“We have not been afraid of investing in opportunities, taking some risks within a broad strategy”
Started 75 years ago as a small trading business, Abdul Latif Jameel is today a global investor and diversified family-owned businesses with a presence in some 30 countries, with a commitment to becoming a global leader in the water solutions sector through Almar Water Solutions.
Coming from a vast experience in the automotive sector, Abdul Latif Jameel used its expertise and operations infrastructure to diversify into new industries that contribute to the ‘infrastructure of life’. They aim to address water security needs worldwide with a program of desalination, water and waste water treatment and recycling and reuse initiatives. The Jameel Water & Food Systems lab (J-WAFS) was founded in 2014 by the family’s philanthropic arm Community Jameel and MIT to research breakthrough solutions in water and food security, and in 2016, Almar Water Solutions was established as a dedicated business unit to spearhead this initiative offering comprehensive infrastructure solutions that support sustainable economic development. SWM’s Olivia Tempest asked Fady Jameel, Deputy President and Vice Chairman, International, of this iconic business group about their trajectory and plans for the future as they further a rapid expansion in the global water sector.
Can you tell us about your career path and your role at Abdul Latif Jameel?
I’m Deputy President and Vice Chairman, International, of Abdul Latif Jameel, a private family-owned diversified business founded by my grandfather, the late Sheikh Abdul Latif Jameel, in 1945. This means I head up the international operations of Abdul Latif Jameel across the Middle East, North Africa and Turkey region, Europe, Asia and the Americas. I’m also a member of the board. The business celebrated its 75th anniversary in 2020, and in parallel, we also celebrate three quarters of a century of family philanthropy. My grandfather’s philosophy of contributing to positive societal change has underpinned the family business since the beginning.
Historically, Abdul Latif Jameel’s core business was focused on the automotive sector, where we have enjoyed a strong relationship with Toyota Motor Corporation for nearly seven decades, beginning in the Middle East but subsequently spreading across North Africa, Europe and Asia Pacific.
Almar Water Solutions provides technical capabilities for water infrastructure development, including design, financing and operation
In recent years, one of our key strategic focus has been on growing our global renewable and environmental services business, Abdul Latif Jameel Energy. This includes our flagship renewables company Fotowatio Renewable Ventures, or FRV, a global specialist in utility-scale solar and wind energy, and energy storage infrastructure and an independent power producer, which is particularly active in Latin America, Australia, the Middle East and Europe; and Almar Water Solutions.
Almar Water Solutions is a specialist provider of technical capabilities for water infrastructure development, including design, financing and operation. Its capabilities range across desalination, water treatment, wastewater treatment and recycling and plant refurbishment across both industrial and municipal sectors. It is currently developing one of the World’s largest reverse osmosis desalination plants, Shuqaiq 3, on the Red Sea coast of Saudi Arabia.
Before taking up my current role at Abdul Latif Jameel, I worked at Lexus’ North American headquarters in Torrance, California, and was involved in investment strategy, strategic direction, and reviewing technologies for the company’s growth and investment plans. Prior to that I studied political science at Sophia University in Tokyo, Japan.
Abdul Latif Jameel celebrated this year its 75th anniversary. What is the secret to the success of your company? And what plans do you have for the near future?
There is an old Arabic proverb – “If a wind blows; ride it...” – a favourite of my grandfathers’, which sums up the entrepreneurial ethos of Abdul Latif Jameel. The idea is to capture opportunities to add and grow tangible value, whenever they arise, and to use those opportunities to drive you forward, even if the precise route or ultimate destination is not completely certain. It’s about a long-term perspective.
We have never been afraid of investing in opportunities, of taking calculated risks as part of a broader strategy. It was a risk when my grandfather opened his first gas station outside Jeddah in the 1940s, and a risk when he imported four early Toyota ‘BJ” vehicles a few years later. Those opportunities – those risks, if you like – laid the foundation for today’s global business. He had a vision, and he committed to it, and that spirit still underpins everything we do.
It’s why we launched a finance business in 1979, to make it easier for customers to purchase a Toyota; why we expanded into Turkey, China and across North Africa in the 1990s; and why we have spent the last two decades investing in what we call ‘the infrastructure of life’ – mobility, real estate, healthcare, renewable energy, and of course, water.
At the same time, Abdul Latif Jameel has long recognized the importance of helping others and supporting the community, regularly providing funding for good causes and social initiatives.
Our numerous philanthropic activities were brought together in 2003 in a new entity, today known as Community Jameel. Among many other things, Community Jameel supports and co-founded a number of scientific research labs at leading global universities, including the Jameel Water and Food Systems lab (J-WAFS), the Jameel Poverty Action lab (J-PAL), the Jameel World Education lab (J-WEL) and the Jameel Clinic, all at MIT; and the Jameel Institute, at Imperial College London.
The idea is to capture opportunities to add and grow value, whenever they arise, and to use those opportunities to drive you forward
We don’t just jump into any market or sector that is expanding, though. The risk is too high in industries we have no knowledge or experience of. Expansion is thoughtful and considered. Generally, we like to get involved in related businesses that we can understand – and of course, see how we can add value and how that business adds value to a better world.
Throughout its long history, Abdul Latif Jameel’s key diversification strategies have been into sustainable solutions in water and renewable energy. Why are these sectors a priority for Abdul Latif Jameel?
These sectors are not only priorities for Abdul Latif Jameel; they should be priorities for every single one of us. The relationship between water, energy and food is central to the sustainable development of our society. The growing global population, increasing urbanization, changing diets and economic growth, however, mean that demand for all three is rising fast. Agriculture, for example, is already the largest consumer of the world’s freshwater resources, while food production and supply accounts for over 25% of energy use globally.
The relationships between these three domains are critical not only for our society, but for our whole planet. Developing a sustainable, environmentally sensitive supply of water and energy for our communities, industries and agriculture is one of the biggest challenges we will ever face.
As we have seen over the past year or so, these issues can no longer be ignored. Many experts believe that the environmental crises we have seen in recent years – such as wildfires, floods, droughts, storms, the COVID-19 pandemic – are evidence of the increasing and unsustainable pressure on the most precious resources of our planet.
Addressing these challenges and protecting our resources for future generations requires a holistic, integrated approach that addresses the root cause of these imbalances, not just the symptoms. Namely, our relationship with water and energy and their central role in our society.
This is why Abdul Latif Jameel works with partners across the globe to drive transformation, innovation and action in the renewable energy and water sectors.
Abdul Latif Jameel established Almar Water Solutions in 2016, to expand its portfolio of solutions for the water industry. What is Abdul Latif Jameel’s experience in the water sector?
We first got involved in the water industry over 20 years ago, in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. We bought a decommissioned desalination plant in the United States and reassembled it in Jeddah to deliver clean water for the Islamic Port. After that initial success, we began investing in other plants providing water for several of Saudi Arabia’s industrials cities.
In 2016, we took our involvement in the water industry to the next level with the acquisition of Almar Water Solutions, which currently operates in Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America.
Almar Water Solutions is helping to address water scarcity and water quality challenges across the globe through its investments in water treatment, water reuse, and desalination projects for municipal and industrial sectors.
In 2018, Almar Water Solutions was awarded the contract to develop Kenya’s first large-scale desalination plant at Mombasa, the country’s second largest city, where a severe water crisis has been reduced supply over a number of years. Once complete, the site will deliver 100,000 cubic meters of drinking water daily to more than one million people.
Abdul Latif Jameel works with partners to drive transformation, innovation and action in the renewable energy and water sectors
The Mombasa contract was followed in January 2019 with the award of a contract in Saudi Arabia to develop Shuqaiq 3 IWP, one of the world’s largest reverse osmosis desalination plants. Situated near the Red Sea city of Al Shuqaiq, this US$ 600 million investment will fund the development of a plant covering the size of 34 soccer fields. When completed in Q4 2021, it will deliver 450,000 cubic meters of clean water each day to more than 1.8 million people, agriculture and industry.
What differentiates Almar Water Solutions in the market?
One of the strengths that I believe differentiates Almar Water Solutions is its commitment to sustainability and innovation. Ensuring the availability of clean water for our communities and for businesses is, of course, hugely important. But it must be done in a way that not only delivers for consumers, shareholders and partners, but which also delivers for the planet, by minimizing the carbon footprint, optimizing efficiency and safeguarding the environment. This doesn’t mean we must forego profits and instead focus only on sustainability. We have shown – and Shuqaiq 3 will be the most powerful example to date – that it is still possible to achieve a comparable return by taking a sustainable approach and investing in innovation.
Historically, the water industry has perhaps not been as committed to this approach as it could have been, as evidenced by the poor energy efficiency of many existing water plants. But at Almar Water Solutions, this approach is at the heart of every investment we make. At Shuqaiq 3, for example, we have invested in the very latest technology and systems to ensure that it will be one of the most energy efficient independent water plants (IWP) in the world when in operation.
We believe this is vitally important. Using the very latest technology and processes, learning from best practices around the world and optimizing efficiency are essential for addressing sustainability issues and winning more projects around the globe.
Shuqaiq 3 IWP desalination plant to supply fresh water to 1.8 million people (EN,16:9)
Our ambition is not only the successful completion of the Shuqaiq 3 plant. We plan to do other things in Saudi Arabia, the Middle East, in Latin America, South-East Asia, as well as North and East Africa.
In 2020, Abdul Latif Jameel reinforced its investment in the Middle East and Africa’s water sector with the acquisition of desalination services company Ridgewood Egypt. What plans does the firm have in EMEA and Egypt, in particular, in terms of water?
We first entered the Egyptian market in 2019, when Almar Water entered into a joint venture with Hassan Allam Utilities to form AA Water Developments, to help revitalize and develop the country’s water infrastructure.
In 2020, this led to the acquisition of Ridgewood Group, Egypt, a major desalination services company. Ridgewood operates 58 desalination plants throughout the country, with a focus on industry and tourism – a critical sector for Egypt’s economy. This network of facilities has the capacity to provide 82,440 cubic meters of safe, clean drinking water every single day.
ALJ Energy Almar Water Acquires Ridgewood Egypt EN EN subs 16x9
The acquisition continues Almar’s strategy to expand rapidly beyond its portfolio of new greenfield projects with desalination, water treatment plants and other existing brownfield water infrastructure assets which are already in operation, to drive efficiency and growth in access to sustainable water solutions.
We plan to continue to increase our activity in the water sector significantly over the coming years. As well as our platform in Egypt to address the country’s vast water issues, we’re establishing a platform in Chile for the Latin American market, and in other regions, such as Australia, Saudi Arabia and Europe, where we are looking to build relationships with suitable partners.
I think the partnership aspect is an important point to emphasize, because no one can do this alone. It requires a combination of expertise, understanding, support and investment if we are to make a lasting difference. The more we work with trusted partners, the more we can help to drive real progress in the water industry.
What is Abdul Latif Jameel’s business strategy concerning climate change mitigation and adaptation?
We have long recognized the importance of tackling climate challenge. The tragedy of the past year has reenergized our commitment to creating a cleaner, more sustainable world. We recognize that a problem exists and that its scale is considerable, but we also take ownership of the problem by embedding it in our long-term mission.
As well as our expanding presence in the water sector, many people will be aware of our commitment to green energy. Across the 18 or so countries where our energy and environmental services business, Abdul Latif Jameel Energy, is now active, we have major investments in solar power, wind power, water solutions and environmental services.
Through FRV, we are harnessing low carbon solutions such as wind and solar energy to generate clean energy across a growing global footprint. Its energy portfolio includes some 5 GW of power across our multiple sites in Asia, India, Latin America, Middle East, Europe and Australia – offsetting a larger chunk of fossil fuels’ damaging effects year by year.
Almar Water Solutions is helping to address water scarcity and water quality challenges across the globe through its investments
We’re also determined to overcome one of the age-old problems of renewable energy – ensuring round-the-clock power in conditions dependent on the elements. FRV has a dedicated team – FRV-X – focusing on emergent technologies and breakthrough business models. One activity, is helping to advance the next generation of high-performance batteries, recognizing that power storage is critical to a dependable green energy future.
FRV has already begun operating its 15 MW utility-scale battery array at Holes Bay, UK. That project, in partnership with British developer Harmony Energy, links to the Southern Electric Power distribution network. A second project, at Contego, West Sussex, UK, is currently in development.
As anyone who understands our business knows, we’re also heavily invested in the global transportation market, and here too we’re favouring the greener route to success.
We’re the longstanding distributor in Saudi Arabia and other MENAT markets, China and Japan, of Toyota and Lexus cars. Toyota is widely acknowledged as a market leader in hybrid electric vehicles, with its landmark Prius model being one the world’s bestselling hybrids, and the Toyota Mirai fuel-cell vehicle pioneering the hydrogen vehicle segment. In addition, we were an early investor in US-based electric vehicle start-up RIVIAN, followed by major names such as Amazon, Ford Motor Co., and Cox Automotive.
We are also supporting leading-edge research and innovation to find new ways to strengthen global food and water systems. Since 2014, when Community Jameel and MIT co-founded the Abdul Latif Jameel Water & Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS), it has been seeking answers to the world’s water and food challenges, caused by climate change, population growth, urbanization and development. The lab employs the latest technologies and research programs to make a measurable international impact as humankind is forced to adapt to a fast-changing planet.
And adapt we must. We can see all around us the consequences of our behaviour if we do not change our way of living. We know that change must begin today, not be put off until tomorrow. And we know that our ultimate goal must be a net-zero pollution planet.
How do you think the pandemic has changed the role of sustainability for organizations? And what is Abdul Latif Jameel’s vision for a sustainable future?
I believe the pandemic itself is a sign of our mismanagement of the natural environment, as I discussed in my recent Spotlight article. It has touched everything, every facet of our society. The only good thing to come out of it is that it has forced governments – and our society as a whole – to recognize the urgent need to rebalance our relationship with nature and the planet and to build a more sustainable way of maintaining our way of life.
This is why, apart from helping to fight climate change, we’re also deeply committed to advancing knowledge and research into diseases and human health.
In 2019, Community Jameel partnered with Imperial College London to establish the Abdul Latif Jameel Institute for Disease and Emergency Analytics (the Jameel Institute). It’s a rapid response research centre for predicting and preventing global health crises.
The Jameel Institute complements the work of Community Jameel’s other global health collaboration, the Abdul Latif Jameel Clinic for Machine Learning in Health, (Jameel Clinic) at MIT. The Jameel Clinic focuses on how AI can prevent, detect and treat debilitating conditions such as cancer, sepsis, dementia other non-communicable disorders.
In 2020, we also launched Abdul Latif Jameel Health. Headed by CEO Akram Bouchenaki, Abdul Latif Jameel Health is dedicated to bringing better health to wider areas of the developing world; investing in projects, partners and products that will enhance the lives of greater numbers of people and help to improve access to healthcare for those who need it most. It has already initiated its first two partnerships, with health-tech innovators Evelo Biosciences and Cellarity.
We have shown that it is still possible to achieve a comparable return by taking a sustainable approach and investing in innovation
The pandemic has shown that when danger is imminent, our society is indeed capable of rapid, consistent and coordinated action for the common good. Addressing climate change and improving global access to healthcare in the same way is just as possible as using natural resources – like water – for the benefit of all people.
Given the global scope of the Abdul Latif Jameel businesses, with our focus on investing in the infrastructure of life, I think it’s important for us to set a clear example of how private capital can be a key driver in addressing these global challenges facing humankind. We want to encourage others to do the same thing, not only within the water industry, but in the sustainability of their own businesses.
Our resolve is all the greater because coronavirus has disproven the myth that we are helpless in adapting to the world’s changing needs. The collective global response to the pandemic has shown that when governments, institutions, businesses and communities act together, we can drive meaningful, sustainable change.
The destination is clear. The route forward is clear. Now, it is up to all of us to start the journey.