x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Brazil farmers reap from Adep's financial lifeline

Arabian Gulf banks have ramped up their presence in the commodity trade business. And then there is Abu Dhabi Equity Partners, founded by Muneef Tarmoom, which provides growers in Brazil with a balance sheet to allow them to sell between harvests.

Cotton is harvested at a farm in Luis Eduardo Magalhaes, Brazil. The country is ranked either first or second for the export of a range of soft commodities. Adriano Machado / Bloomberg News
Cotton is harvested at a farm in Luis Eduardo Magalhaes, Brazil. The country is ranked either first or second for the export of a range of soft commodities. Adriano Machado / Bloomberg News

It's harvest season in Brazil. Growers are dumping their crops into the international markets, causing prices to go down.

A farmer wants to wait until prices stabilise before selling his crop to the international traders.

But his suppliers are hassling him, asking him to pay for his fertiliser, seeds and equipment he has used in the last year.

This is where Emirati national Muneef Tarmoom comes in.

The founder of Abu Dhabi Equity Partners (Adep) throws a lifeline to the farmer, and takes title of the soft commodity in return.

"We provide the balance sheet to the farmer to be able to sell between harvests, because that's when he'll be able to make the maximum returns on his crop," Mr Tarmoom says.

With an Islamic-finance focus, the boutique investment bank originates, structures and places deals in soy, sugar, ethanol, cattle, cotton and corn in Brazil.

The country is ranked either first or second for the export of a range of soft commodities with an agricultural trade surplus of US$60 billion (Dh220.38bn) annually.

Adep and a handful of Arabian Gulf banks have ramped up their presence in the commodity trade business, which until recently has been dominated by French banks, such as BNP Paribas and Credit Agricole. The trend follows the entry of Abu Dhabi's Aabar Investments and Qatar Holding into mining and commodities trading giants Glencore and Xstrata, the two of which are awaiting regulatory approval before they consummate their $32bn merger.

Mr Tarmoom worked for the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority for 14 years. In 2005, he served as the chief executive of the Dubai sovereign wealth fund Istithmar. After that he offered independent private equity consulting for a short while before founding Abu Dhabi Equity Partners in 2010.

The idea of asset-backed finance in commodities came about a few years ago, he says, as he was pitching private equity deals to investors in Saudi Arabia.

"I was often told: 'I like what you're doing, can you do it in a Sharia-compliant way?'," he said. "A lot of the Islamic finance is paper-based rather than physical based. I thought surely we could create something closer to Sharia."

With tenures of three to six months long, Adep provides so-called inventory finance to farmers. The Abu Dhabi firm has struck deals with Brazilian growers to provide financing worth $100 million for the first half of this year. Mr Tarmoom deals with mid-income farmers, earning between $200m and $500m annually in revenues.

Adep buys the crop at a discount from the farmer. It appoints the farmer to sell the commodity on the company's behalf because they understand the industry and they have the relationships with the giant international trading companies. Following the sale, the farmer returns the principal and agreed profit rate to Adep and the remaining profit goes back to him.

The unique business has been widely welcomed by Mr Tarmoom's investors, which include a niche of prominent Islamic banks in the GCC.

"There's a huge mismatch between the Islamic bank's sources of funds and how they are deploying these assets," Mr Tarmoom says. "If you look at their balance sheets, their sources of funds are in the form of short term, usually less than three months, and they are placing it in long-term assets with the excess liquidity sitting in the central bank, earning them almost nothing."

Mr Tarmoom is looking to capitalise on the $400bn worth of assets in Islamic financial institutions, of which around a quarter is currently parked in cash and cash equivalents, he says.

The risks are many: such as floods, drought or bad weather, in addition to the potential of commodity prices falling off a cliff. But he offers enough assurances to comfort his Gulf investors.

The crops are fully insured in the case of natural disasters, he says.

Adep also buys a hedge, or "Sharia put", from an investment grade bank in the case that prices go down.

"We get capital and profit protection from an investment grade bank, through exercising a 'put' option," he says.

In addition, investors are provided surveillance services, through an international monitoring company.

"Investors of Adep can actually switch on the computer and see our storage tanks for ethanol and the trucks loading up, they can see the cattle grazing, and the sugar. They can see if anyone is trying to steal any of the stockpile."

Moreover, investors have title to the crop, registered through a global investment bank. They also have certificates in their name on either of Brazil's two exchanges: Cetip or BM&F Bovespa.

"It's all regulated. It's not a cowboy thing. We spent time thinking about the origination and structuring. We have to build up a water-tight instrument and look at all the permutations of risk and place mitigations," Mr Tarmoom says.

"In our case. We have over insured because we thought investors overseas will always be worried about their money," he says.

The company has generated profits between 5 to 10 times over Libor for its investors.

Mr Tarmoom is looking to build up "crop production" transactions as well, financing from inception for seeds, fertiliser and capital production. The tenure of these deals are typically six to 12 months long.

While the asset hasn't "grown" yet, it is still permissible through a "salam" structure, he says.

"The Prophet (PBUH) made the exception in the case of agriculture," Mr Tarmoom says.

"Because the growers would go hungry if they had to wait until the harvest to be paid for their crops."