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The vertical farms stacking up across the UAE

strawberries, vertical farm iFarm
iFarm has moved its global headquarters from Finland to the UAE and is opening facilities for year-round cultivation of leafy greens, herbs and strawberries
  • Gulf states have historically relied on imported food
  • The UAE is investing in vertical farms to improve food independence
  • Vertical farming in the region is set to be worth $5 billlion by 2029

Food security is a top priority in the UAE government’s development goals outlined in its National Strategy for Food Security.

Political will and private sector innovation are combining, and the result is an unprecedented wave of agricultural technology initiatives that aim to improve food self-sufficiency.

Across the Gulf, the vast majority of food requirements have historically been imported, because of the desert climate. And challenges to food security have increased with factors including climate change hastening desertification, rapid population growth and the disruption of supply chains caused by both the coronavirus pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine war. 

The UAE is the region’s foremost pioneer of indoor vertical farms, in which crops grow in vertically stacked layers in controlled environments that optimise plant growth and minimise water use, soil and land area.  

UAE ventures include Bustanica in Dubai and Pure Harvest Smart Farms in Abu Dhabi, among many others.

Bustanica, at 300,000 sq ft, is the world’s largest hydroponic farm, and was set up by Dubai’s Emirates Flight Catering and US company Crop One near Al Maktoum International Airport.

The $40 million facility provides greens for passengers of Emirates and other airlines and hospitality groups at the airport. Emirates Flights Catering prepares an average of 200,000 meals a day.

Speaking at the opening last July, Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, chairman and chief executive of Emirates Group, said that Bustanica “ushers in a new era of innovation and investments”.

Crop One CEO Craig Ratajczyk said the farm’s closed-loop system was designed to circulate water through the plants to maximise efficiency. 

When the water evaporates, it is recovered and recycled into the system, saving 250 million litres of water every year, compared with traditional outdoor farming for the same output.

Agtech DubaiEmirates
Vertical farm company Bustanica provides greens for Emirates in-flight meals. Picture: Emirates

Meanwhile, Pure Harvest Smart Farms has secured $180 million in funding from global investors to date, and UAE supermarket chain Spinneys is among the company’s partners.

It currently has around 300 employees and produces over 17 million pieces of fruit and vegetables a year in hi-tech, climate-controlled greenhouses.

In pursuit of selling more locally grown food in UAE supermarkets, Silal, a subsidiary of sovereign wealth fund ADQ, has linked up with GMG, which manages more than 120 retail brands in the region, including supermarkets and hypermarkets.

Under the deal, which was signed in December at Abu Dhabi International Food Exhibition, up to 1,100 UAE farms contracted to Silal will be supported to sell their fresh produce in GMG’s supermarkets.

Mohammad A Baker, deputy chairman and CEO of GMG, said the memorandum of understanding would accelerate the company’s plan to source 30 percent of fresh food locally.

The focus on agricultural technology also offers opportunities to businesses in the region. According to CB Insights, more than $6.4 billion was raised in 2021 through investments in tech providers and next-generation crop producers.

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.

GMG and Silal signing ceremony
Mohammad A Baker of GMG (left) and Silal CEO Salmeen Obaid Alameri sign the memorandum of understanding. Picture: Supplied

A brand new arrival in the UAE is Finnish tech startup iFarm, which was invited in November to join the incentive programme of Abu Dhabi’s Hub71, the technology project led by Mubadala Investment Company and backed by the government of Abu Dhabi. 

Beyond this, iFarm is set to open a further vertical farm facility in Dubai in the second quarter of this year, courtesy of a partnership with agtech company Spacefarm UAE.

Designed for year-round cultivation of leafy greens, herbs and strawberries, iFarm has a growing area of around 730 sq m and capacity to produce 3.2 tonnes per month.

Currently, only 20 percent of fruits and vegetables consumed in the UAE are grown locally, but this is set to change.

Dr Abdulmonem Almarzooqi, divisional CEO of Elite Agro, which has four fruit and vegetable farms in the UAE, said increasing health awareness among consumers was another factor encouraging business. 

“With the rising demand for locally produced food, along with increasing health awareness and the adoption of new technologies to optimise production, we expect the market to continue its steady growth over the coming year,” he said.

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