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Abu Dhabi is harvesting technology to drive a farming revolution

Future-proofing: the Abu Dhabi government created Silal to secure home-grown produce
  • Agtech to drive local food production
  • Vertical farms will transform supply chains
  • Retailers embrace food-origin stories

The Gulf region has historically imported around 90 percent of its food requirements, constrained by arid soils, scarce water resources and searing temperatures. But concerns about the impact of climate change on food production, coupled with the recent coronavirus-induced global supply chain crisis, are forcing governments to rethink food security.

Technology solutions

Abu Dhabi has set its sights on using technology to boost local food production. In 2020, it launched an incentive programme for Agtech innovators to come to the emirate to develop new farming techniques and advance research in the sector, signing partnerships with seven companies including the US’ AeroFarms, Nanoracks and Responsive Drip Irrigation, India’s FreshToHome, local players Madar Farms and RNZ, and hydroponics start-up Pure Harvest.

“Pandemic-driven shocks to the global food trade in 2020 were a stark reminder of the food security challenges for many countries that are heavily reliant on imports,” said Monique Naval, senior analyst, food and nutrition at Euromonitor International. “As such, recent policies have turned to investing, promoting and fostering domestic production.” 

Also in 2020, the Abu Dhabi government established Silal to diversify food supply sources and stimulate the local manufactured food and agri-food sectors. The company has since signed collaboration deals with a number of firms, farms and retailers, the latest coming in February, when it inked a memorandum of understanding with vertical farmer AeroFarms. The agreement commits the two to forging a long-term collaboration to develop advanced farming systems, and work across priority research areas including improving seedling resilience to extreme growing conditions and crop diversification.

It is a deal that Salmeen Obaid Alameri, CEO of Silal, describes as a “monumental step” for the company in its efforts to drive, deliver and safeguard high-quality food supply for the UAE and its people.

Sustainable and secure

The agreement is part of Silal’s efforts to increase food production volume and quality, improve technology adoption across local farms, promote sustainable agricultural practices and contribute to the UAE’s food security strategy, launched in 2018. Silal plans to provide 80 farms with a new one-hectare greenhouse or nethouse facility, fitted with smart irrigation and crop monitoring systems.

Naval hailed the emergence of vertical farmers such as Madar Farms and AeroFarms, saying they have the potential to transform food supply chains. 

“Using technology, these systems create fresher food that is produced sustainably, year-round and in all environments. Over time, investment in vertical farming may transform food supply chains. The future of food production will depend less on fields and more on technology – an appealing prospect to countries like the UAE that face food security issues,” she explained.

Backing up the AgTech strategy, the state-owned holding company ADQ, which is the parent of Silal, last year unveiled plans to launch the UAE’s first fresh produce AgTech Park to accelerate sustainable food production and distribution. The 200-hectare project in Al Ain Industrial City will become a hub for controlled environment farming and is planned to have an annual fresh fruits and vegetables production capacity of 39,000 tons.

Mansour AlMulla, group chief investment officer at ADQ, says efficient AgTech solutions for fresh produce can help the UAE achieve higher production levels and lower water usage to “unlock economic and environmental benefits”.

DisruptAD, ADQ’s venture platform, also led a $2.8 million seed funding round in April for Right Farm, which addresses gaps in the fresh produce value chain in the UAE and wider region with technology. Its one-stop shop uses predictive technology to facilitate routing, operations and purchasing, designed to provide a farm-to-table service. 

Elie Skaf, co-founder and CEO of Right Farm, said: “We have established product-market fit and are developing technology to modernise the fresh produce industry… By closing this funding round, we are confident our business will capture further growth opportunities across different segments of the market as we build a sustainable and commercially viable business.”

Dr Abdulmonem Almarzooqi, CEO of the Elite Agro division at Yas Holding which runs Nahel Farm, the UAE’s largest potato production facility, is also a strong supporter of AgTech. 

Face, Person, Human
Dr Abdulmonem Almarzooqi, CEO of Elite Agro, uses data to prolong his stock

Challenging climate

“We adopt a holistic approach to Agtech, allowing us to grow high-quality food… Through carefully managing every part of the production chain, we are able to grow varieties of fresh produce throughout the year despite challenging climate conditions. We implement sustainable production methods with each harvest, making the best use of data to increase efficiencies in irrigation and post-harvest management of stores, ensuring a longer shelf life for our potatoes.”

The total value of agricultural production in Abu Dhabi reached about AED13.7 billion ($3.7 billion) in 2020, boosting the sector’s GDP contribution to 1.1 percent. Statistics collected by Abu Dhabi Agriculture & Food Safety Authority show total local agricultural production was 707,774 tons in 2020.

During 2021, several non-oil economic activities in Abu Dhabi showed positive growth rates at constant prices, most notably the agriculture, forestry and fishing sector, which expanded by 23.1 percent compared to 2020.

The sector will also be boosted by the activities of start-up Terraplus Solutions, which announced earlier this year that it has completed successful trials of open-air rice production in the UAE, using a revolutionary subsurface irrigation method.

According to Patrick Stevens, managing director and co-founder of Terraplus Solutions, the trials are a “big step forward” in the plan to grow rice in the UAE. He said the staple crop has been grown economically and sustainably in the country for the first time.

Naval believes retailers are increasingly embracing food origin stories, with a focus on direct-to-consumer platforms that are revolutionising the future of food retail.

“Food origin stories need to become a focal point and the UAE understands this well. Stories that can appeal to proximity, traceability and sustainability or leverage new technologies will be most effective,” she added.

And more innovation is on the way: the UAE Ministry of Climate Change and Environment in April launched a global FoodTech Challenge with a $2 million prize fund for start-ups to propose cutting-edge Agtech solutions for food production and management including nutrient rich alternatives and food loss and waste. The winners will be offered the opportunity to scale-up their business in the UAE.

Nahel Farm, Al Ain in focus

Advanced technology increases yield while reducing costs

Nahel Farm is home to the UAE’s largest potato production facility and is one of Elite Agro’s (EAG) 36 production facilities, four of which are in the UAE while the rest are located in Europe and Africa.

During the 2022 harvest season, the farm’s expected yield per hectare is 35-40 tons of potatoes, while its expected total yield is 7,500-8,400 tons.

EAG UAE uses advanced potato planter technology to ensure precision planting and fully automated harvesting machines.

The farm also uses an automated adaptive differential irrigation solution which delivers a dramatic crop yield increase alongside water and energy cost savings.

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