Generation Start-up: How Lebanon’s Dooda is removing the squirm from earthworms

The AgriTech start-up is aiming to expand into the GCC and wider Mena region

Nada Ghanem started Dooda Solutions after realising what a major role earthworms play in producing fertile soil. Photo: Dooda Solutions
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The focus on sustainable solutions has never been stronger.

As the world gathered in Dubai for the Cop28 climate summit this month and battered out a last-minute agreement, much of the focus during the event was also on supporting innovation within the sustainability space.

For Lebanon-based Nada Ghanem, the idea of starting an agriculture technology company came after the scientific researcher, who was studying biodiversity, realised what a major role earthworms play in producing fertile soil.

“What struck me the most is that people were not aware of this reality, especially farmers, so farmers used to step on worms or kill them by physical pressure because they think it's a harmful pest,” she says.

“That alone made me really realise that I have a mission to raise awareness about the important role that earthworms play in our ecosystem and spread knowledge and awareness among the public and particularly among farmers.”

But while raising awareness, she started receiving enquiries about how to buy products featuring vermicompost – earthworm-produced waste – which led to the birth of Dooda Solutions.

Dooda means worm in Arabic, and “people perceive it as a negative thing”, Ms Ghanem, the company's founder and managing director, says.

“I chose this word boldly, to bring [it] to the attention of people … and then they cannot forget our name. So, you have a negative thing, but we are transforming the perception.”

The company manufactures vermicompost at its 2,000-square metre “farm” in Lebanon, with products ranging from soil to liquid fertilisers.

“The worms are raised and fed organic waste. Our process involves recycling waste, which is an important aspect for circular economy. So we recycle organic waste, we feed it to the worms, the worms will eat it up and produce the worm poop, which is vermicompost,” she says.

“This product is odourless, the entire process is odourless and aerobic – so it doesn't involve any heat or temperature increase. So the product at the end is a natural product – we bring nature to nature.”

The vermicompost aims to restore soil health by improving its structure, increasing nutrient availability and boosting microbial activity.

“We use advanced nano technologies in producing liquid vermicompost and we are the pioneers in Lebanon and in the region in such production and such products.

“We're proud of that. It's very challenging to be a pioneer because you have to do all the work, from raising awareness to convincing farmers and so on, but we are happy that we are making a difference,” Ms Ghanem says.

Dooda Solutions currently supplies its products only in Lebanon, but is in the process of gaining export licences to send its products to other countries in the Mena region in the next three months.

The expansion comes after the start-up won PepsiCo’s Mena greenhouse accelerator programme, which took place in partnership with the UAE Ministry of Climate Change and Environment and Food Tech Valley, in November.

Dooda Solutions was chosen from 180 applicants after a multi-stage selection process and six months of mentorship, and was awarded a $100,000 grant, along with opportunities to scale its business.

“With the support of PepsiCo we were able to access several markets in the region, for example, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE, and we're working on materialising these partnerships with some of the biggest farms in the region,” Ms Ghanem says.

“We also aim to go further and establish Dooda farms across the region. And the main idea behind our business is to support local food security, and support and enhance climate resilience.

“We want to be located in each country to provide a localised fertiliser solution that can support food security when all the borders are closed, when there are political challenges or environmental challenges or natural challenges.”

The region’s agriculture sector needs products specialised for its needs, says Ms Ghanem.

The dominant soil is sandy, with low nutrients, zero water-holding capacity and high salinity, which makes it challenging for farmers to grow produce, especially in hot climates. This makes them heavily dependant on chemical fertilisers, which are more expensive, Ms Ghanem says.

But switching to organic fertilisers will improve yield, she stresses.

Countries across the region, particularly the UAE and Saudi Arabia, have been prioritising food security as a key part of their national strategies.

The UAE's National Food Security Strategy 2051 aims to put the country at the top of the Global Food Security Index by 2051.

It sets out plans to develop a national system based on enabling sustainable food production by using modern technology, while enhancing local production.

The country aims to boost the contribution of food and agriculture to its economy by $10 billion and create 20,000 jobs in the next five years, Minister of Economy Abdulla bin Touq said in September.

He highlighted measures being taken to transform the food and agriculture sector with an emphasis on domestic innovation, a UAE-first culture and food supply chain, and giving farmers the necessary support and resources to make the country a global leader in AgriTech and sustainability.

Saudi Arabia is also investing heavily in developing the local agriculture sector as part of its Vision 2030 diversification agenda.

In line with that, the AgriTech industry in the Mena region attracted around $250 million in funding in 2022.

In June, Emirates Development Bank, the UAE state-owned lender that provides financing for the country's priority sectors, also introduced an AgriTech loans programme, with plans to allocate Dh100 million ($27.2 million) in financing support for the country's food security sector.

Dooda Solutions, which was bootstrapped by Ms Ghanem, has so far raised $300,000 in equity-free funding.

“We did break even, but we are reinvesting our profits back into the company because we still want to improve further,” she says.

“For example, in the coming few months, we will be introducing pelletised vermicompost. This will allow us to have a bigger share in the market, addressing potato farms and large-scale farms.”

COMPANY PROFILE

Name: Dooda Solutions
Based: Lebanon
Founder: Nada Ghanem
Sector: AgriTech
Total funding: $300,000 in equity-free funding
Number of employees: 11

While the company has big plans, Ms Ghanem admits that the journey so far has not been easy, especially as a female entrepreneur in a male-dominated industry.

“It was very challenging, especially that I am a lady in agriculture and waste management … So it took time for people to take me seriously.

“And the entire concept of earthworms was mocked. But this did not affect my will and my efforts because I knew exactly what I was doing. And I knew that with time people will realise the significance of the work I'm doing,” she says.

“I wanted to do everything to make it happen, so for me, I enjoyed the process … because I was creating something out of nothing. It was a personal choice and personal commitment to make it happen.”

Q&A with Nada Ghanem, founder and managing director, Dooda Solutions

Who is your role model?

Everyone who’s innovative and is a high achiever is a role model … [those] who [have been] able to make a difference and push boundaries and create something useful to the community.

If you could start all over again, is there anything you would do differently?

I’m proud that I [took] the right decisions throughout the years.

Any other successful company that you wish you had started?

I still have time to start other companies and I'm working on that as well. I don't like wishing or wishful thinking, I'm a go-getter and so I believe we still have time to create several things.

What new skills have you learnt in setting up this company?

Patience and time management, definitely.

What is your advice to other entrepreneurs?

Entrepreneurship is creating something new, something innovative.

Entrepreneurs and real innovators, they have to validate their solution, validate their ideas, really put a lot of effort on validating, on trial and error before spending a lot of time and before investing in businesses.

So it's OK if the idea proves not efficient or not profitable – you can ditch it and look into something else. Don't get too attached to the idea of starting a certain company.

What is your vision?

My vision is to grow Dooda globally and become the largest player in this domain in the world.

Updated: December 18, 2023, 4:00 AM
COMPANY PROFILE

Name: Dooda Solutions
Based: Lebanon
Founder: Nada Ghanem
Sector: AgriTech
Total funding: $300,000 in equity-free funding
Number of employees: 11