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The AgTech Ecosystem In The UAE: Starting From The Bottom

In the last few years, the agtech ecosystem has exponentially expanded in the emirate despite all odds.

Burj Al Arab

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has emerged as a frontrunner in integrating agricultural technology (AgTech) as a part of its ambitious national agenda to boost local food production. Acknowledging the hurdles created by its harsh climate and scarce arable land, the nation has embraced innovative technologies like vertical farming, hydroponics, and aquaculture to overcome these challenges.

A testament to this is the National Food Security Strategy 2051, which envisages the UAE becoming a global nexus for innovation-driven food security. The strategy emphasizes investing in R&D, nurturing public-private partnerships, and assimilating smart technologies in the food value chain, with the ultimate goal of ranking among the top 10 countries in the Global Food Security Index by 2021 and becoming the world's best by 2051.

This proactive approach has piqued the interest of both government and private entities, leading to substantial investments in the AgTech sector and laying a robust foundation for a thriving AgTech ecosystem in the UAE.

The Market In The UAE

The United Arab Emirates has made significant strides in agricultural technology (agtech) as part of its broader national strategy to increase local food production. Recognizing the challenges posed by its arid climate and limited arable land, the UAE government has been proactive in adopting innovative technologies like vertical farming, hydroponics, and aquaculture. The National Food Security Strategy 2051 aims to make the UAE a world-leading hub in innovation-driven food security. The strategy focuses on R&D investments, fostering partnerships between public and private sectors, and integrating smart technologies into the food value chain. The broader objective is to become the world’s best in the Global Food Security Index by 2051 and among the top 10 countries by 2021

Investments in the agtech sector have been robust, with government and private entities showing keen interest. The Abu Dhabi Investment Office (ADIO) has been particularly active, investing in agtech firms to set up R&D and production facilities in the UAE. In 2019, ADIO invested roughly $14 billion in agtech companies as part of its Ghadan 21 accelerator program, aiming to catalyze innovation and attract top-tier talent to the sector. These investments are not just financial but also include subsidies, grants, and providing state-of-the-art infrastructure.

The population of the country has more than doubled since 2000 and reached 9.4 million inhabitants in 2023. Despite the world grappling with various crises, the country is attracting more and more people, as it is considered a safe haven.

The Latest From The Various Segments:

Controlled Environment Agriculture

In recent years, the UAE has made significant strides in the controlled environment agriculture (CEA) sector to bolster its food security and sustainability. Key developments in this domain include the inauguration of a $40-million vertical farm in July 2022, supported by Emirates Crop One (Bustanica), a collaboration between Emirates Flight Catering and Crop One.

Recent investments in new local companies have been made, like the $180 million funding round for Pure Harvest Smart Farms, the company later inked a $150 million partnership with Richel Group to establish new greenhouses across the region. ADQ, one of the region’s largest holding companies, has joined forces with Safe Haven Solutions, a Netherlands-based climate-smart agriculture solution provider, to establish a cutting-edge greenhouse at ADQ’s AgTech Park in KEZAD. 

Ekthaar Agricultural LLC in Dubai has become the first vertical farm to be honored with the Sustainable Indoor Farming (SIF) Certification. This recognition is co-administered by the esteemed Association for Vertical Farming (AVF) and Control Union United Kingdom.

Precision Ag

The recent advancements in the AgTech sector within the United Arab Emirates (UAE) illustrate a significant pivot towards modernizing agricultural practices to bolster food security. The company has recently expanded into the fodder market through Elite Agro Holding. As per the company's comments, by joining the "Fodder Market" agreement, Al Dahra will supply animal feed on a large scale through 15 outlets within the "Fodder Market.” The company aims to meet the requirements of the livestock sector in various Emirates of the country.

Conversely, Silal, an emergent agricultural entity initiated by ADQ, aims to augment local agricultural production and diversify food sources in the UAE. The company has recently partnered with Desolenator, a solar thermal desalination company headquartered in the Netherlands, to launch a pilot project. This project will use solar-powered desalination technology to produce pure water for irrigation and offer a sustainable cooling option for greenhouses. The company plans to launch the "Innovation Oasis" in Al Ain - an advanced innovation, research, and development center for the agriculture and food sector. With 300,000 sqm of laboratories and training facilities, the center aims to provide a hub for academic institutions, research organizations, and businesses to experiment with cutting-edge technologies and develop technically robust solutions to enhance agricultural productivity.

Agri Inputs

The Agri inputs segment within the UAE's AgTech sector demonstrates an ongoing effort to bolster agricultural productivity and sustainability through innovation.

On the other hand, RNZ International, headquartered in Dubai, has established itself as a comprehensive plant nutrition solution provider. With a production facility located in Jebel Ali, the company manufactures a diverse range of over 400 NPK (Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium) grades of water solubles, granular, suspension, and liquid fertilizers, catering to the agricultural needs of the MENA region and beyond.

Moreover, MENA Agro & Feed, a rapidly growing manufacturing company, is dedicated to providing innovative nutritional products and solutions for the agro and feed industry. Its mission revolves around enhancing animal health and performance while delivering high-quality products at competitive prices, reflecting a holistic approach to fostering sustainable agricultural growth.

Other Segments

The recent advancements in the UAE's AgTech ecosystem shed light on the growing integration of technology in agriculture and related sectors. In particular, three companies—Ocean Harvest, Darzood, and Manhat—are making noteworthy strides in this arena.

Ocean Harvest has made significant inroads in promoting sustainable aquaculture. They recently launched a floating farm that employs technology to optimize fish farming conditions, minimizing environmental impact. This initiative is part of a broader move towards sustainable seafood production in the region, demonstrating a tangible application of AgTech in aquaculture.

On the other hand, Darzood Poultry Trading has been championing farm-to-table dining experiences by leveraging locally sourced produce. This ethos aligns with the broader AgTech movement of promoting sustainable and locally sourced food production, thus minimizing the carbon footprint associated with food transportation.

Manhat, a deep tech startup, is making a splash in the water security sector by innovating in natural water distillation technologies. They have showcased a unique approach to addressing water scarcity, a critical issue in the UAE and other arid regions. By employing a 'solar still' concept, they've devised a method to distill seawater on open water surfaces. This innovation aims to address the global water market, which is predicted to be worth over $900 billion by 2023 and tackle the growing problem of freshwater scarcity in the Gulf and other regions.

These developments underline the versatility and the potential of AgTech in addressing some of the pressing challenges in the agriculture and food sectors in the UAE and beyond. Through innovative solutions and sustainable practices, these companies contribute to the evolving landscape of AgTech in the region.

International Companies Moving In

Recently, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has seen many international companies engaging in various activities within its borders, particularly in the AgTech sector. Here's a closer look at some of these companies and their recent activities in the UAE:

AeroFarms:

AeroFarms, a US-based vertical farming company, has been active in the UAE, with notable developments, including establishing AeroFarms AgX, a research and development center in Abu Dhabi. This facility aims to advance sustainable agriculture in arid climates and recently had its grand opening. AeroFarms also hosted its 2nd Annual AeroFarms AgTech Innovation Summit in Abu Dhabi, further cementing its collaboration with local entities like Silal and showcasing its technology, which is claimed to be 390 times more productive than traditional field farming. Nonetheless, the center was shut down following the company’s bankruptcy filing, with many employees losing their jobs. No information was provided regarding a possible reopening soon.

RedSea Farms:

Saudi Arabian AgTech startup RedSea Farms has initiated operations at its first greenhouse facility in Abu Dhabi, UAE. This move is aimed at promoting food and fodder security in the region. Furthermore, RedSea Farms has agreed with Silal to apply advanced agritech solutions that help farmers grow crops in greenhouses, reducing water use by up to 95% and maximizing sunlight utilization.

iFarm:

iFarm, originally based in Helsinki, relocated its global headquarters to the UAE, leveraging Abu Dhabi’s Hub71 incentive program to expand significantly into the MENA AgTech market. This move is part of iFarm's broader expansion plan into the Middle East and its strategy to tap into the Asia-Pacific region. Additionally, iFarm has been promoting the benefits of vertical farming business in the UAE, offering 365 days of optimal, natural indoor growing conditions and significantly reduced water consumption.

Zero Vertical Farms:

Recently, an Abu Dhabi-based investment and holding company, ADQ, announced the operational phase of its cutting-edge AgTech Park ecosystem with the launch of a vertical farming project in partnership with ZERO, a high-impact technology company headquartered in Italy. This project is currently in its pilot phase and is expected to conclude in the summer of 2023. Following this, a 40,000 sqm commercial phase of the vertical farm is envisaged to be launched in Al Ain, further bolstering the controlled-environment agriculture segment in the UAE.

These activities demonstrate the growing international collaborations and the continuous advancements in the AgTech sector within the UAE, driven by both local and international stakeholders.

Concluding Remarks

Despite its ambitions in the agtech sector, the United Arab Emirates faces several unique challenges that could impact its food security goals. Firstly, the country's relatively small geographical size limits the amount of arable land available for traditional agriculture. Secondly, the UAE heavily relies on food imports, with more than 90% of its consumed food being sourced from outside the country.

This makes it vulnerable to global supply chain disruptions and price volatility. Lastly, the UAE's multi-cultural society, comprising individuals from virtually every country globally, brings diverse food preferences and cultural views on food. This diversity, while enriching, adds another layer of complexity to the task of increasing local food production in a way that satisfies the varied tastes and dietary requirements of its residents.

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