Masdar News

Tackling food and water security

12 May 2019
The UAE’s arid climate, limited cultivable land and scarce water resources means that the future of food security is now a strategic issue on the country’s national agenda, with the government taking strong action to address the challenges this issue presents.

Food security refers to a system with sustainable food production, which can provide affordable and nutritious food that can be accessed easily. In a food secure community, all people at all times have economic and physical access to food that is safe and nutritious. Water Security is the capacity of a population to ensure sustainable access to adequate quantitates of water for human well-being and socio-economic development. In a water secure community, quality water is available for people, industry, and the environment. 

Founded in 2017, Madar Farms is a local agricultural technology (AgTech) start-up that is focused on tackling food security and water security in the UAE. As such, our decisions are guided by how to solve for scale and impact. Agriculture is the largest consumer of water resources and in the UAE, we import more than 90 percent of our food. Thus, agriculture is a major component of tackling food and water security. 

Our story starts with leafy greens grown in hydroponic shipping container farms. This was a crash course in learning about the challenge of deploying global AgTech locally. More importantly, it wasn’t just an internal education. Externally, it helped us to navigate the local and international ecosystem of suppliers, policy decision makers, investors and clients. These conversations and insights informed our strategic priorities for the years ahead.  

We have learned that Research & Development (R&D) is the key to long-term success in our industry. The AgTech products being deployed around the world cannot simply be copy/pasted here in the UAE. Products developed in Asia, Europe or North America were created to be successful in their local environments. Differences in local environmental conditions, such as dust, humidity and heat, and overall weather patterns can take their toll in AgTech, which means that effective localisation is key to success. 

At Madar Farms, we are technology agnostic – we do not champion any technology over another. An objective analysis is vital in this industry, which is crowded with global product manufacturers claiming that their product is the best. However, our efforts to localise do not stop at technology. To us, localisation also means that we should grow food that the UAE wants and needs, and commit to developing local knowledge to ensure the long-term health and success of the local industry. However, developing local knowledge covers more than industry skills; it includes agricultural familiarity and education across all age levels. 

We have two initiatives that highlight this. The first is Bustani, a Smart Home Farming Showcase being held at Masdar City’s Eco-Villa prototype that demonstrates emerging farming solutions to help UAE residents become more self-sufficient in meeting their everyday food needs. A collaboration with Masdar City and the Ministry of Food Security, we are showcasing more than 15 home-scale AgTech products at the Eco-Villa throughout 2019.

Our second initiative is educational programmes for schools. Already active in Dubai, we have developed local educational content that provides an immersive and practical approach to understanding agriculture, food security and innovation. 

Our partnership with Masdar began in 2017. Mohammed Jameel Al Ramahi, CEO of Masdar, and Yousef Ahmed Baselaib, Executive Director of Sustainable Real Estate at Masdar, have been reliable champions of local AgTech. Masdar’s unwavering support is proof of its leadership in both thought and action. Masdar is clearly committed to sustainability and innovation and its support of this new industry extends from providing access to best-in-class knowledge regarding energy use, to connecting us with other start-ups. In addition to Bustani, we have an R&D collaboration being built in Masdar right now. This space will showcase a variety of crops, including microgreens, edible flowers, leafy greens and crops across the value and food chain, such as fodder. This research will inform the design aspects of future local AgTech. 

Unlike digital startups that can grow in multiples overnight, agriculture is a capital-intensive industry with proof of concept and returns requiring significant investment of time. In our industry, taking an idea from seed to fruition is not just a metaphor, and the need for local data and experimentation is crucial for commercial success. 

Acknowledging the strategic importance of this industry, under the guidance of H.H Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE's Armed Forces , the Abu Dhabi Investment Office conceptualised a Dh1 billion incentive scheme to help AgTech companies cover R&D costs. The initiative recognises that agricultural innovation is expensive and challenging even when conditions are ideal. Our desert climate adds complexity to an already herculean task. This support is crucial and timely, given that there is no clear dominant company or city that is home to the AgTech revolution. There is an opportunity to establish the UAE as a global leader as the industry is still in its infancy. 

It has been an honour to share our local experience to inform domestic policy. We have a channel of communication with the government to help and develop the overall industry for all and to establish the UAE as a global leader in AgTech. 

We are a young and diverse team of problem-solvers. Our diversity extends beyond the eight nationalities we represent and beyond our 50 percent female leadership, to include a diversity of previous industries and educational backgrounds. We care deeply about our company culture, and hope that Madar Farms is known as one of the best places to work. 
But what we are most excited about this year is the construction of our large-scale farm facility, which will have key design firsts in the region. We have just started construction work on the facility and it should be finished by the end of the year. 
Abdulaziz Almulla Co-Founder and CEO, Madar Farms