UK firm plans to transform UAE deserts into rolling hills of wheat and maize

Generation Start-up: HyveGeo chief executive says its end-to-end solution will help improve food security

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A climate-tech start-up with its headquarters in the UK and operations in the UAE has ambitious plans to transform large swathes of the desert into arable land for crops like wheat and maize.

HyveGeo, founded in 2023 by Abdulaziz bin Redha, Dr Samsurin Welch (COO), Eva Morales (chief strategy officer), and Dr Harjit Singh (chief engineer), is developing microalgae technology for carbon removal and soil regeneration.

The operation, which is largely based in the UAE, is currently at the pilot stage but it is hoped that by the end of 2025 it will be at the commercial stage, and starting to turn the desert green.

Mr Bin Redha, HyveGeo's chief executive, says the company started by exploring various methods of removing carbon dioxide from the air with a view to selling carbon credits.

I'm going to need over 100 square kilometres of land just for algae cultivation to do it at scale over the next 10 years
Abdulaziz bin Redha, HyveGeo

The original plan was to grow microalgae in a controlled way in ponds, which sequester carbon dioxide from the air. The idea evolved when the founders decided to convert microalgae into both biofertilisers and biochar.

The biochar is created through pyrolysis, where you heat the microalgae to 500 to 600°C degrees and are left with a black, charred substance. They combined biofertiliser and biochar, along with other ingredients, to create a product that can, over time, convert the sand into soil ready for cultivation.

“As we progressed, we realised we can do a lot more with what we're doing. It was no longer a carbon removal company. It became a food security company because what the biochar can do is regenerate soil, bring back soil health and turn desert land into arable farmland," he says.

"This biochar is really good for the soil but you need to add a little bit of other mixtures to it."

A portion of the microalgae is converted to biochar, and the rest is converted to bio fertiliser and biostimulants.

"The bio fertiliser we make from the algae is mixed together with biochar and then we stick them in the soil to create organic fertiliser. You can fix dead soil and soil that’s desert sand and convert it to arable soil.

"You can have a series of sand dunes and convert that to rolling hills of wheat and maize."

Proving it

HyveGeo is now in the process of proving its findings and plans to be commercial-ready by the end of next year.

"The science for microalgae has been there for over 35 years. This is not new. The science for biochar has been there but no one has put these two together," he says.

"We're trying to do this end-to-end solution in a very cost-effective way, because all of this is very expensive, but we found a way to do it in a cost-effective way."

Mr Bin Redha says 85 per cent of the product has been proven. The last 15 per cent is about finding the right ratio for the UAE climate and its soil.

“What we're doing today is proving that formula that we have, the mixture of biochar-microalgae with the microbes and the levels [of each]. That's our secret sauce, basically."

Pot trials are taking place over the next few months in his back garden in Jumeirah, where he is growing 100 pots of tomato and 100 pots of arugula. The microalgae and biochar are created on their farm in Ras Al Khaimah, while the research and lab work is carried out in Cambridge, where all the founders went to university, and in Exeter.

"We're testing two types of highly saline soil, dead soil from a farm where a farmer can’t grow anything.

After that, they plan to carry out field trials over two hectares – the size of two and a half football pitches.

"We’re in talks with a couple of governmental organisations in Abu Dhabi," he says.

Company Profile

Name: HyveGeo
Started: 2023
Founders: Abdulaziz bin Redha, Dr Samsurin Welch, Eva Morales and Dr Harjit Singh
Based: Cambridge and Dubai
Number of employees: 8
Industry: Sustainability & Environment
Funding: $200,000 plus undisclosed grant
Investors: Venture capital and government

One of the fields will be to grow the microalgae in ponds and the second will be for regeneration, which will take a matter of months.

"We take that mixture and we go to the second hectare and put that mixture in the sand and we start growing for six months because we want to prove it over two seasons," he explains.

"The biofertiliser will be placed 30cm under the sand, along with the soil."

Cost effective

In Abu Dhabi, there are 20,000 farms alone where the soil needs regeneration, he says. The Hyvegeo product price will be around $10,000 per hectare and will need to be topped up every five years instead of yearly as most solutions require.

"There are other companies and competitors that do one part of desert greening, which is a mechanical form called liquid nanoclay and you have to spray it every single year and each hectare costs you $20,000. Smallholder farmers can't afford that."

They are also developing the biostimulants that will be produced from the microalgae that will enable the land to be used for crops.

HyveGeo has raised $200,000 from VC funding and an undisclosed government grant from the Majra CSR fund, through Abdullah bin Touq, the Minister of Economy.

"I met him (the minister) a year ago with this idea and he was amazing, and his whole team and the ministry and the Majra team gave us fantastic support, inviting us on delegations and trips to showcase what we’re doing. We were the first private sector funding they gave to," he says.

The next stage of fund-raising will be $3 million to $5 million, he says, which will take the company to the end of 2025, mid-2026.

"This fundraise will conclude our pilot in the UAE and gets us to commercialisation," he says.

"That's when we have IP and that's when we will have what we call a ‘lift and shift’ approach, which is something that's working.

"It's about economies of scale then and it becomes a question of bringing the cost down.

"Just like solar, just like wind when it first started, it's just following the cost curve and bringing that cost down. The more you have, the more you created over more years commodity advances, the lower the cost."

Securing the necessary land will be important to getting that cost down and he is hoping that whoever supplies it will offer a grace period and help them reach their true commercial potential.

“I'm going to need over 100 square kilometres of land just for algae cultivation to do it at scale over the next 10 years to reach one megaton scale," he says, and suggests an area in Al Dhafra might be ideal as they can help with the carbon dioxide being produced by factories there and feed it into the algae ponds.

At one megaton capacity of algae production, he says HyveGeo can regenerate around 12,000 hectares of desert per year – the equivalent of 120 square kilometres per year, or double the size of Jebel Ali Freezone.

Q&A with Abdulaziz bin Redha, chief executive of HyveGeo

Where do you want to be in five years?

I want to be standing on land we regenerated. I would like to reach 100,000 tonnes capacity and reach commercialisation of microalgae.

I’d like to advance technology. I want to start looking at soils in Saudi Arabia and in Africa and look at that type of soil and create a formula for that.

We would like to have a suite of IPs that we can start to licence. We also want to be in a position where we've inspired the new generation of scientists in the UAE.

If you could do it differently, what would you change?

We learn from our mistakes and one of our mottos is break stuff fast. I keep asking my team, ‘What have you failed at today?’. We need to learn from failure.

When we're thrown curveballs, we need to figure out solutions for them and that builds our knowledge base. I love where we are today because we learn from mistakes.

What skills have you learnt?

I'm not a scientist by background, but I've quickly learnt about science, plant science, soil science, engineering. So I've picked up a lot of these skills to understand what my engineers or my scientists are talking about, to hold the conversation and to challenge them.

I think we’ve all picked up different skills. They’ve picked up business skills and I’ve picked up a lot of scientific and engineering skills.

Who is your role model?

Whenever I run into trouble, I always ask myself what would these two people do. One of them is Sheikh Mohammed. Everything that he does, the way he runs the country, the way he inspires, the way he leads. The way we've taken this place from a desert to what it is right now.

The other one is Elon Musk. It has to be engineering, it's going back to first principles. Why build the rocket this way? Why not make it reusable? Why not bring it back to where it’s supposed to be? How can you produce it more cost effectively, how can you do it in different way?

And the two people I could never forget are my parents. As entrepreneurs, they've taught me perseverance and grit. If something doesn't work, continue with it.

Updated: April 04, 2024, 10:13 AM
Company Profile

Name: HyveGeo
Started: 2023
Founders: Abdulaziz bin Redha, Dr Samsurin Welch, Eva Morales and Dr Harjit Singh
Based: Cambridge and Dubai
Number of employees: 8
Industry: Sustainability & Environment
Funding: $200,000 plus undisclosed grant
Investors: Venture capital and government