Before becoming an entrepreneur, Elie Skaf was a typical corporate sector professional. Ambitious and keen to acquire new skillsets to improve his chances of success, he moved from one company to another, climbing the corporate ladder in the process.
Born in Jezzine, Lebanon, and raised in Abu Dhabi, Mr Skaf's corporate journey included stints at multinationals such as consultancy PwC and AstraZeneca. He was also head of business development and partnerships at the UAE's home-grown success story, Careem.
It was all about picking up the corporate roles he wanted until the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. This is when he thought of ticking something else off his list — building a venture from scratch.
Mr Skaf does not consider himself a born entrepreneur. He didn’t even know he had the bug in him until he became part of Careem’s entrepreneurial culture that turned the ride–hailing venture into a super app.
“No, I was never [an entrepreneur] until I joined Careem … something just clicked in my mind,” he says. “What I wanted to do after Careem was join early stage [ventures] and keep going down that path until I build a venture of my own.”
Mr Skaf took the first strides into entrepreneurship with the launch of Loop Contacts, an e-commerce subscription-based venture that sells prescription contact lenses.
The bootstrapped venture, which he started with a partner, addressed major pain points for customers, he says.
“Right now, that business is operational, completely self-funded and profitable,” Mr Skaf said. “That's what we intended right along, a small cash cow and a nice case study.”
However, his love for agriculture technology pushed him to set up Right Farm, a venture that seeks to improve the fresh produce value chain by increasing operational and financial efficiencies.
Right Farm, he says, ticks all the right boxes, starting from addressing the industry's pain points and employing technology to tackling broader issues of a more sustainable supply chain and food security.
“I have a passion for everything AgriTech-related,” Mr Skaf, who is co-founder and chief executive of Right Farm, says. “Right now, if you look at supply chain and agriculture, those are two very, very ripe sectors for disruption.”
Set up in 2021, Right Farm is developing technology that optimises the sourcing and procurement of fresh produce for hotels, restaurants, cloud kitchens and retail sector businesses.
From cutting out middlemen and delays to establishing a strong connection between buyers and farmers and minimising wastage to boost sustainability and food security, Right Farm supports the supply chain from beginning to end.
“A lot of the people we talk [to] see that value at every step or at every touch point that we interact with food,” he says. “There is a need and there is a trend, or at least there is a positive outlook, on businesses that are working to address these types of challenges and the food supply.”
Mr Skaf's entrepreneurial journey, similar to other start-ups, was also fraught with challenges. The biggest struggle was to develop the right technology and build a capable team before launching operations, he says.
“I wanted to make sure that we had a strong leadership that was willing to get their hands dirty, and this was super key [for me]. Sometimes you fall into the trap of launching quickly with lower [skill] level employees,” he adds.
It took a bit of convincing to bring Mohammad Ajamieh, the company’s chief technology officer, and chief operating officer Mazen Mourad on board as co-founders of Right Farm.
“I took the plunge first and they joined in later”, but together the co-founders have built a business around three principles: consistency, customisation and reliability, he says.
Right Farm already boasts a client portfolio of about 200 accounts including Hola, Poke & Co, Studio One Hotel and SoftBank-backed cloud kitchen company Kitopi, which has close to 100 brands and satellite kitchens in its network.
On the supply side, the company is working with more than 30 local and regional farms to procure fresh produce for its clients.
The venture currently provides clients access to more than 1,000 fruits, vegetables and microgreens, enabling businesses to place orders and receive delivery within 12 hours.
Since launching operations, Right Farm, on average, has been doubling its revenue month on month.
“That's in the first six months of operation with many bottlenecks that we tackled every day. And that's still without the tech being where we wanted [it to be].”
The company’s success has not gone unnoticed by investors. In April, Right Farm raised $2.8 million in a seed funding round led by DisruptAD, the venture capital platform of Abu Dhabi’s holding company ADQ, and Enhance Ventures, a VC studio that focuses on the Middle East, North Africa, Pakistan and Turkey.
Governments in the GCC are investing in growing entrepreneurship ecosystems as they look to diversify their economies and fuel post-pandemic growth.
Despite pandemic headwinds, the regional start-up scene has been booming and has continued to attract financing for growth.
Total financing from venture capital funds in the Middle East surged 132 per cent to almost $2 billion last year, with the total number of deals up 5 per cent to 410, according to data platform Magnitt.
The UAE, embarking on the National Food Security Strategy 2051, has been investing heavily to generate sustainable local food production to reduce imports and is adopting technologies such as artificial intelligence and robotics to meet long-term market demands.
Mr Skaf says the money raised from the latest funding round will go to support the technology development of the business, which currently operates out of a cold-storage facility in Dubai’s fruit and vegetable market.
The company, which has raised $3.8m in total funding so far, also plans to use part of the proceeds for its expansion in the broader Mena region. However, focus this year remains on technology and improvement in warehousing and logistics capabilities in the UAE.
“We're probably looking at launching in Saudi Arabia next year and Egypt will follow. The cool thing about Saudi is that it's a very similar market to the UAE,” he says.
The company expects to become a major regional player, both on the demand and supply side, in the next five years as it continues to expand its customer base and network of farms.
“In five years, we're looking at a very decent valuation, [and] a few funding rounds,” Mr Skaf says.
Q&A with Elie Skaf, chief executive and co-founder of Right Farm
Who is your role model?
My father, both personally and professionally. He encompasses values that I and Right Farm live by. He is kind and loving, with an unparalleled work ethic and drive to succeed. He taught me that anything is possible if you work hard and all you have to do is grab an opportunity when it shows up, and that opportunities always show up.
What’s your biggest lesson from launching Right Farm?
The biggest lesson that I have learnt is that there are two major factors that determine the success of a start-up.
First is the team, as hiring the right team early on with members who are leaders and exhibit that skillset but are also willing to get their hands dirty [is key]. Diversity and relevance of their skillset and their experience also matter a lot.
Timing is the other factor — your start-up needs to be disruptive in its space, tackling problems that can be optimised to scale via technology. A venture should address relevant topics while solving problems in today’s world. With Right Farm, we are solving problems faced in food supply-chains and the agriculture sector — addressing the issue of food security — and sustainability as we address the issue of net zero.
What skills have you learnt from setting up your business?
Given my diverse professional background, I have been exposed to a wide range of business functions including financial, legal, commercial, analytics, strategy, operations and, over the years, I have developed a diverse set [of skills]. However, I had not been involved in building a venture from scratch until I started building Right Farm. Pitching to investors, fundraising and building the desired company culture are skillsets that I picked up at Right Farm.
If you had to start over, what would you change?
If I have to start over, I would dream even bigger. There are times when you think that since you just started the business and have no track record in the market, some targets or achievements may seem farfetched. But that should not stop you at all from believing in your value proposition and being ambitious. For example, we on-boarded Kitopi as a customer in only our fifth month of operation, a customer that we initially thought would not want to work with us given that our business was at an early stage.
What other successful start-up do you wish you had started and why?
I am passionate about agriculture technology and have always wanted to start a farming venture. Building and growing Right Farm has opened my eyes to the numerous challenges and opportunities that exist in the food value chain. A tremendous amount of value can be generated in addressing issues faced by the sector using technological solutions.
Where do you see the company five years from now?
I see Right Farm as a regional e-commerce one-stop shop for food service businesses. I see it as a company that sources produce from local, regional and global farms and ensures our customers have access to the products they need, consistently and reliably. This can only be achieved through a sustainable business model and staying true to our vision of connecting a global network of farms to our customers.
Company: Right Farm
Launch year: 2021
Founders: Elie Skaf, Mazen Mourad, Mohammad Ajamieh
Number of employees: 70
Sector: Business-to-business e-commerce
Amount raised: $3.8 million
Investors: DisruptAd, Enhance Ventures
Future funding: Series A