Smart Acres plans to open R&D lab for local produce amid AgTech growth

Vertical farming start-up aims to raise as much as Dh20m to fund the project

Farming via smartphone in Abu Dhabi. Courtesy Smart Acres
Farming via smartphone in Abu Dhabi. Courtesy Smart Acres

Abu Dhabi vertical farming start-up Smart Acres is looking to raise at least Dh20 million to fund a research and development centre to produce a local variety of potato as agriculture technology gathers pace in the UAE.

“The future is green. The Hope probe has headed to Mars, why shouldn’t the UAE be the first to put a container farm on the planet?” Abdulla Al Kaabi, founder and chief executive, told The National.

The entrepreneur is part of a team of twelve working in partnership with a Korean AgTech platform called N.thing, to adapt the technology to the harsh arid climate of the Emirates on an Abu Dhabi farm gifted to him two years ago by his father.

Smart Acres has designed vertical farms in shipping containers using the IoT-based technology system that monitors water, carbon dioxide and nutrient levels. The system sends a push notification to one of the team's iPhones or iPads if levels need to be adjusted, but it allows the process to happen largely unmonitored. The farm is empty most of the time, Mr Al Kaabi said. The growing process also consumes up to 90 per cent less water than traditional farming methods and grows premium and cost-competitive lettuces.

Food security and innovation in agriculture is a priority of the Abu Dhabi government, which has earmarked Dh1 billion for an agri-tech incentive programme as part of the government’s Ghadan 21 accelerator initiative.

In April, Abu Dhabi Investment Office (Adio) invested $100 million (Dh367m) to bring four agriculture technology companies to the emirate as part of government efforts to attract high-skilled talent and cutting-edge research. The country’s 24,000 farms are set to benefit if new technology can be applied to drive efficiencies in crop yield and water usage.

The Covid-19 pandemic has only underscored the need to achieve greater food security in the UAE. Between 80 and 90 per cent of the food in the GCC is imported, according to Chatham House.

While the figure is high, UAE residents are starting to see signs of progress: locally-harvested tomatoes and greens at the market or on dining menus are now a common sight. All of this has sprung up in the last several years as vertical and hydroponic farming ventures and research, as well as cloud-seeding, bear fruit.

Mr Al Kaabi wants the Smart Acres Institute of Food Security & Agriculture “to have Emirati hands” build the project. He is looking to attract recent graduates in environmental sciences and technology to the R&D lab to customise seeds to grow in this region in a controlled environment.

Potatoes, one of the most common crops in the world with consistent growing demand year-on-year, will be his first target. The team also wants to develop robots to help with harvesting and packing.

In addition to the R&D lab, Mr Al Kaabi is aiming to increase the annual yield capacity at the farm more than tenfold, from the 40 tonnes of lettuces that it currently produces.

Mr Al Kaabi was well-versed with the food industry even before he struck out on his own. His family owns the exclusive distribution licence for a popular Korean ramen brand called Samyang Noodles as well as Tom’s Farm almonds.

While he learned a lot from the family trading business, his father encouraged him to build something on his own. After seeing how difficult the last several months have been on the imported food business, he is glad he did so.

With Smart Acres, Mr Al Kaabi said, "I'm finally doing something right. Now my father asks me every two weeks what is going on at the farm”.

Updated: July 22, 2020 04:52 PM


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