Fresh greens from a new vertical farm in Abu Dhabi city will go on sale for the first time in September.
The vegetables are grown under LED lights inside eight converted shipping containers using hydroponics - where crops are grown with nutrient-rich water instead of soil.
The lettuce will sell for Dh40 to Dh45 a kilogram - roughly equivalent to the price of organic lettuce.
The 237-square-metre facility at Abu Dhabi's Armed Forces Officers Club can produce 900kg of lettuce a month.
Smart Acres, the company behind the venture, initially planned to sell to hotels and restaurants but the Covid-19 pandemic had them shift to individuals.
“More people are aware of issues such as food security, locally-sourced food and sustainability, so that has really helped put our name out there and get awareness in the market,” said the company’s director, Sean Lee.
“But at the same time, with the economy not in the best state, a lot of consumers are feeling the pinch and very aware of the cost of what they eat and what they buy. So we’re trying to find the right balance.”
Smart Acres started preliminary operations in March and has donated produce since then to help the sector. Now it is ready to enter the commercial market.
The start-up cost was “substantial” but the company expects to be commercially viable without outside subsidies. “We do not want this to be a vanity project,” said Mr Lee.
Lettuce is a popular first crop in hydroponics because it grows quickly - in about 45 days from seed to crop.
Since March, Smart Acres have increased the average size of a head from 120 to 200 grams.
Strawberries, rocket and potato seeds will be grown next.
“A lot of people talk about food security but it is hard to achieve food security with leafy greens and lettuces,” said Mr Lee.
“A lot of countries around the UAE, such as Saudi and Egypt, are huge potato growers. If we can grow our own seeds here, we can really contribute to food security.”
Food security has been highlighted as a national priority in the post-coronavirus age. The UAE imports between 80 to 90 per cent of its food.
But the cost of growing produce in the extreme desert is exceptionally high and some farmers have given up multi-generational farms.
Entrepreneurs have turned to vertical farming with hydroponics as resource-efficient way to bolster food security. Mr Lee estimates Smart Acres uses just 10 per cent of the water of a conventional farm without the need for any pesticides. They are not the first to explore urban farming.
In 2018, Emirates announced it would build a Dh147m vertical farming factory near Dubai airport to produce greens for passengers, Dubai's Sustainable City set up a hydroponic farm in shipping contains in August 2019 and Madar Farms announced it would grown a tonne of tomatoes a day at a 7,000 sq m facility by 2021.
Smart Acres grew from a food distributing company but urban farming is the future, said Mr Lee.
“We really felt and saw the difficulties in the supply chain. Obviously it’s easier to import because you skip a lot of these processes and that’s where we started too. But we truly believe in the long run, this is where food is headed.”