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Multi-Billion Dollar Water Sector Offers Business Opportunities

Bar chart showing the top 15 countries with the largest estimated groundwater extractions in 2010, breakdown by sector (%): agriculture, domestic use and industrial use . The top 15 countries are (in order), India, China, United States, Pakistan, Iran, Bangladesh, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Turkey, Russia, Syria, Japan, Thailand, and Italy. Data from the National Groundwater Association.

The gap between global water demand and global water supply is widening. Already more than half of the people in the MENA region (Middle East and North Africa), live under conditions of “water stress” (i.e., the demand for water exceeds supply) according to the World Bank and a report by the United Nations reveals that the world could face a 40% water shortfall by 2030. Demand for water is expected to grow by nearly one-third by 2050 according to a 2018 World Water Development Report by the United Nations.

Yet while water demand is projected to grow, earth’s water supply is limited. Just 1% of all earth’s water is fit for human use according to the National Groundwater Association, and 99% of this is derived from groundwater, 0.86% from lakes and 0.02% from rivers.

Earth’s total groundwater supply is estimated at 5.5 million cubic miles (equal to about 23 million cubic kilometers). However, groundwater is being depleted faster than it is being replenished due to a rapidly increasing population and increasing urbanization. Data from NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellites indicate that 13 of the world’s 37 biggest aquifers are being depleted due to irrigation, industrial usage and human consumption (groundwater supplies about 50% of all drinking water worldwide) faster than they are being replenished by rainfall. Climate change has affected rainfall patterns and as a consequence, the availability of groundwater resources will be impacted in the decades to come.

Of the 13 aquifers, eight aquifer systems are “overstressed” which means water is being withdrawn faster than it is being naturally recharged. The most overstressed aquifer is the Arabian aquifer system which lies underneath Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Other overstressed aquifers are the Indus Basin in Pakistan and India, and the Murzu-Djado Basin in Africa. The other five aquifer systems are “extremely” or “highly” stressed, which means they are being recharged by some rainfall but not enough to enough to offset withdrawals. California’s Central Valley is one of the five aquifer systems under this category.

The result has been a steady decline in the volume of renewable water resources per capita from 28,377 m3 per person per year in 1992 to 19,804 m3 per person per year in 2014, which corresponds to a roughly 30% decline over the last 22 years according to data from Aquastat.

Addressing the world’s impending water crisis demands better water management practices such as through the adoption of water recycling as is done in Singapore and Israel and to make water intensive sectors more efficient. This opens considerable opportunities for entrepreneurs and investors in the global water sector. A report by investment firm RobecoSAM expects market opportunities related to the water sector to reach US$ 1 trillion by 2025.

Smart irrigation

Global annual ground water withdrawals are estimated at 982 cubic kilometers a year according to estimates by the National Groundwater Association. By sector, agriculture is the largest user of groundwater, accounting for about 70% of groundwater withdrawals. Household use accounts for about 10% of groundwater withdrawals.

By country, India is the largest user of groundwater in the world, China is the second largest and the United States is third.

Bar chart showing the top 15 countries with the largest estimated groundwater extractions in 2010, breakdown by sector (%): agriculture, domestic use and industrial use . The top 15 countries are (in order), India, China, United States, Pakistan, Iran, Bangladesh, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Turkey, Russia, Syria, Japan, Thailand, and Italy. Data from the National Groundwater Association.

The world’s growing population will lead to growing water usage while rising urbanization will increase per capita water and food consumption, particularly meat consumption. Food production is water intensive and meat-based products are among the most water-intensive sectors in the food industry. About 15,400 liters of water is required to produce one kilogram of beef and 5,988 liters to produce one kilogram of pork. By comparison just about 2,500 liters of water is required to produce one kilogram of rice.

As incomes rise and meat consumption sees a corresponding increase for the one billion plus population in India and China, which are already the world’s largest groundwater using nations, the water demand-supply mismatch will widen. This suggests the global demand for water will increase exponentially in the decades to come. Without improved water-use efficiency measures, agricultural water consumption is expected to grow by about 20% globally by 2050.

Smart irrigation solutions for agriculture are expected to help increase efficiency in water intensive sectors such as agriculture. Driven by expanding farming operations, an increasing need to increase farm profit, and government initiatives to promote water conservation, smart irrigation, which is a branch of the broader agtech sector, holds considerable growth potential particularly in India, China and the United States where over 50% of extracted groundwater is used by the agriculture sector.

92% of groundwater extraction from India’s overstressed Indus Basin is from the agriculture sector according to analysis by Earth Security Group.

Israeli agtech startup CropX offers a cloud-based smart irrigation solution for agriculture. The integrated software and hardware platform helps farmers increase yields by saving water and energy. On-field purpose-made sensors monitor soil moisture and gather data which is sent to CropX’s cloud platform where it is analyzed by CropX software which then updates the farmer through a mobile app on the farmer’s smartphone.  The farmer is then able to control the amount of water to each plant eliminating the need to water the whole field at one time thereby preventing water wastage through over watering and improving crop yields by maintaining optimal soil moisture levels.

Smart water solutions

Household consumption accounts for 10% of global groundwater withdrawals, the volume of which is likely to increase in the years ahead drive by population growth and urbanization. Smart water solutions for domestic use are expected to help optimize household water consumption such as by reducing wastage of water.

About 30% of global water supply is lost through leakage costing water utilities US$ 14 billion annually according to the World Bank. Wasted water, which is called non-revenue water (NRW), is a problem not just in developing countries but in developed ones too. London loses 25% of water through leakage, Hong Kong wastes 32.5%, Norway loses 32%, and the United States loses 14%-18%.

Such losses are avoidable. Countries that have comparatively better rates of water loss include Tokyo which loses about 2%, and Singapore which loses about 5%.

Consequently, the market for smart water solutions which monitor, detect and reduce leakage is a potential growth opportunity.

Research firm MarketsandMarkets projects the global smart water management market will grow from US$ 8.46 billion in 2016 to US$ 20.10 billion in 2021, representing a CAGR of 18.9% driven by a growing need to reduce NRW losses, sustainable use of energy, regulatory compliance and smart city projects.

Boston-based Inkwood Research projects the global smart water management market will expand at a CGAR of approximately 20.6% during the period 2017 – 2026 driven by smart city projects, aging water infrastructure and increasing need to reduce water loss. North America is expected to be the largest market. However Asia Pacific is expected to be the fastest growing market driven by countries such as China, India and Japan.

China and India, already the top two groundwater extracting nations in the world as illustrated in the chart above are likely to see greater water demand and water stress in the years ahead due to rising per capita income, increasing urbanization and industrialization. This is particularly true in China where water demand has been rapidly increasing and water supply has been rapidly dwindling, a situation that has been getting worse over the years; about one-fifth of China’s groundwater extraction is used for domestic purposes and according to research from the World Resources Institute, the percentage of land area in China facing high and extremely high water stress increased from 28% in 2001 to 20% in 2010.

The over-extraction of groundwater is impacting China not just through growing water scarcity risk but also increasing ground subsidence, i.e., sinking of land caused by the excessive removal of oil, natural gas or in China’s case, groundwater. According to a report released in 2012, more than 50 Chinese cities suffer ground subsidence issues.

Israeli startup TakaDu offers a cloud-based water management software-as-a-service (SaaS) solution that uses IoT, big data analytics and algorithms to help utility companies cut NRW losses by reducing leakage and supply interruptions, and anomaly detection  and automatic early warning anomalies.

TakaDu has deployed Water Network Monitoring solutions for a number of water utility companies including Portuguese water utility Águas de Cascais (AdC), Australian water company Hunter Water Corporation, and Chilean to water supplier Aguas de Antofagasta.

Industrial water treatment and recycling

About 20% of global water consumption is for industrial use and roughly 75% of industrial water withdrawals are used for energy production according to the United Nations World Water Development Report 2014.

Certain types of fuels require more water to produce than others. For instance, coal is among the most water-intensive fuels while natural gas is among the least water intensive. Coal production requires 10 times more water per ton of oil equivalent than natural gas production. Shale gas production requires 10 times more water per ton of oil equivalent than conventional natural gas production.

Coal extraction and refining is a very water intensive process and in China the world’s largest coal producer, the impact of coal production on the country’s water resources is already evident. China’s overstressed North China Aquifer serves 11% of the country’s population, 13% of the country’s agricultural production and a whopping 70% of the country’s coal production.

Yet, with coal accounting for about 40% of the world’s generated energy, it is likely to continue playing a role in the world’s energy mix going forward, particularly in China, India, the United States and Australia which are the world’s largest, second-largest, third-largest and fourth-largest coal producing nations respectively, and all four of which face water shortage issues; the Indus Basin in northwestern India and Pakistan is the second-most overstressed in the world while California’s Central Valley aquifer has been labeled as “highly stressed” according to studies led by the University of California using data from NASA’s GRACE satellites.

According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, water managers in 40 out of 50 U.S. states expect water shortages in some portions of their states in the next decade.

This opens opportunities for industrial water treatment solutions. The industrial water treatment and recycling market is projected to grow by over 50% from around US$ 7billion in 2015 to US$ 11 billion in 2020 according to a report by Global Water Intelligence.

Much of today’s wastewater treatment involves treating wastewater, or effluent, and returning the treated effluent to groundwater or aquifers. Water reuse or water recycling however, sees the treated water being reused rather than being returned to the environment. Water reuse tends to be practiced in water-stressed countries such as Israel and Australia. Israel, the world’s leader in water recycling, over 70% of treated wastewater is reused.

Bar chart showing the percentage of treated wastewater reused, in 2015. Israel reuses 70% of all its treated wastewater. Australia reuses 19%, North America 4% and Brazil 1%.

It is likely that as water shortage issues grow, the market increasingly moves from water treatment to water reuse.

Much of reused water is currently used for agricultural purposes according to data from Global Water Intelligence and with agriculture accounting for 70% of global water withdrawals, the opportunity for water reuse technologies is evident particularly in countries such as India, China and the United States which are the world’s top three largest groundwater extracting nations and agriculture accounts for over half of water withdrawals in all three countries.

Pie chart showing global treated wastewater reuse, market share by application. 32% of the world's treated wastewater was reused for agricultural irrigation, 20% for landscape irrigation, 19.3% for industrial use, 8.3% for non-potable urban uses, 8% for environmental enhancements, 6.4% for recreational purposes, 2.3% for indirect potable reuse, 2.1% for groundwater recharge and 1.5% for other purposes.

Water desalination

Historically, desalination plants were concentrated in Gulf regions which have little alternatives for water supply. However, depleting water supplies and increasing water demand has forced countries outside the Gulf such as Australia, China, Japan, and the United States to build desalination plants to address impending water shortages. Desalination is in practice in more than 150 countries.

Yet, with increasing pollution, climate change, population growth and rising urbanization expected to drive water demand amid stagnant or falling water supplies, the demand for desalination technologies are expected to increase in the coming years. According to Hexa Research, the water desalination market is expected to grow to US$ 26.81 billion by 2025 driven by reverse osmosis.

There are two primary water desalination technologies; multi-stage flash distillation and reverse osmosis.  Flash distillation involves boiling seawater at low pressures (which requires less heat) and then condensing the resulting steam into salt-free water. This technology has been the most commonly used method for desalination over the past few decades and still remains so. According to Hexa Research, the market for multi-stage flash distillation is expected to grow at an 8,4% CAGR between 2014-2025.

Reverse osmosis, on the other hand, uses a membrane to filter salts from seawater to produce salt-free water. The technology was commercialized in the 1970s but was considerably costlier compared to multi-stage flash distillation; the membranes were not as effective in filtering salts and the membranes tended to wear out quickly.

However, over the past few years, there have been significant improvements that have helped increase its competitiveness and the fact that reverse osmosis consumes less energy than flash distillation (which has helped drive down desalination costs over the past few years) makes the technology more attractive. Consequently, new desalination plants are increasingly being built with membrane technology; according to the International Desalination Association (IDA), as much as 90% of new desalination capacity worldwide uses RO as opposed to distillation technologies. For instance in 2017, membrane technology accounted for 2.2 million m3/d of annual contracted desalination capacity while distillation technologies accounted for just 0.1 million m3/d.

The momentum is expected to continue; reverse osmosis is expected to be the fastest growing desalination technology going forward with Hexa Research predicting the market will be valued at US$ 15.43 billion in 2025. This could be a growth opportunity for companies such as Tetra Tech (NASDAQ:TTEK) and Veolia Environnement (EPA:VIE). Tetra Tech provides consulting, engineering, and technical services for the water sector while Paris-based Veolia Environment has been in the water business for over a century, designing and operating desalination plants for municipalities and industry around the world.

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Organic Food Market Could Be A Delicious Investment Play

Bar and line graph showing the increase in world organic farmland in millions of hectares between 1999-2015 and the percentage share of organic farmland worldwide.

The global organic food market is growing at a rapid clip and offers significant potential for growth. Currently valued at around US$90 billion according to London-based consultancy firm Ecovia Intelligence (formerly Organic Monitor) the market is poised to expand to over US$ 200 billion by 2020 (representing a CAGR of 15.7% between 2015 and 2020) according to projections by Market Research Globe.

The forecast figures are similar to those from a report by market research firm Technavio which projects the global organic food and beverage market to grow at a rate of 14% from 2017 until 2021.

Organic is the fastest growing sector of the U.S. food industry. Organic food sales in the United States, the world’s largest organic food market, jumped 8.4% in 2016 to reach US$ 43 billion according to the Organic Trade Association.  That compares with a 0.6% increase in overall food market sales in the United States. Much of the demand for organic food is driven by millenials generating about half of U.S. organic food sales.

In Germany which is the world’s second -largest organic food market, organic food sales grew by nearly 10% in 2016, according to the German Federation of the Organic Food Industry (BÖLW).

France’s organic food market grew a whopping 20% in 2016 according to Agence Bio, and Spain’s organic food market grew 12.5% in 2016 (compared to 0.7% growth in conventional food) according to data from Spain’s Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, Food and Environment. UK organic food sales expanded by 7% in 2016 according to Soil Association a UK-based organic food and farming charity and certification body.

There is ample potential for the stellar growth numbers to maintain momentum going forward. In the United States, the world’s largest organic food market, organic food sales account for just 5.3% of U.S. food sales.

The situation is the same in Germany, the world’s second biggest organic food market after the United States (the United States, Germany and France together account for about 70% of global organic sales value as of 2017); organic food sales make up just about 5% of Germany’s total food sales.

In Britain, organic food sales make up about 1.5% of the country’s total food sales. In Spain, organic food sales make up just 1.7% of the country’s total food market. This compares with Sweden and Denmark where organic food sales comprise about 8.7% and 10% of the country’s total food sales respectively.

In Asia, organic food sales account for less than 1% of total food sales across Asia offering ample scope for growth. The organic food sector is poised to grow in leaps in bounds in the region, particularly in China and India, two countries which market research firm Ecovia Intelligence reveals are two of the fastest growing Asian markets for organic food products, driven by an expanding and educated middle class who are increasingly willing to pay a premium for organic products which are perceived to be healthier and safer than conventional food products.

In China, Asia’s largest organic food market and the world’s fourth largest, 72% of consumers worry about the safety of their food according to a 2016 survey by McKinsey. This presents an opportunity for the country’s organic food sector which, similar to the United States, is largely driven by a growing number of increasingly health-conscious millenials.

Meanwhile in India which created its first organic state, Sikkim, in 2016 (in Sikkim farmers are 100% organic), market research firm TechSci projects the country’s organic food market to grow at a CAGR of 25% between 2016-2021.

On a country level, Denmark and Bhutan have ambitious plans to be 100% organic by 2020, a positive trend for the global organic food market.

The underlying driving force behind the global organic food revolution is the millennial generation (those born between 1980 to 2000). In the United States, for instance, the world’s biggest organic food market, over 52% of organic food shoppers are millenials according to a survey by the Organic Trade Association. An estimated 25% of American millenials are parents and this figure is expected to increase to 80% over the next 10-15 years. As the percentage of millenials with children grows in the coming years, organic food sales are projected to rise as well.

To meet rising organic food demand, the number of organic food producers and the amount of organic acreage continue to increase globally.

Worldwide, the number of organic food producers increased twelve-fold in sixteen years from 200,000 producers in 1999 to 2.4 million producers in 2015 according to a report by the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (Forschungsinstitut für biologischen Landbau or FiBL). During the same period, land used for organic farming expanded fivefold from 11 million hectares in 1999 to 50.9 million hectares in 2015. Despite this increase, organic farmland represented just 1.1% of the world’s farmland in 2015 indicating ample room for expansion.

Bar graphic showing the increase in world organic farmland in millions of hectares between 1999-2015 and the percentage share of organic farmland worldwide.

Nearly 45% of the world’s organic farmland is located in Australia, where with 22.7 million hectares makes it the country with the world’s largest area of organic agricultural land by hectare in 2015, way ahead of second-placed Argentina which has just 3.07 million hectares of organic acreage. In third-placed United States which is the world’s biggest organic food market, just 2.03 hectares of land is used for organic farming.

Bar graph shows the top 10 countries in the world with the largest organic farmland in millions of hectares, as of 2015. Pie chart showing percentage distribution of organic farmland around the world.

The global organic food trend has been a boon for Australian food producers. Despite having the largest area of certified organic land in the world, organic food sales account for just 1% of Australia’s total food and beverage sales. Part of this may be due to the fact that most of Australia’s organic farmland is used for cattle farming (which explains why organic beef is Australia’s top organic food export by tonnage) and hence the country’s overall organic food output is relatively low.

However, it may also be due to a growing hunger for Australian organic products from export markets such as the East Asia (which accounted for 38% of Australian organic food exports by tonnage in 2017), North America (29%) and Europe (12%).

China, in particular is a major growth opportunity. Australian organic food exports by tonnage to China jumped 55% between 2016 and 2017 and China’s share of Australian organic food exports by tonnage nearly doubled from 9% in 2016 to 15% in 2017 according to data from the 2018 Australian Organic Market Report.

Much of growth in China’s organic food demand stems from the baby food category, particularly organic infant formula. China is the biggest export market for Australian organic baby food and formulas and Australian organic dairy products.

Bar chart showing the top export markets (by % of tonnage) for selected Australian organic food sectors 2017. The biggest market for organic Australian eggs is Hong Kong (accounting for 100% of Australia’s organic egg exports by tonnage). The United States is the biggest market for Australian organic lamb/sheep meat (accounting for 91% of exports), Australian organic beef (accounting for 90% of exports) and Australian organic fruits and vegetables (accounting for 46% of exports). South Korea is the biggest market for Australian organic soya products (accounting for 90% of exports) and bread and bakery product (accounting for 58% of exports). China is the biggest market for Australian organic baby foods and formula (accounting for 81% of exports) and dairy (accounting for 57% of exports). Netherlands is the biggest market for Australian organic nuts (accounting for 80% of exports). Sweden is the biggest market for Australian organic wine (accounting for 49% of exports).

In China which is the largest market in the world for organic infant formula, it is estimated that 75% of mothers feed their babies with organic infant formula according to London-based market research firm Mintel. Younger mothers i.e., those aged 25-34 are the major driving force with 79% of them using organic infant formula. The abolition of China’s ‘one-child policy’ potentially opens opportunities for expansion in this sector.

Bubs Australia (ASX:BUB) and Bellamy’s Australia (ASX:BAL) are two Australian organic baby food and organic infant formula producers both of which have operations in China and are poised to capitalize on the opportunity. Bellamy’s Australia has seen its share price jump by over 900% since August 2014 while Bubs Australia’s share price has soared over 400% since January 2013.

With Australia boasting nearly half of the world’s certified organic farmland and enjoying strong export demand for its organic food products, Australian producers are well placed to take a big bite out of the world’s growing organic food pie going forward.

A number of organic food companies elsewhere around the world have also benefited from the trend and good prospects have attracted investment into the sector. Organic food grocer Whole Foods (NASDAQ:WFM) was acquired by Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) in June last year at a 27% premium to Whole Foods’ stock closing price the day the deal was announced.

French food company Danone (EPA:BN) acquired American organic food company Whitewave Foods Co (NYSE:WWAV) in April last year.

Consumer goods company Unilever (NYSE:UL) acquired UK-based organic herbal tea company Pukka Herbs and Brazilian organic food business Mae Terra last year.

American grocery company Albertsons reported that its line of private-label organic items, O Organics, saw sales grow 15% last year, reaching US$ 1 billion.

Albertsons plans on introducing 500 or more new products to the line which already encompasses a wide array of organic food items including fresh fruits and vegetables, eggs, milk, yogurt, ice cream, meats, bread, coffee, snacks, pasta sauce, and baby food.

Over in Europe, Dutch organic food company Koninklijke Wessanen NV (AMS:WES) which recently acquired Spanish organic food company Biogran, has benefited handsomely from the growing organic food market with its share price appreciating by over 600% from five years ago (in 2013). During the same period,

In Asia, Japanese organic vegetable producer Ariake Japan Co Ltd (TYO:2815) has seen its share price jump over 500% since 2013.

The organic food trend has also been a positive for e-commerce behemoth Amazon which is a relatively new entrant to the US grocery market. A report by data analytics firm Click Retail found that in 2017, organic products fared very well accounting for nearly 25% of all Amazon Fresh sales.

Nestle (VTX:NESN) has been actively re-orienting its business as it struggles with weak sales as a result of changing consumer preferences toward organic, natural food and away from prepared, mass-produced meals which make up bulk of the company’s product portfolio. Last year, Nestle acquired Chameleon Cold Brew – America’s oldest and largest purveyor of organic coffee. This year, Nestle sold its US candy business to Italian confectionery company Ferrero SpA.