Almost a decade ago, Khadija Hasan couldn’t help but notice the lack of local produce sold in supermarkets and grocery stores in the UAE.
At the time, the former investment banker was attending business school and already working on her own start-up that focused on oil purification methods to clean up crude in an environmentally friendly way.
While that business didn’t work out, Ms Hasan, the founder and chief executive of KRISPR, started exploring other industries that were ripe for disruption.
“I'd been in Dubai at this point for several years,” says Ms Hasan, who moved to the UAE in 2010. “I didn't want to go back to the corporate world as doing a start-up, as risky as it is, is definitely a lot more fun for me.
“I started looking at other potential industries that could be disrupted because building a business that had both the hardware and software component was very attractive for me.”
What first turned out to be an observation about the lack of local produce in supermarkets grew into the idea for KRISPR, a start-up that uses vertical farming methods to grow produce in a 700-square-metre warehouse in Dubai that aims to reduce the UAE's reliance on imported foods.
In terms of revenue, the global agriculture technology market was valued at $17.4 billion in 2019 and is projected to grow 11.3 per cent to reach $41.1bn by 2027, according to Research and Markets.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE are the largest food importers in the GCC and accounted for 74.9 per cent of the region’s net imports in 2019, according to a 2021 GCC Food Industry report by investment banking advisory Alpen Capital.
While traditional farming in the GCC region is challenging because of the harsh climate, a number of advances have been made in the AgTech sector that make it possible to grow local produce indoors.
“I'm originally from an agricultural country, where it's mostly soil-based production,” says Ms Hasan, who is from Pakistan. “However, we don't do it really well so we end up importing a lot of the food – and food quality and traceability, consistency, nutrition, all of that is always questionable.”
Food security in the UAE has been a focus of the government over the past few years. However, the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of food security after global supply chains were disrupted during movement and travel restrictions.
The UAE has already launched a number of initiatives to boost local food production and reduce its reliance on food imports.
In 2020, the Abu Dhabi government said it would offer more than Dh110 million ($30m) in financial incentives to AgTech companies looking to set up in the emirate as part of its Dh50bn Ghadan 21 accelerator initiative.
Meanwhile, Abu Dhabi holding company ADQ said last month it planned to start a new venture in Al Ain to increase the production of fresh fruits and vegetables.
ADQ will be teaming up with three agriculture specialists to develop and operate greenhouse units within the new 200-hectare AgTech Park at Al Ain Industrial City that has an annual production capacity of 39 kilo tonnes, it said at the time.
The Emirates is already making inroads with its food security goals. Domestic production of local produce has risen in recent years, growing at a compound annual rate of 9 per cent between 2014 and 2019, according to Alpen Capital.
“The gap between production and consumption in the UAE has relatively eased over the last two years, falling considerably from its peak in 2017,” Alpen Capital said in the report.
For Ms Hasan, KRISPR is a platform that is helping to fulfil her ambition to sustainably solve the world’s food security challenge.
“Our goal as a farming company is to find a more sustainable way to grow produce in this difficult environment,” she says.
“The UAE has maybe less than 1 per cent of agricultural land. We have water scarcity issues, pure water issues, land pollution, temperature constraints [and] light issues because daylight and seasonal light varies a lot.
“So by taking agriculture indoors … we're eliminating all of these variables that would affect consistent quality and consistent quantity of produce. Essentially, we are trying to play a role in becoming more self-sufficient in whatever we're producing.”
The indoor vertical farm uses aeroponics to produce baby greens, microgreens and herbs, and uses a fraction of the land and water of a traditional farm.
Aeroponics, which uses less water than the hydroponic technique, is a method in which the roots of the produce are suspended in the air and are fed nutrients through a fine mist.
“We're using aeroponics as it is a bit more water efficient than hydroponics,” Ms Hasan says.
“We started with a simple product, a slightly high margin one, the leafy greens. These move quickly in the market and have an easy-to-deal-with-growing cycle as we set up the company. So in 30 days, the crop grows and the crop comes out.”
Ms Hasan started working on commissioning and installing the vertical farm in 2020 and it became operational earlier this year. She initially bootstrapped the start-up and in total has raised $1 million with the help of angel funding.
Future plans include expansion into the Middle East, particularly in countries with water scarcity or other climate challenges.
“The cool thing about the way we go with it is that we can set up farms anywhere it is tough to grow [produce].
“So that's here, the GCC, Saudi [Arabia], other Middle Eastern countries and parts of the world where you're seeing either water scarcity or fires that are heating up agricultural land.
“I like to tell the team that we need to focus on getting the pilot sorted out, then the commercial version of the pilot running perfectly and then we will look at expansion.”
However, Ms Hasan is also looking at ways to reduce their reliance on electricity to grow the produce and scale up the business.
“Aside from expanding the product range, our first challenge is to find a way to go renewable in some way so that we're off the grid and we don't consume that kind of electricity,” she says.
“That also affects the economics of the farm and once we resolve that, it becomes a lot easier to scale up.”
Q&A with Khadija Hasan, founder and chief executive of KRISPR
Who is your role model?
Anyone who has ever taken a leap, in spite of the fear of it.
What was the biggest lesson you have learnt in launching KRISPR?
There have been two lessons: getting the day right and making small daily improvements yields big results down the road. And, patience and kindness.
If you had a chance to do it all over again, what would you do differently?
The journey has had its lessons for me and for the company. And I think we are both stronger for it.
Did the pandemic impact your business?
The pandemic saw a rapid rise in e-commerce. That certainly helped us get to market (direct to consumer) a lot quicker than we expected. We were able to validate our product, get feedback on quality and the portfolio quickly.
Where do you see the company in the next five years?
Hopefully, with a global network of farms, world-class research and development and an outstanding team that can carry the company forward.
Date started: Commissioning and installation in 2020; operational in 2021
Founder: Khadija Hasan
Sector: AgTech / vertical farming / indoor controlled environment agriculture
Size: Less than 10 employees
Initial investment: $1 million
Stage: Pre-seed / seed
Investors: Bootstrapped and angel investors