Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 22 October 2020

Portrait of a Nation: the Kuwaiti seeking to transform agriculture in the UAE

Abdulaziz AlMulla manages farms that use just five per cent of the amount of water needed in traditional agriculture

Abdulaziz Al Mulla, co-founder and chief executive of Madar Farms. Pawan Singh / The National
Abdulaziz Al Mulla, co-founder and chief executive of Madar Farms. Pawan Singh / The National

Abdulaziz AlMulla was mindlessly watching YouTube videos when he stumbled across one that inspired him to quit his prestigious consulting job in Dubai and move to the middle of the desert to start an indoor farm in an old shipping container.

Three and a half years later, that leap of faith has transformed into Madar Farms, an agriculture technology company working towards food and water sustainability.

"I believe my life has been a series of 'mistakes'. What I mean by that is I don't think I've planned out my next step as much as opportunities have come and we've taken advantage of it,” said Mr AlMulla, 30, from Kuwait.

“I saw this video of an indoor farm while YouTube jumping and I contacted those people.

We've lost more than 60 per cent of our natural water reserves over the last 40 years and agriculture has been the main driver of that

Abdulaziz AlMulla, Madar Farms

"It was a Friday, I quit my job the Sunday following, the Thursday following was my last day and then I hopped on a plane the Friday following.”

Mr AlMulla spent the next six months travelling the world to research different, more efficient, ways to grow food. He and a friend set up the company in the middle of Warsan, on the outskirts of Dubai.

“There was no electricity, no water because the licence didn't exist for what we were doing so we were banished to a farmland.

“But it was a great learning opportunity and we really spent the whole of the next 12-16 months just growing ourselves."

Now, Madar Farms grows hundreds of different fruits and vegetables in vertical indoor hydroponic farms, which use five per cent of the water typically needed in standard agriculture.

The incredible water savings of hydroponic farms, where plants grow in nutrient-rich water instead of soil, were a large part of what motivated Mr AlMulla to experiment with it.

“The food and water security numbers terrified me. If I told you that more than 80 per cent of our water use in this region is for agriculture and irrigation would you believe that?

“And less than one per cent of our land is actually arable. The math doesn't add up there.

“We've lost more than 60 per cent of our natural water reserves over the last 40 years and agriculture has been the main driver of that."

Despite the immense need for more water-conscious agriculture, Mr AlMulla found no examples of others in the region who were pursuing this solution.

Abdulaziz AlMulla runs a farm in Dubai that uses five per cent of the amount of water typically needed for traditional agriculture. Pawan Singh / The National
Abdulaziz AlMulla runs a farm in Dubai that uses five per cent of the amount of water typically needed for traditional agriculture. Pawan Singh / The National

"There is no gold standard available, we have to localise it, and we have to learn what works here," he said.

"When we first started, there was no data on produce or vegetables here so we visited every single supermarket in Dubai and Abu Dhabi and took photographs and pricepoints - we have this massive spreadsheet.

“The number of times I got thrown out of supermarkets and security came and we argued with them, you wouldn't believe.”

Through it all, Mr AlMulla and his co-founder maintained a sense of humour. When a shipping container was not delivered and instead was taken from Dubai to India to China, they named it Ibn Battuta after the Silk Road traveller who made the same journey.

An even greater level of thought went into the name of the company itself.

“The root of madar is midrar, a word from the Quran that means plenty, or lots of green or lots of bounty. And that's kind of the vision that we have.

“It's not just about growing things that we haven't or in places that we haven't. It's also about accessibility. It's about making sure everyone feels like they're a part of this community and this revolution.”

Community engagement and team work is key to the farm’s success, Mr AlMulla said.

"One of my most important mentors is my grandfather. [I learned from him] that finding the right values and integrating them in yourself will attract the people who have the same values and therefore you'll build this kind of familial relationship that you can support on and rely on and they can rely on you.

“That's a very important aspect because I would not be able to achieve anything without the team. The team wouldn't be able to achieve anything if they didn't have the right team members with them."

The team’s most recent work involves plans to grow up to a tonne of tomatoes every day in a new commercial-size indoor facility that will be the largest indoor tomato farm in the world.

Despite the success of his business, Mr AlMulla remains humble.

"I don't think there's anything special about my background or experiences. Yes it's true they've all contributed but I really think [the key] is just going out there and trying it,” he said.

“You go one day and then the next day comes and you deal with those problems and then you deal with the next day and then you deal with the next day. And it slowly becomes something.

“If anything, it's a familiarity and comfort with being outside your comfort zone that is probably the number one quality I see of any person who builds a successful business."

For those who are interested in getting involved in food or water sustainability, Mr AlMulla suggests their journey begin in the same place as his: the internet.

"You can go online and read about this stuff,” said Mr AlMulla. “Industry will not change and there will be no motive to change unless people ask for that change. People are not going to ask for it until they know the impact of that action."

Updated: February 27, 2020 02:07 PM

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