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Top 10 agtech innovators shaping the Mena market

People, Person, Man, cart Reuters/Mike Segar
Greens on the move: A worker transports freshly harvested kale grown under LED lamps at an AeroFarms facility
  • Using big data and AI to control pests and monitor supply chains
  • Supporting smallholders with finance app and growing solutions
  • Growing greens with hydroponics and saltwater

Lush plains criss-crossed by fresh water lakes and grasslands where hippos and elephants roamed. This was the Arabian peninsula in prehistoric times, according to archaeologists who have uncovered traces of fertile landscapes beneath the desert sands.

Today the terrain looks very different, as the region’s governments race to confront food scarcity on a warming planet.

The Middle East and North Africa has only 1 percent of the world’s fresh water resources to support its expanding population, according to the World Bank. Almost two-thirds of people in the region live in areas that lack sufficient water to sustain crop production. 

But a new generation of innovators is finding ways to make farming work in arid environments, easing the pressure on fast-depleting resources with growing methods that harness sustainable supplies.

In Mena – where the smart agriculture market is projected to increase in value by 12.62 percent each year up to 2027 – there’s a rush to embrace novel ideas, from vertical farming powered by AI to smart supply chains and algorithms that monitor pest control. 

Gulf countries in particular have made massive investments in the agricultural technology industry.

From startups and private businesses to government initiatives, here are the top 10 Mena agtechs that are transforming the world’s most water-scarce region into a land of plenty. 

1 AeroFarms

AeroFarms uses aeroponics – a process of growing plants without soil in a nutrient-dense mist – and harnesses horticulture, genetics and engineering to balance taste, texture, nutrition, size and yield.

In 2020 the US company announced plans to build the world’s largest vertical farming research and development facility in Abu Dhabi, following a $100 million agtech investment by the Abu Dhabi government to further next-generation agriculture in arid and desert environments.

The 65,000-sq-ft facility opened this month and will focus on making vegetable and fruit varieties more resilient in extreme growing conditions.

The US company has also signed deals with Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Crops at Badia Farms are grown using grown using 90 percent less water than open-field farming. Picture: Reuters/Abdel Hadi RamahiReuters/Abdel Hadi Ramahi
Crops at Badia Farms are grown using grown using 90 percent less water than open-field farming. Picture: Reuters/Abdel Hadi Ramahi

2 Badia Farms

Since launching the GCC’s first indoor vertical farm, the Badia brand has become a staple on supermarket shelves in the UAE.

Shoppers have benefitted from access to locally grown microgreens all year round, including coriander, basil, rocket and sorrel, all packed with nutrients and grown using 90 percent less water than open-field farming.

No pesticides are required for the hydroponic method used by Badia Farms, which operates 24 hours a day to supply homegrown produce and help reduce the region’s reliance on imported fruit and veg. 

3 Decapolis

Both farmers and consumers benefit from the service offered by this Jordanian startup, which uses blockchain technology to map food from farm to shelf.

Decapolis, which recently joined forces with US agriculture giant Fresh Del Monte, allows wholesalers, retailers and producers to evaluate the quality and safety of produce through all stages of the supply chain, from sourcing to handling and distribution.

Farmers, meanwhile, benefit from validation and quality assurance that can provide access to new markets, as well as training for optimal crop quality. 

4 Edama Organic Solutions 

Edama is on a mission to increase the efficiency of desert food production by creating a local circular economy that reduces waste and improves soil.

The Saudi company takes organic waste that would normally go to landfill and transforms it into products that plough nutrients back into the farming cycle.

These products are designed to enhance the water-holding capacity of sandy soils and supply the hydroponics and indoor farming sectors, supporting growing methods that reduce water consumption or offer a more sustainable way of growing.  

Mozare3 gives smallholder farmers in Egypt access to a range of financial products and agronomy support. Picture: Mahmoud Elkhwas via Reuters ConnectMahmoud Elkhwas via Reuters Connect
Mozare3 gives smallholder farmers in Egypt access to a range of financial products and agronomy support. Picture: Mahmoud Elkhwas via Reuters Connect

5 Mozare3

Supporting small farmers is key to addressing the region’s food security challenges, particularly in areas such as Upper Egypt, where over 55 percent of employment is agriculture-related.

This Egyptian ag-fintech secured over $1 million in pre-seed funding in 2021 to implement its plans to provide unbankable smallholder farmers with access to a range of financial products, markets and agronomy support.

The Mozare3 app links Egypt’s smallholder farmers to buyers directly on a contract-by-contract basis. Once a price is agreed, Mozare3 provides farmers with agronomy support and sources of financing for their inputs, helping them to upscale their business and meet rising demand.

6 Nakhla

There are over 19 million date palm trees in Iraq, 7 million of which are no longer productive.

Through its cultivation, harvesting and cleaning service, Nakhla is working to revive the country’s date palm industry – which was a world leader before years of conflict reduced its market share to just 5 percent.

Following a successful Adopt-a-palm programme, Nakhla began by overseeing the care and revival of over 12,000 palm trees in Baghdad. Last year it secured a six-figure investment from Iraq-focused venture fund Euphrates.

For $35 to $75 per tree, Nakhla will subsidise the care and cultivation of a Iraqi palm before selling the fruit and sharing the proceeds with its owner.

7 Palmear

Nearly 50 million farmers suffer from the impact of the red palm weevil, which wreaks its destruction from the inside out, killing the palm before it’s discovered.

UAE firm Palmear harnesses big data, artificial intelligence and audio engineering to combat these pests. Its real-time sensor is powered by AI algorithms that detect the weevils and allow farmers to treat their trees before the damage is done.

The rhynchophorus ferrugineus – or pesky red palm weevil. Picture: Creative Commons/Len WorthingtonCreative Commons/Len Worthington
The rhynchophorus ferrugineus – or pesky red palm weevil. Picture: Creative Commons/Len Worthington

8 Plug’n’Grow 

The latest technologies are almost always expensive, which is why this Egyptian company set out to devise affordable growing solutions for smallholders.

Plug’n’Grow promises “the highest output capacities per metre and at the lowest production costs in the market”. Its food farms harness hydroponic and aquaculture technology to grow vegetables, fruit, herbs, flowers or fish.

It says it uses 50 percent less energy and 85 percent less water to achieve a 10 to 50 times higher yield. 

9 Pure Harvest Smart Farms 

One of the best-funded startups in the region with over $387.1 million raised to date, this Abu Dhabi-based company is demonstrating that high-tech farming solutions can be deployed across the GCC.

With a further $180.5 million from its latest funding round in 2022, Pure Harvest plans to roll out high-tech hybrid smart farms growing fruit and vegetables across the GCC and Asia. 

Sky Kurtz, co-founder of Pure Harvest Smart Farms. Picture: Pure HarvestSupplied
Sky Kurtz, co-founder of Pure Harvest Smart Farms. Picture: Pure Harvest

10 RedSea

The Saudi-based agtech company has made its name with technology that enables commercial farming with salt water.

Last year, RedSea announced an $18.5 million strategic fund to support its global and regional expansion plans. Some of this will go towards widening its product line, which currently focuses on snack tomatoes, cucumbers and bell peppers.

It will also invest in developing its technology, which uses a blend of plant science, sustainable cooling, light and energy management and AI systems to reduce the reliance on fresh water.

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