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The Agthia approach to cold chain

Surendar Balakrishnan in conversation with Tariq Ahmed Saeed Al Wahedi, CEO, Agthia Group…

| | Mar 24, 2020 | 9:32 am
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Tariq Ahmed Saeed Al Wahedi

CONSIDERING THAT SO MANY OF YOUR PRODUCTS ARE TEMPERATURE-SENSITIVE AND HAVE TO BE TRANSPORTED AND STORED IN SPECIFIC CONDITIONS AND TEMPERATURE BANDS, WHAT COLD CHAIN-RELATED INNOVATIONS CAN YOU SHARE WITH THE READERS OF THE MAGAZINE?

I think internally, we have done a lot of innovation within the company, so for us it was more of revisiting our go-to market – our frozen chain and chilled chain, basically. So, we looked at how our go-to market is happening, how the trucks are going, and the frequency of the trucks. We looked at where our cold stores are distributed and so on, and accordingly, we have optimised that in the last couple of years.

WHEN YOU SAY OPTIMISE, WHAT DO YOU MEAN?

Optimise means we look at the truck capacities, how they have been utilised. We had also some certain warehouses that were not fully utilised; we optimised that. Then, of course, our food chain, as well… if I were to compare to other companies, we are using the latest technology of ammonia plants for refrigeration, so all of that means we are trying to push the level of innovation.

First of all, it is optimising the operation itself, and then, at the same time, using environmentally friendly refrigeration systems. And then, it is about introducing a little bit of automation in terms of chillers and so on. We are looking into energy-saving methods for all the chillers that we have.

WHAT PERCENTAGE OF YOUR REVENUES DO YOU PLOUGH BACK INTO R&D TO IMPROVE COLD CHAIN? I ASK, BECAUSE THE HIGH-AMBIENT CONDITIONS IN THE GCC REGION MAY NEED MORE INSULATION FOR THE TRUCKS, MORE INSULATION FOR THE COLD STORAGE WAREHOUSES.

Look, to be honest, we are following the standards in the industry, when it comes to insulation, etc. All our R&D investments have gone towards developing new projects. The last R&D centre that we opened is for food packaging, which is very, very crucial for us. Whether we look at it from chillers [perspective] or not, it doesn’t matter – to me, it’s all about food waste. So, that’s how we see it. So, that container must be able to sustain the quality of food as much as possible, be it chilled, frozen or ambient. This is what we are following very, very closely. The issue of barriers, the issue of insulation is becoming very important to us within this R&D centre. Not many companies have the sort of investment we are putting, and again we are a company that operates over the three temperatures of the supply chain. We are heavier on the ambient side, as of now.

YOU CAN HAVE THE MOST SOPHISTICATED COLD CHAIN EQUIPMENT, BUT AT THE END OF THE DAY, IT ALSO DEPENDS ON THE TRAINING OF EMPLOYEES, ON HOW THEY TRANSPORT FOOD – FOR EXAMPLE, MILK. IF THEY LEAVE THE DOORS OPEN DURING MILK RUNS, THE ENTIRE LOAD COULD GET SPOILED. HOW MUCH OF EMPHASIS DO YOU PLACE ON TRAINING?

All our trucks are equipped with sensors and recorders of temperature fluctuation. Of course, it goes without saying that the devices are present in our cold stores, as well, but our trucks are recorded, and we are monitoring them very, very closely. We definitely take any temperature fluctuations very, very seriously. Our staff, I am happy to say, are very well trained. Yes, we have had a couple of incidents in the past – this is normal – but we have learnt from them, on how to rely more on the sensors. Now, some of the customers ask for even the data that we have in the trucks, especially at the times of disputes and so on. They say: ‘Could you bring me the log? I want to see the fluctuation of temperatures.’

CONSIDERING THE NEED TO WORK WITH SPECIALISED REFRIGERATION CONTRACTORS AND CONSULTANTS, HOW DO YOU AUDIT THE ENGINEERING COMMUNITY THAT BUILD YOUR COLD STORAGE WAREHOUSES. WHAT KIND OF PROTOCOLS DOES AGTHIA FOLLOW TO ENSURE THE BEST OF SPECIALISED REFRIGERATION CONSULTANTS AND CONTRACTORS ARE ENGAGED?

In terms of pre-qualifying and qualifying all our contractors, we have rigorous process that we go through within our facilities and civil division. The aim is to get best-in-class companies, and to ensure they have a very good track record in terms of establishing similar-sized projects and so on. And we also check recommendations by the vendor, as well of the chillers and whoever is providing the system, basically. We make sure they are listed contractors, qualified to execute the job.

DO YOU HAVE SIMILAR AUDITING STRUCTURES FOR SUPPLIERS STARTING FROM THE HARVESTING TO POST-HARVESTING STAGES, TO ENSURE THE QUALITY OF WATER USED FOR IRRIGATION IS NOT CONTAMINATED AND TO ENSURE THE PRODUCE IS STORED IN TEMPERATURE-CONTROLLED CHAMBERS IMMEDIATELY AFTER HARVESTING?

We have very strict procedures when it comes to establishing the traceability of the food chain that we have. And I would like to highlight an example from 3-4 years ago, when there was a total abandonment of all strawberries that were coming from Egypt because of some sort of contamination that had happened. Our product comes from Egypt, and there wasn’t a problem at all, because our traceability was very clear. We know the farm that produces the strawberries. We know the pesticides that had been used. We controlled the water that had been used, the procedure of harvest and processing, as well. Today, we are among only four factories in Egypt that are white-listed by Saudi Arabia. We are so, because we have the full traceability scheme in there, and we do that from end to end, basically. We went even the extra mile. Now, we are talking to companies like IBM, for example, to look at technology-based traceability for food chain and the block chain system that they have now. We were exploring specific produce for us to be able to do traceability on that.

UAE IS INVESTING A LOT IN HYDROPONICS. ARE YOU USING HYDROPONICS TO OPTIMISE COST AND REDUCE COLD CHAIN INFRASTRUCTURE, AS OPPOSED TO EXPORTING FROM OTHER COUNTRIES? YOU EARLIER SPOKE ABOUT EGYPT. WITH HYDROPONICS, YOU COULD GROW STRAWBERRIES IN THE DESERT HERE.

First of all, we are not farming. We contract farmers, instead. But, with hydroponics, you can minimise the footprints of agriculture to a very specific area and also control the greenhouse spread. To go vertical rather than horizontal. From a water consumption point of view, as well, hydroponics reduces the water consumption by more than 90% versus regular farming, so efficiency definitely has gone up. However, I must say, based on our experience, we have noticed that the technology hasn’t matured yet 100%, at least in the UAE. Because, we still find that not all the farmers are able to produce proper produce that taste good and have the same shelf-life of the regular sand-based production. So, I think it is a learning curve. The technology is definitely very interesting, and it suits the UAE environment, but I don’t think we are at the level that is needed for growing foods using hydroponics.

COULD YOU PLEASE SHARE WITH OUR READERS THE EXPANSION PLANS YOU HAVE IN TERMS OF OTHER PARTS OF THE GCC REGION AND NORTH AFRICA?

In the last five years or four years, we have spread all over the GCC region, except Qatar. So. we have investments, we have manufacturing capacities in all countries. Last year, we were in Iraq, specifically, and of course, we are already in Turkey and Egypt. The places we have invested in still have much more capacity to expand. For example, Saudi Arabia can take more capacity from us and other countries, as well. Our plan is to continue expansion in the GCC region. We want to drive our brand to become more of a pan-Arab brand


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