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Abdullah A. Ababtain

CEO, First Mills Company

Gregory Lu

CEO & Co-Founder, Natufia

Given the youthful demographics of the Kingdom, the business-friendly environment, and the size of the regional market, developing new food items will be a promising sector in the coming years.
First Mills is one of the pillars of Saudi Arabia’s strategic food security: can you elaborate on the company’s evolution?

ABDULLAH A. ABABTAIN The company was established in 2017, after the privatization initiative of the Saudi Arabian Grain Organization (SAGO). We are a part of the Kingdom’s Vision 2030, which means we were the first sector to transition from government to private sector, something we are particularly proud of. The process was challenging, because we were not allowed to halt production, but smoothly shifted with the help of SAGO, transitioning from a public to a private entity. This transition period lasted five years, and in January 2021, we were officially transferred to the private sector, as a 100% private company, owned by local investors. First Mills is one of the largest milling companies in KSA. We are currently undergoing an expansion plan that will be completed within two years with the goal of ultimately becoming the largest milling company in Saudi. We are feeding key areas and regions of the Kingdom, which includes Mecca. During Ramadan and haj, millions of pilgrims visit that area, and we are responsible for feeding them with bread. We work in close cooperation with SAGO, a regulator in the flour milling field. We are the only company with four branches strategically distributed nationwide to encompass Jeddah, Al Qasim, Tabuk, and Al Ahsa, covering the west, east, central, as well as the north of Saudi Arabia.

What are the main developments in Natufia’s history, and what attracted it to move its operations to Saudi Arabia?

GREGORY LU Natufia started about five years ago, and our goal is to help people grow food at home. A typical distribution chain starts from the farm to the distributor, wholesaler, retailer, and then finally to homes. We try to compress that so that consumers themselves are the producer. We have developed a great deal of technology and have over 20 patents to date in order to package this into the product: Natufia Smart Kitchen Garden. In terms of moving from Estonia to Saudi Arabia, two years ago after we met KAUST at a conference in London, we started to conduct some follow-ups. We share similar values and instantly felt there was a good match. As part of our agreement, KAUST would fund us and give us access to all university resources. That was a turning point for us, as our innovation is heavily reliant on R&D, and this enabled us to become significantly more efficient. Relocating to Saudi was a strategic step to help us leverage our R&D and move our manufacturing here; however, our products are mostly sold in Europe and the US, and we will continue to play in the international markets as we did before with a greater vision while exploring the Saudi market at the same time.

What are your expansion plans?

AAA Part of our mission and vision is to have new innovative products, and currently we are installing a pre-mix plant where we can produce any product type, such as cakes, pizza flour or croissant flour, and muffin flour. At the initial stage we will have 20 products ready and be able to produce them immediately. And at the second stage, we will double the product number. As far as flour is concerned, this is the first time that such a differentiation is occurring in the KSA. We are helping to cement the reputation of the Made in Saudi brand. Having received recognition from the authorities, we can apply it to all our products; this marks the first time in Saudi where you can find a wide selection of flour-based products, and today we are adding considerable sophistication to the market.

What is the space like in Saudi Arabia to market your product?

GL The Saudi consumer market is something we are studying closely. There is a whole young generation that is forward thinking. Many of them are students, who also studied abroad and have a global outlook and are also open minded. Saudi Arabia has an extremely young population that wants to adopt technology and change and is interested in products like ours. In terms of marketing, social media and digital are powerful tools in Saudi Arabia to be reckoned with. This alone sets the Saudi market apart from others, and coupled with country development ambitions like Vision 2030, it certainly makes up for a thriving marketplace to operate in.

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