‘Turning the desert green’: Abu Dhabi backs food-tech innovation across land, sea and space

By Katy Askew contact

- Last updated on GMT

ADIO eyes tech to help agriculture flourish in extreme conditions / Pic: GettyImages-sarayut
ADIO eyes tech to help agriculture flourish in extreme conditions / Pic: GettyImages-sarayut

Related tags: ag tech, Investment

The Abu Dhabi Investment Office (ADIO) is stepping up its programme to attract food-tech companies that are developing solutions across ‘land, sea and space’ to the region. ADIO Director General His Excellency Dr Tariq Bin Hendi tells FoodNavigator that the Emirate hopes to play a leading role in the global food-tech revolution.

The Abu Dhabi Investment Office, the government body responsible for attracting and facilitating investment in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, is partnering with three innovative food-tech companies - Pure Harvest Smart Farms, FreshToHome and Nanoracks – through its AgTech Incentive Programme in deals that will see the groups receive financial and non-financial incentives totalling US$41m.

The research and technologies developed by these companies will strengthen the ag-tech ecosystem in the United Arab Emirates capital, Abu Dhabi, and promote innovation in the sector to address global food security challenges, ADIO announced earlier this week.

“Abu Dhabi is pressing ahead at full steam with our mission to ‘turn the desert green’ and solve long-term global food security issues. We have created an environment where innovative ideas can flourish and this has enabled the rapid expansion of our ag-tech sector,”​ ADIO Director General His Excellency Dr Tariq Bin Hendi explained.

Extreme farming: From the desert to space

The new collaborations see ADIO offering financial support to three companies working on distinctive technological platforms.

Pure Harvest is a ‘home-grown’, tech-enabled farming venture that uses ‘cutting-edge food production systems’ to grow fresh fruits and vegetables in a climate-controlled environment. This model enables year-round production anywhere and uses seven times less water compared to traditional farming methods, the company claimed.

Pure Harvest will invest in smart farming and infrastructure technologies at its new farms in Al Ain, Abu Dhabi, to optimise growing conditions through hardware design innovations, artificial intelligence, autonomous growing and robotics, plant science research and desert-optimised machines. The company will also progress R&D and deployment of a commercial-scale algae bioreactor production facility that will grow Omega-3 fatty acids.

GettyImages-3DSculptor International Space Station
Nanoracks research takes place on International Space Station / Pic: GettyImages-3DSculptor

FreshToHome is an e-grocery platform that leverages AI and precision aquaculture ‘giving better value to consumers, fishermen and farmers’, according to CEO Shan Kadavil.

ADIO’s partnership will aid the expansion of FreshToHome’s land and sea operational and processing capabilities in the UAE, bringing expertise in aquaculture, contract farming for marine and freshwater fish species and precision agriculture to Abu Dhabi. It will also invest in innovative fish farming technologies and cold chain.

“We intend to bring our US patent pending AI-powered Virtual Commodities Exchange technology, our e-grocery platform and our nano farm aquaculture technology to Abu Dhabi, enhancing food production and distribution for the region,”​ Kadavil revealed.

Meanwhile, Nanoracks - the single largest commercial user of the International Space Station - is building the first-ever commercial AgTech space research programme, the ‘StarLab Space Farming Center’, in Abu Dhabi. The commercial space research facility will focus on ‘advancing knowledge and technology’ for food produced in space and in ‘equally extreme’ climates on earth. The space-based technology will be applied to desert agriculture to address pressing environmental and food security challenges and to benefit long-term human space exploration, the company said.

“We firmly believe that space research holds the keys to solving major challenges on Earth from climate change to food security. And our StarLab Space Farming Center in Abu Dhabi is just the beginning. We’re building a global research and development team that will produce and commercialise organisms, technology, and innovative products that will not only revolutionise farming in Earth’s deserts and harsh environments, but also change the way humans are able to explore deeper into our universe,”​ Allen Herbert, SVP of Business Development and Strategy, and Head of Nanoracks, UAE, commented.

Taking a lead in ag-tech

GettyImages-Shams - Abu Dhabi
ADIO is supporting ag-tech investment in Abu Dhabi / Pic: GettyImages-Shams

The climactic conditions in the UAE mean that the country is a big net importer of food. According to the USDA, the UAE imports between 80% and 90% of the food it imports.

Dr Bin Hendi told FoodNavigator that ADIO’s strategic focus on developing ag tech solutions will strengthen food security and place the country at the centre of food system innovation.

“The UAE’s natural characteristics make it better suited for growing and producing certain types of food more than others, so food imports are likely to continue to complement local produce.
“Beyond local food security, however, we see our role as a driver of innovative technologies and solutions that can tackle complex global agriculture challenges in arid and desert conditions. We are uniquely placed to contribute to the agriculture value chain with our support for cutting-edge, next-generation solutions that are locally relevant and globally exportable.”

Cutting-edge tech for food system transformation

GettyImages-josefkubes vertical farm
Vertical farming can help build food system resilience / Pic: GettyImages-josefkubes

Abu Dhabi’s AgTech Incentive Programme aims to ‘harness existing technology’ and ‘develop new expertise’ in agriculture to ‘shape the future of food’. “At the core of ag-tech, is a drive to use technological innovation to advance farming practices, whether by solving pre-existing problems or improving established methods,”​ Dr Bin Hendi detailed.

Looking at the areas where he sees greatest potential to boost food production and increase access to affordable nutrition, Dr Bin Hendi told us ag-tech can improve productivity and ensure more consistent and higher quality output for farmers. Technologies of interest range from robotic systems, environmental sensors, aerial imaging, and other smart farming methods. Innovations in areas like vertical farming also offer the prospect of ‘more consistent’ yields because the controlled environment reduces risk, he continued.

“These cutting-edge solutions can be deployed by farms in Abu Dhabi and beyond, helping to boost food production and address the need to manufacture food for an increasing population,”​ Dr Bin Hendi suggested.

“There is also the potential for AgTech to deliver more nutritious food. With ADIO’s support, homegrown farming venture Pure Harvest, for instance, will progress R&D and deploy a commercial-scale algae bioreactor production facility to grow higher quality, healthier Omega-3 fatty acids without the limitations and challenges of traditional animal sources. Meanwhile, Nanoracks will research seeds that can be grown in extreme environments. These cutting-edge projects, among others, will help to increase access to affordable nutrition in the long-term.”

This latest series of investments is part of AIDO’s mission to establish Abu Dhabi as a centre of excellence in ag tech.

Since the beginning of 2020, ADIO has attracted seven companies to Abu Dhabi, each of which, the investment vehicle claimed, brings a complementary skill to expand the ecosystem.

AeroFarms, Madar Farms, RNZ and RDI all partnered with ADIO earlier this year to establish R&D and production facilities in Abu Dhabi.

Dr Bin Hendi believes that the strategy is already showing signs of success: “Innovations from the companies we partnered with earlier this year – AeroFarms, Madar Farms, RNZ and RDI – are advancing and starting to propel the growth of Abu Dhabi’s 24,000 farms. In the last few months, we have seen significant progress, with this group of innovators building out local teams, launching new products and projects, as well as teaming up with local entities on research and education programmes.

“We are driving innovation across the entire agriculture value chain and this is producing a compounding effect that is benefiting farmers, innovators and companies in our region and beyond.”

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