The UAE’s agenda to build on its food security is evident as it adopts a combination of policy development along with disruption in the agriculture sector, with 2020 witnessing many such initiatives, paving the way for local and foreign startups to introduce solutions to boost local agricultural produce in the desert.
Recently, the Abu Dhabi Investment Office (Adio) expanded its AgTech incentive programme to include support for innovative companies in other high-growth areas. The new Innovation Programme has an increased incentive pool totalling Dh2 billion ($545 million) to accelerate opportunities for investors in the emirate. The programme reinforces Abu Dhabi’s efforts to invest in high-growth areas while supporting businesses and ideas that drive positive impact.
Dr Tariq bin Hendi, director-general of Adio, said: “2020 has been a year of major progress in building the emirate’s innovation ecosystem and supporting many enterprising companies looking to grow in Abu Dhabi and across the region. As we look ahead to 2021, Adio is doubling down on our commitment to support investors in Abu Dhabi. We are excited to replicate the success of agtech in other high-growth areas rooted in innovation.”
Like Adio, even the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA), which is supported by the UAE government and the Islamic Development Bank (IsDB), are at the forefront of research and development in agri-technologies (agritech) that help to produce more food locally, save scarce resources and protect the environment.
Dr Tarifa Alzaabi, acting diretor-general of the ICBA, said: “Innovation and technology play a significant role in boosting agricultural productivity and are key to support livelihood and food security in marginal environments. It’s great to see the increased focus on various agri-technologies in the UAE, where these technologies can become part of a broader range of solutions to ensure future food security and boost local agricultural production. However, it’s extremely important to focus on agri-technologies that put less pressure on already scarce natural resources congenial for large scale cultivation like freshwater resources and organic matter in the soil. Therefore, it is imperative to tap the potential of alternative resources available in the country, for example, renewable energy and saline water.”
In the UAE, among other things, the ICBA has introduced low-cost net-house technology, which consumes more than 95 per cent times less energy than the traditional greenhouse facilities.
As part of an ongoing project funded through Expo 2020 Dubai’s Expo Live Innovation Impact Grant Programme, the ICBA is helping farmers in Abu Dhabi grow Salicornia (a halophytic or salt-loving plant) and fish, using reject brine from inland desalination units.
“We are also harnessing the power of drones to understand better the issues related to agriculture, such as climate change impact, salinity issues, water resources management, high throughput phenotyping, and crop monitoring and production. In collaboration with BGI, we are also establishing an advanced genomics centre in the UAE for in-depth study, among other things, of the genomic structure of climate-resilient crops such as quinoa, Amaranthus, Salicornia, and other halophytic grasses; and unravelling the underlying factors that make these crops to withstand the stresses,” added Dr Alzaabi.
Chandra Dake, CEO of Dake Rechsand, said: “The UAE’s emphasis on agritech is a welcome sign, particularly as agriculture was one of the sectors for which 100 per cent foreign ownership has recently been allowed. This development, combined with UAE’s robust digital infrastructure, could spur investments into an increased deployment of technology in agriculture. If agritech innovators can tap into more criteria-based open grants, the impact on food security and sustainability could be dramatic.”
Dake added: “The UAE’s capacity to adopt breakthrough innovations is well acknowledged. In recent years, challenges surrounding food and water security have led to a focus on non-traditional solutions. We are witnessing dynamism in agritech, and the advent of market-driven solutions that are redefining possibilities in desert farming and water-smart agriculture. The cumulative impact of these developments could be gamechanging in the not-too-distant future.”
Indian firm FarmERP which has clients in the UAE, Oman, and Saudi Arabia, is currently working with a UAE firm that is into hydroponics and vertical farming. Its COO and co-founder Santosh Shinde said: “We are very conversant about the industry, in a holistic sense. We are aware of the key areas in this market, like food security, water scarcity, etc [personalised to the regions].”
FarmERP CEO and co-founder Sanjay Borkar says that agritech is in a lot of demand in the region which is working towards food security and getting self-sufficient, many technology companies are helping the government, private companies, and the smallholder regional farmers to become self-sustainable in the field of agriculture.
“Water scarcity is a very crucial problem and hence an increasing number of technology companies are coming up with innovations for precision agriculture and precision farming. They are forming a formidable base and are aiming to expand in that market.”
Dubai-based VeggiTech is bringing in investments, talent and knowledge ecosystem to research, design to develop indigenously the latest in agro technologies.
Hemant Julka, co-founder and COO of VeggiTech, said: “Authorities have provided investments to agro technology players thus raising visibility at the international level. During the pandemic there is increased awareness of the food sources amongst the residents in the UAE and this has certainly brought a positive influence on choosing local produce. Long-term sustainable impact on any industry is through research and innovation.”
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