that the influx of entrepreneurial ideas the competition will bring in ties into her dream of having the UAE become a hub for food innovations. While the UAE may not house the most appropriate environment for growing food per se, Almheiri believes that there are still several opportunities the country presents in this space. "We need to look at the positive side," she says.

"The infrastructure we've built will enable us and the resources that we have to focus on technology and innovation when it comes to growing food. I'm sure you have heard of meat grown in a lab, 3D-printing of food, etc.- these are all food innovations that we believe, if we focus on them, then we could become a hub of knowledge when it comes to food, especially in environments such as we have. We believe that many countries will have this kind of environment in the near future- it's already happening."

"And so, we want to make sure we're already gaining this knowledge, we're pushing the boundaries on technology, we're pushing the boundaries on research and development, in order to use technology to start growing food in the UAE in a more efficient manner."

Of course, it's one thing for a country to say it welcomes innovations; it's another thing altogether for it to house an ecosystem that allows such ideas to develop and grow. To her credit, Almheiri seems to be well aware of this, and that would explain why she and her team have made it a priority to remove roadblocks that businesses in this space often have to face in the UAE.

H.E. Mariam Bint Mohammed Saeed Hareb Almheiri at The Foodtech Challenge
Source: UAE Food Security Office

An example of this would be in the ten initiatives the UAE Food Security Office launched in partnership with the Government Accelerators program to boost the country's agtech industry, of which one was the development of a unified agricultural license for enterprises operating anywhere in the UAE in this sector.

Besides allowing for a number of agricultural activities to be consolidated under a single banner, this license also afforded companies cost savings of up to 60%- a significant impact when you consider that these are often young enterprises operating in a nascent industry. "Getting entrepreneurs excited about this [industry] is very important, and I think it's our responsibility to devise an ecosystem for them to actually come, invest money, and start," Almheiri says. "And if they see that there is a journey that they can take, and that there are opportunities for them, then it will get them even more excited."

It is at this point in our conversation that I felt that Almheiri truly understands what it's like to be an entrepreneur, and so I'm elated to find out that she actually has first-hand experience in this arena. After completing her bachelor's and master's degrees in mechanical engineering in Germany, Almheiri had kickstarted her career by working there as well, following which she returned to the UAE and started working with the Emirates Marine Environmental Group.

That led on to her starting work with the UAE government- prior to her appointment as the Minister of Food Security, she was the Assistant Undersecretary for Water Resources and Nature Conservation Affairs at the Ministry of Climate Change and Environment.

H.E. Mariam Bint Mohammed Saeed Hareb Almheiri at the Youth 4 Sustainability Hub
Source: UAE Food Security Office

But in the middle of all this, Almheiri had set out on a number of entrepreneurial outings of her own as well- she's launched and run enterprises in sectors as varied as fitness, maintenance, and waste management, which she eventually ended up shutting down when her work in the government grew.

Having said that, Almheiri acknowledges learning a lot in her time as an entrepreneur, with these lessons including everything from learning to work with different kinds of people, to realizing the importance of market access when you're a fledging startup in a well-established industry. When asked about advice she'd give entrepreneurs today, Almheiri replied with a nod to the importance of having the right people around you as you go about chasing your dream. "Surround yourself with people who inspire you, and people who bring positive feeling," Almheiri says.

"I think this is really important. I always feel when we were young, we find our friends who like the same things. But then as we get older, some of the friends we have are, say, always complaining, and you don't feel good around them anymore. Try and minimize how much time you spend with these people. Try and be with people if you learn from them, if you get inspired by them. I think that's a big lesson I learned- that's a personal and a work lesson as well. Like, if my team were not inspired by me, then how are they going to be motivated? So, this is something that I see as being really important."

H.E. Mariam Bint Mohammed Saeed Hareb Almheiri
Source: UAE Food Security Office

Almheiri is also insistent about the importance of not getting complacent in one's careers- and that's especially valuable advice to take to heart if you're an entrepreneur. "Be a little bit of a risk-taker," she says. "If you don't ever go out of your comfort zone, you'll never learn. Even if you fail, just get up and try again. Our assets are our minds, and the knowledge we have there."

It's clear that this is a principle that Almheiri is personally taking to heart as the UAE Minister of Food Security, given the emphasis she and her team are putting in making the country a hub for knowledge and innovation- and it's safe to say that this ethos is something that can be put to good use in our lives and careers as well.

Related: Incubating Innovation: Sheraa Chairperson H.E. Sheikha Bodour Bint Sultan Al Qasimi


Startups around the world are going big on food security

Source: Memphis Meats

Food security has been called one of the major emerging challenges in the world today, and that'd explain why it has become one of the hottest sectors in Silicon Valley right now. Led by ambitious entrepreneurs, there has been a boom in the food tech startup space since Beyond Meat celebrated the most successful IPO of 2019. While the West has been seeing a slew of innovations and startups making headlines in this space (think everyone from Beyond Meat to Impossible Foods), the Middle East seems to have only just embarked on this road- but the potential for growth is definitely there in this region.

An added benefit? With a reduced environmental impact in production phases, including the use of less resources and arable land, these startups are also addressing the climate crisis. Here are some of the companies that are currently in the news for tackling issues around food security: Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods, JUST, Miyoko's, Memphis Meats

Related: Lab-Growing Meat Startup Raises US$17M From KBW Ventures And More High-Profile Investors

Aby Sam Thomas

Entrepreneur Staff

Managing Editor, Entrepreneur Middle East

Aby Sam Thomas is the Editor in Chief of Entrepreneur Middle East. In this role, Aby is responsible for leading the publication on its editorial front, while also working to build the brand and grow its presence across the MENA region through the development and execution of events and other programming, as well as through representation in conferences, media, etc.

Aby has been working in journalism since 2011, prior to which he was an analyst programmer with Accenture, where he worked with J. P. Morgan Chase's investment banking arm at offices in Mumbai, London, and New York. He holds a Master's Degree in Journalism from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York.  

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