Agritech entrepreneurs set up 'digital dera' in heart of Pakistan's remote farming belt – Arab News

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ISLAMABAD: A group of young Pakistani agritech entrepreneurs has launched a “first of its kind” initiative called Digital Dera in remote parts of Pakistan’s fertile Punjab province, aiming to empower farmers with the latest agriculture solutions and help them create smart villages.
Earlier this month, while announcing that Pakistani startups had raised a record $305 million in investment globally in 2021, Commerce Adviser Abdul Razak Dawood urged Pakistani entrepreneurs to focus on agritech, which is the use of technology to improve the efficiency and output of agricultural processes.
This month, Tazah Technologies, a Pakistani business-to-business agriculture marketplace launched two months ago to provide innovative supply chain solutions to the agricultural sector, raised $2 million in a pre-seed round led by Global Founders Capital and Zayn Capital.
Digital Dera, or smart village, has been established at village Chak 26-SP in the Pakpattan district of Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province and its farming heartland. The initiative is currently providing services to more than 2,000 farmers in villages in the area and plans to expand its network through sub-offices in other regions, its founders said.
The project is a joint collaboration of Agriculture Republic and the Internet Society and is backed by Hayat Farms Pakpattan, Accountability Lab and the Pakistan Telecommunication Co. Ltd., the largest telecommunications provider in Pakistan.
“We brought fast-speed internet from the city all the way to the most remote, rural and agriculturally dense region of the country and set up a Digital Dera on Oct. 2 with a technological environment comparable to any city,” Fouad Riaz Bajwa, co-founder of Digital Dera, told Arab News.
“This environment enables free-of-cost access to data and information about farming and agricultural innovations that farmers, youth, and women especially can access.”
Aamer Hayat Bhandara, a young Pakpattan-based farmer who co-founded Digital Dera with Bajwa, said a key part of the project was that a team of experts from the group’s other startup, Agriculture Republic, was always available to guide farmers, provide them with information and connect them to experts through Zoom, Skype and other platforms.
“We are providing digital and online means to increase crop yield, smart manage farms, and promote agriculture products to the world from the heart of Pakistan’s rural center,” he said.
“We are starting weekly training sessions and, one day, will hold women-only sessions. The project will also serve as a digital hub to organize awareness and capacity-building sessions to educate youth and small farmers on precision agriculture, food security and climate change policies.”
Speaking to Arab News, Dr. Mohammed Anjum Ali, director-general for agriculture in Punjab, said that Digital Dera was the first startup of its kind to provide farmers a physical space as well as round-the-clock advice from agritech experts.
“This is a private sector initiative. It was installed in an area where there was no internet available, but it was a very fertile and high-value crops area,” he said. “We aimed to cooperate with them and are planning to launch such initiatives in other parts of the country as well.”
Waqar Ahmed, a general manager for digital services at Pakistan Telecommunication Co. Ltd, said the company has decided to provide internet and backend services to the startup so that farmers could benefit and enhance their productivity.
“We will partner with other such initiatives and expand the outreach of internet-based solutions to farmers. Our aim is to contribute to bringing information to the farmer’s doorstep,” Ahmed told Arab News.
Nadeem Nasir, a spokesperson for Ignite, a national technology fund that supports the establishment of startups in Pakistan, said what was unique about Digital Dera was that they had established a digital hub right in the middle of a farming community.
“This center can be beneficial for other agritech startups as well,” Nasir said. “They can use this space to educate and train farmers about their own applications and other products.”
RIYADH: Saudi Arabia plans to more than triple the size of its rail network with 8,000 kilometers of new track, the country’s investment minister said on Wednesday.
“New rail will criss-cross the Kingdom and add to the network we already have,” Khalid Al-Falih told the Future Minerals Forum in Riyadh.
There are currently about 3,650 km of track on the Saudi rail network, on three lines.
The 2,750 km North-South line runs from Riyadh to the border with Jordan, and has feeder lines to mineral mining operations in the north of the Kingdom.
The Riyadh-Dammam stretches 450 km from the capital to the east coast, and the new 450 km Haramain high-speed line connects the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah via King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah and King Abdullah Economic City to the north.
Al-Falih also said his ministry was working on a new investment law that would address the needs of both domestic and international investors.
The law would be enacted this year, “hopefully soon,” Al-Falih said, and would add to other regulatory and judicial reforms introduced by the Kingdom.
Saudi Arabia said last year it would give foreign companies until the end of 2023 to set up headquarters in the Kingdom or risk losing out on government contracts. In October it said it had licensed 44 international companies to set up regional headquarters in Riyadh.
The Future Minerals Forum is a special event bringing together ministers, organizations and mining leaders from more than 30 countries.
Hosted by the Saudi Ministry of Industry and Mineral Resources, is aimed at highlighting the role of mining in Saudi Vision 2030, after the government identified it as the third pillar of the Kingdom’s economy.
Energy Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, told the forum that the transition away from fossil fuels to clean power was complicated, and the world needed to be flexible to avoid sacrificing energy security.
Energy transition needed to be thought through carefully, Prince Abdulaziz said. “It may end up be- ing a leap into the future, unfor- tunately an unknown future. We should not forfeit energy security for the sake of a publicity stunt.”
Prince Abdulaziz also said the Kingdom would be manufacturing and developing uranium.
“Let me be very specific about it, we do have a huge amount of uranium resources that we would like to exploit and we will be doing it in the most transparent way, we will be bringing in partners.”
He said Saudi Arabia would be publishing its energy strategy soon, and it was well-placed to become the cheapest producer of “green” hydrogen.
RIYADH: Saudi Minister of Energy Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman signed a memorandum of understanding with his Tunisian counterpart Naila Nouira El-Kenji to develop renewable energy, energy efficiency and rationalization of consumption.
The MoU aims to develop cooperation and exchange information and expertise between the two countries through research and studies related to this type of energy, and to work on exchanging related policies and legislative laws, a statement on Saudi Press Agency said.
The agreement includes cooperation in the fields of demand management for renewable energy, reliable and sustainable operating of energy systems, and standard indicators of energy consumption in the industrial sector.
It also included setting up joint seminars and training courses in the fields of renewable energy, energy efficiency and rationalization of consumption, and encouraging the private sector in both countries to build partnerships in this field.
Saudi Lime, one of the largest limestone suppliers in Saudi Arabia, is planning to raise production to 3,000 tons of the mineral per day in the coming two years, the company’s CEO told Arab News.
In an interview on the sidelines of the Future Minerals Forum in Riyadh, Ahmed Elewa said that this level of output is set to be much higher than the current supply of 1,500 tons of limestone per day – which is already the largest in the Kingdom.
He added that: “[The current areas’ production] are enough for the coming 25 years, in both quality and quantity.”
The company is also set to join Nomu, Saudi Arabia’s parallel market, in the middle of this year after procedures finalize with the Capital Market Authority. In addition, the limestone-producing company is expected to enter Tadawul within a maximum of two years.
When asked about Saudi Lime’s customers, Elewa said that “we have a big portfolio [of customers] all over the world and in Saudi Arabia and the MENA region such as Sabic, Aramco, SWCC, Ma’aden and a lot of [other] customers.”
In addition, the huge majority of mining firm’s sales is inside the Kingdom, with a share that exceeds 85 percent. The remaining share goes to different countries which include Kuwait, UAE, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Sudan, among others.
The company also has a 50 percent Saudization rate right now, but it aims for a larger percentage in the future.
“Our plan is to have 80 percent Saudization rate within three years from now,” Elewa said.
Nigeria’s federal government has invested $50 million to explore gold, lithium and several other metals, the country’s Minister of Mines and Steel Development told Arab News in an exclusive interview.
Olamilekan Adegbite said that: “To date we’ve discovered over 44 minerals. These include gold, lithium, copper, cobalt, oxide, [you] name it”.
Looking forward, the current task for the Nigerian government is to select a few of those minerals and de-risk them for potential investors.
However, while maintaining that the mining sector is very important, the minister indicated that responsible mining and sustainability should be top priorities.
He added that mining, by its very nature, is “disruptive” and, consequently, the environmental impacts on communities should be limited.
Adegbite also emphasized the communal ownership of minerals, saying that the country’s government administer mining but grant its ownership to the community.
“You cannot do your mining without asking the consent of other people, no matter the value of what’s under their seat. I have to ask you in the first place [that] I want to mine there.”
Saudi oil and gas giant Aramco is further growing its international downstream presence via investments in Polish state oil refiner and petrol retailer, PKN Orlen, Aramco said in a statement.
The Dharhan based corporation will acquire a 30 percent stake in a Polish refinery with an estimated 210,000 barrels daily, an 100 percent  stake in a related wholesale business, and a 50 percent stake in a jet fuel marketing joint venture with British multinational oil and gas firm, BP.
“Our expanding global network of refineries and chemical joint ventures allows us to reach new markets with our products, and strategically place crude oil volumes across different geographies,” Aramco Senior Vice-President of Downstream, Mohammed Al-Qahtani, said.
The investments also come in line with PKN Orlen’s target of diversifying its energy supply, as it will secure crude imports from Aramco.
Additionally, Aramco signed an agreement with the Polish firm as well as Saudi based chemical manufacturing company, SABIC to explore and unveil potential petrochemical growth and expansion opportunities in Poland as well as Central and Eastern Europe.
Aramco and PKN Orlen took a further step upon signing another MoU specifically focusing on revealing research and development opportunities in the region.

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