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Gulf reaches for vertical farming to bolster food security

A vertical farm in Sharjah. Similar facilities are being developed around the Gulf Reuters/Abdel Hadi Ramahi
A vertical farm in Sharjah. Similar facilities are being developed around the Gulf
  • Joint venture set up to build network of vertical farms in Saudi
  • US specialist AeroFarms working on sites in Qatar and UAE
  • GCC governments are trying to grow more of their own food

A joint venture has been set up to develop a network of indoor vertical farms across Saudi Arabia as GCC governments seek to reduce their reliance on imported food.

Mowreq Specialised Agriculture Co and biotech firm YesHealth Group have founded Vertical Farms Company, which will begin by building the kingdom’s largest indoor vertical farm in Riyadh. 

The farm is due to be fully operational by the fourth quarter of 2023. Expected daily yield is 2,000 kg, including a variety of lettuces, cruciferous vegetables, herbs and edible flowers.

The news comes ahead of the first Vertical Farming Middle East Congress, which takes place in Abu Dhabi on December 12-14.

The event is being organised by food consultancy Zenith Global. Richard Hall, Zenith’s chairman, said Gulf governments were “identifying vertical farming as integral to their strategies for healthy nutrition, local fresh produce and year-round sustainability”.

The focus on agricultural technology also 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 Saudi Arabia, which has lagged behind some of its neighbours in global food security rankings, the Ministry of Environment, Water and Agriculture has allocated $27 million to develop and localise vertical farming technologies. Riyadh’s National Research and Development Centre for Sustainable Agriculture is planning to form global partnerships with pioneers in the field.

Mowreq already supplies vertically farmed produce to consumers in Jeddah, under the brand name Janafarm, while YesHealth operates a large-scale indoor vertical farm in Taiwan and cooperates across several farms in Europe. 

The Riyadh farm will be operated jointly by Mowreq and YesHealth during a three-year technology transfer phase, with total investment of about $28 million. The project is backed by Saudi venture capital and funds, the companies said.

Initially, 50 full-time jobs will be created. More are expected over the next 5-10 years as the JV aims to develop the controlled environment agriculture industry across Saudi Arabia. 

“We built Saudi Arabia’s first indoor vertical farm and now we’re building the kingdom’s largest indoor vertical farm,” said Modar Hisham Nazer, co-founder of Mowreq and chairman of Vertical Farms Company. 

Mowreq’s founders Khder Al Ghamdi, Modar Nazer, Dana Enany and Obeid Bin Zagr, with Jesper Hansen (second right) of YesHealth. Their joint venture’s first farm is due to open by Q4 2023
Mowreq’s founders Khder Al Ghamdi, Modar Nazer, Dana Enany and Obeid Bin Zagr, with Jesper Hansen (second right) of YesHealth. Their joint venture’s first farm is due to open by Q4 2023

Jesper Hansen, chief commercial officer of YesHealth, said the company had “overcome the operational challenges of indoor vertical farming in subtropical Asia. The Middle East is our next challenge. We will guide the Riyadh farm through its initial phase of operation, with the aim of maximising output and efficiency at the high level we achieve in our Taiwan farm.”

Elsewhere in the region, US company AeroFarms has formed a partnership with Qatar Free Zones Authority and Doha Venture Capital to build a commercial indoor vertical farm in Qatar Free Zones.  

AeroFarms, which already operates a farm in the UAE, says its technology can achieve up to 390 times greater productivity per square metre each year, compared to traditional field farming, while using up to 95 percent less water and zero pesticides. 

“AeroFarms is committed to reimagining how and where our food is grown, and we are excited to expand further in Qatar as part of our longer-term commitment to the Middle East and North African region to enable local production and increase greater food resiliency,” said David Rosenberg, co-founder and CEO of AeroFarms. 

In the five years since Badia Farms opened the GCC’s first commercial vertical farm in Dubai, the UAE has seen a raft of vertical farm launches. These include the world’s largest hydroponic farm, backed by an investment of $40 million from Emirates Flight Catering and US-based Crop One. 

Located near Al Maktoum airport at Dubai World Central, the 330,000 sq ft facility aims to produce more than 1 million kg of high-quality leafy greens each year.

Market research firm Data Bridge forecasts that the vertical farming market in the Middle East and Africa will be worth almost $5 billion by 2029.

Wes Schwalje, COO at Tahseen Consulting, told AGBI: “Vertical farming has the potential to supply large amounts of produce to the region while requiring significantly less land and water than traditional farming methods.

“In the GCC, major grocery chains are also in a prime position to adopt vertical farming technology by growing produce in facilities close to stores or installing miniature facilities on store premises.”

Kicking the imported food habit

Constrained by arid soils, scarce water resources and searing temperatures, the Gulf has historically imported around 90 percent of its food. 

However, concerns about the impact of climate change on agriculture – coupled with the pandemic-induced supply chain crisis and the war in Ukraine – have forced governments to rethink their food security strategies.

A Deep Knowledge Analytics report published in July said GCC governments should step up their efforts to develop agri-food technology and reduce waste.

The study acknowledged progress in agri-food technology in countries such as Israel and the UAE, but said 86 million people in the Mena did not have sufficient food consumption.

In the 2022 Food Security Index that accompanied the report – which ranked countries according to access to food, crisis risks and resilience of the economy – the UAE was the top-placed Arab country at 26th. Qatar was 29th, Bahrain 30th, Oman 41st, Saudi Arabia 44th and Kuwait 47th.

The high-income countries of North America and Europe topped the index of 171 nations. 

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