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Abu Dhabi backs women-led food security startups in Mena

Aerofarms AeroFarms
Abu Dhabi government's Silal has signed deals with various agtech companies including AeroFarms
  • Dana and Silal back entrepreneurs seeking solutions for local farming
  • Arid Middle East risks food insecurity without agtech successes
  • Dana offers feasibility testing facilities to allow startups to trial ventures

Dana Global, an Abu Dhabi-based venture builder and investment platform that supports women-led startups in agricultural technology (agtech) and water solutions, has announced a new partnership to tackle the food security situation in the Middle East and North Africa.

Its agreement with Silal, a subsidiary of Abu Dhabi’s $110 billion state holding company ADQ, focused on diversifying food product sources and stimulating the manufactured and agri-food sectors. It aims to address challenges such as resource scarcity, local production, and food security. 

Dana, backed by US venture capitalist David Sable, and Silal plan to initiate pilots to regenerate agricultural land and reclaim currently unusable areas from the desert.

They will also implement carbon credit incentives for farmers in the UAE – part of regional sustainable development efforts as the country prepares to host the Cop28 climate summit next year.

Dana co-founder Shirley Shahar told AGBI: “The food security situation in our region is dire, relying heavily on imports – for now competitively priced but less sustainable and with lower nutrient value.

“Our entrepreneurs are working hard to find solutions to increase yields of local agriculture – adapting to high salinity content, water scarcity and arid climate.”

Katie Wachsberger, co-founder and chief operating officer of Dana

Katie Wachsberger, Dana’s co-founder and chief operating officer, added: “We are excited to partner with Silal to advance much-needed agtech solutions in the UAE, and the wider Mena region.

“The Middle East has a clear and present risk of major food insecurity, and doing nothing is not an option.

“Via this partnership, we can better support the incredible entrepreneurs we work with – most of whom are women from the region.

“Complementing the beta sites we are already operating, we plan to launch new pilots and collect vital data to foster ecosystem growth, and encourage entrepreneurs to make their dreams a reality.”

The partnership’s goals support the UAE’s public policy – the National Food Security Strategy – to adopt advanced agricultural methods to promote security, efficiency and productivity.

It comes as the availability of basic foodstuffs and its potential impact on societal stability grows more negative.

Kristalina Georgieva, the International Monetary Fund’s managing director, recently announced that over 141 million people in the Arab countries are at risk of food insecurity.

Dana and Silal said it will address salinity, irrigation, crop optimisation, post-harvest and supply chain, pest management, fertilisation and systems efficiency.

All projects aim for feasibility of scaling across small and locally owned farms in developing markets, with cost efficiency as a priority.

The partnership comes as the Middle East increasingly turns to technology to alleviate food security concerns. The Gulf region has historically imported around 90 percent of its food. 

The focus on agricultural technology offers opportunities to businesses in the region.

According to CB Insights, over $6.4 billion was raised last year through investments in tech providers and next-generation crop producers. In July Abu Dhabi’s Pure Harvest Smart Farms secured $180 million from global investors.

In June Dana signed an agreement with Masdar City in Abu Dhabi to launch a ‘beta site’ consisting of greenhouses and feasibility testing facilities to allow agtech founders to grow their ideas to the product stage. 

Currently under construction, the site is being equipped with cutting-edge infrastructure, with plans to host five pilots starting next month.

Dana said it is currently working with six companies from the UAE, Palestine, Israel and Saudi Arabia to bring disruptive solutions for some of the Middle East’s largely untapped markets, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Morocco.

women at aero farms
AeroFarms has found ways to grow produce in the desert

The most promising candidates within Dana’s portfolio of companies will graduate to later stage pilots within Silal’s programme offering.

Wachsberger said Dana is committed to promoting female-led tech startups in the region as female founders still receive only about 1 percent of total venture capital funding allocated in Mena.

Abu Dhabi government established Silal in 2020 and it has since signed collaboration deals with a number of firms, farms and retailers, including a memorandum of understanding with vertical farmer AeroFarms earlier this year.

Silal plans to provide 80 farms with a new one-hectare greenhouse or nethouse facility, fitted with smart irrigation and crop monitoring systems.

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