An Emirati businessman steeped in a rich farming tradition is reaping the rewards of his enterprising approach to agriculture.
A real estate boss by day, Abdullatif Al Banna, 56, spends many an evening tending to the thousands of pineapples he grows each year at his farm in the desert of Al Aweer in Dubai.
May is the month when he harvests more than 4,000 of the tropical fruit, spread across four greenhouses.
They are grown hydroponically ― without soil and using water-based nutrient solutions.
“The pineapples are very sweet. I don't think we can buy pineapples that are this sweet from the market,” Mr Al Banna said, as he collected the fruit from the plants.
“These are the sweetest I have eaten in my life,”
The farm was established in 2005 for growing dates.
But a decade ago, Mr Al Banna decided to experiment with pineapples and find a way to ensure they thrive in the challenging UAE desert climate.
He and his family are now enjoying the fruits of his labours over the years — literally, as Mr Al Banna prefers to distribute his tropical harvest among relations and friends, rather than sell it.
“I brought 300 pineapple plants to check which environment they grow best in. We put some under the open sky, some inside a greenhouse and some underneath the shade of trees,” he said.
“The ones in the greenhouse were the most successful.”
Following in family footsteps
Born in 1966 in Deira, Mr Al Banna said his interest in farming was passed on by his father.
“My father was teaching us since we were young. We had a farm in Jumeirah — where there is now Burj Al Arab. In front of that area, we grew dates in the 1970s. My father would take us there and tell us about farming.
“We would also go to Ras Al Khaimah for picnics and farming. Those were beautiful days.”
Mr Al Banna said his father encouraged him to travel to Egypt in 1999 and start farming there.
Now he spends part of his day at his real estate company in Business Bay in Dubai and his evenings at the farm. Mr Al Banna and his family live next to his land.
In addition to pineapples, he grows wheat during the cooler months, producing enough for his family.
He also owns a farm in Ras Al Khaimah, where cucumbers, tomatoes, green leafy vegetables and chillies are grown in 40 greenhouses.
Growing from strength to strength
It’s not easy to grow pineapples in the UAE’s extreme climate, Mr Al Banna says.
“It requires a cool greenhouse, with not more than 30°C, 29°C or 28°C temperature, and a little bit of humidity. We are saving 90 per cent of the water because of the hydroponics system.”
Each greenhouse covers an area of 8 metres by 34 metres. They are equipped with fans and automated irrigation that work round the clock throughout the year. The pineapples are planted in reservoirs filled with perlite — a volcanic glass with a relatively high water content,
When the fruit is mature, there are usually plantlets or suckers between the spiky leaves. These are removed and planted separately, so they grow more pineapples the next year.
Two people work in the pineapple farm — an agricultural engineer and a helper. The government also supports Mr Al Banna with some of the costs and materials. It also send technicians and engineers to help when required.
The pineapples are large and juicy, weighing between three to five kilograms. However, Mr Al Banna prefers not to sell them.
“We are happy to gift these pineapples to our family, friends and brothers. It is something rare as very few people can manage to grow them in the desert. So, it’s valuable for our people,” he added.
“But if someone is eager to buy them, I don’t refuse. In the past, I have sold hundreds of plants to nurseries and others. They paid about Dh50 ($13.6) per plant. ”
A model of sustainability
He hopes his farm can inspire people to think about food security.
“Every local should have some knowledge of growing food for himself, in case there are challenges in future,” he said.
Mr Al Banna believes his farm can serve as a prototype for pineapple farming in the country.
“I think there is a good opportunity for turnkey projects for growing pineapples in every house. We can make a … greenhouse at each residence. We can give them plants and also take care of their maintenance throughout the year.”