Growing food in the UAE

Growing food in the desert

The theme of Expo 2020 is ‘Connecting Minds and Creating the Future’ through sustainability, mobility and opportunity, so my thoughts recently turned to sustainability – and that led me to consider food production in the UAE.

We live in a nation richly supplied with abundant fresh fruit and vegetables, meat and fish, and supermarkets heaving with international products. But a great deal of this abundant food supply is imported.

It may shock you to learn that in Q1 2020 – the latest year I could find records for – the UAE imported food to the value of AED17.98 billion.

Our nation has around 10 million people, so you can easily see the cost per capita of imported food. To hammer the point home, we currently import about 90% of our food.

This unsustainable statistic was thrown into stark relief during the pandemic, but the UAE’s supermarket shelves remained full – thankfully.

COVID-19 threw supply chains off-kilter globally. This caused supply disruptions and increased the price of food globally, factors that catalysed our forward-looking leaders to consider growing more food in our deserts.

Speaking to Bloomberg in April 2021, Her Excellency Mariam Almheiri, Minister of Climate Change and Environment, said: “Realistically, we’re looking at maybe increasing our domestic production going toward 30%-40% in the next ten years. We all know that being dependent on global food supplies is not a good thing.”

HE Almheiri is charged with implementing a UAE National Food Security Strategy launched in November 2018, which lists 18 strategic food items and focuses on combining technology, innovation and alternative agriculture methods to bolster domestic food production.

Plans include farming rice in the desert, vertical farming, aquaculture and even space research.

Farming rice in the desert

Think of rice cultivation, and most of us think of vast, water-logged fields across southeast Asia. Rice is a sensitive crop and doesn’t fare well in the dry, arid, extreme heat of the desert.

Undeterred by these facts, a UAE team of scientists has been successfully growing special rice crops developed by South Korean scientists in the deserts of Sharjah for the last two years.

The South Korean Asemi rice strain is known for its ability to tolerate heat, salinity and poor soil conditions. Flooding the growth sites between furrows has proved to be the most successful growing method. In 2020, the 1,000 square metres Al Dhaid test site successfully yielded 1,700 kilograms (two tons) of rice.

Vertical Farming

Advances in technology and innovation have seen global interest in vertical farming – using minimal water, grow lights and maximising space.

Vertical farming lends itself to the UAE’s climate, as vertical farms can be in temperature-controlled indoor environments.

Last year, Abu Dhabi-based RainMakers Capital Investment and Netherland’s based GrowGroup IFS announced the largest indoor farm in the world in the UAE at a cost of AED650 million (US$177million).

As a result of the partnership, GreenFactory Emirates will produce 10,000 tonnes of fresh produce every year – produced in a way that saves 95% of water consumption compared to standard cultivation methods, as well as reducing its Co2 footprint by up to 40%.

Greenhouses are go

One company, Abu Dhabi-based agriculture technology start-up Pure Harvest Smart Farms, is leading the charge after securing US$60 million in funding to expand its operations in providing climate-controlled greenhouse growing environments.

Pure Harvest’s proprietary solution has made it a pioneer in high-yielding, year-round, local production of fresh fruits and vegetables.

The company’s breakthrough growing system is specifically designed for addressing the challenging summertime climates of the Arabian Gulf region.

Indoor temperature, carbon dioxide levels and humidity are carefully balanced and automated using an advanced climate management computer system.

‘Magic’ Sand

UAE-based Dake Group, an investment management company that focuses on finding farming solutions through innovative technologies, is offering Chinese-developed breathable sand, which retains water and allows crop growth.

I’ve been impressed with this relatively simple concept – Rechsand Technology Group of Beijing takes common sand and coats it using proprietary technology to allow the passage of air through its particles and harness the water contained it in.

Dake Group says this technology could be applied to desert sand to retain water and decrease farming water and fertiliser usage by 70% and 50%, respectively.

Fishing in the desert

Aquaculture has been described as a central component in the country’s food security strategy by the Minister of Climate Change and Environment, HE Almheiri.

Aquaculture is less land-intensive and has a lower ecological footprint than traditional farming, with ponds or tanks used to grow certain fish species.

These tanks are much smaller than the space required to produce the same amount of protein from cattle.

The Minister told UAE news agency WAM that “we can expect the aquaculture sector in the country to grow substantially over the coming years.”

This growth is expected to be government-backed, with initiatives to attract investors in this growth sector.

Tripling the proportion of locally produced food within a decade will provide greater sustainability, food security and ensure (continuing) fair prices for all.

It will, of course, also mean less carbon production, as the air miles/ transportation costs and ‘food miles’ will be greatly reduced.

We have already made great progress in farming quinoa and salmon. There is more to be done, but I feel certain that the global companies attending Expo 2020 will be very keen and interested to help us achieve full domestic food security.

A key part of growing food in our desert nation is a reliance on technology. I’m reminded of the rise in vertical farming, but we must offer incentives to agri-tech and food-tech companies to come to the UAE and help us provide domestically-produced food for all.

Glamping in UAE

Why glamping is such an attractive investment proposition

The global glamping market size was valued at US$ 1.88 billion in 2020 and is expected to expand at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 14.1% from 2021 to 2028.

According to research by Arizton, the glamping market in the US is expected to reach a revenue of around US$1 billion by 2024.

The pandemic, travel bans and travel uncertainty has made ‘staycations’ more popular, and people are realising they can enjoy a more quirky, adventurous break in their home country.

Glamping also allows access to some unusual, off-the-beaten-track destinations that would otherwise be inaccessible.

Glamping is trending – especially among urbanites frustrated with city living who want to escape their hectic lives and experience a rural, more peaceful, relaxed pace of living.

As per a report published by Kampgrounds of America, Inc., in 2019, 67% of consumers agreed that glamping provides a unique outdoor experience, 63% want their glamping experience to come with services and amenities that aren’t available with camping, and 56% say that they want to stay in unique accommodation. These factors are acting as major drivers for the market.

With the eyes of the world upon the UAE ahead of Expo 2020, those of us who live here might feel the need to escape to the desert or mountainous landscapes for a weekend – and the UAE offers no shortage of glamping opportunities.

Desire among travellers to take a glamping trip is highest among those who have had a prior experience with glamping (77%), according to the Kampgrounds of America report, which also reveals that demographically, the most interest expressed is among Gen X and millennial travellers, and especially those with children.

With millennials seeking cool adventure breaks, instagrammable experiences and lower-cost vacation accommodation, there’s no doubt in my mind that glamping holds a great deal of promise as an investment.

  1. It offers relatively low investment and high return. Glamping sites by their very nature will not involve as much investment as an hotel or converting a building to an ‘Airbnb’ style vacation home. Glamping sites can be under canvas, in a treehouse, a converted vehicle…all of which mean lower investment for a quirkier, less traditional, and often more appealing stay.
  2. Glamping’s popularity isn’t fleeting. Since its recent rise to fame in the late 2000s, glamping has increasingly become a travel trend that’s here to stay. It’s widely popular amongst younger generations, who make up a large portion of the general vacationing population.
  3. Glamping tackles a number of groups, which helps support the argument for investment. Beyond Millennials and Gen-Z, families have taken to glamping. Glamping provides the quality time that many families seek without some of the hardships associated with more traditional camping. It offers wide appeal among those who might never consider camping, and is equally attractive to wealthy and budget travellers, and the young and old alike.
  4. As we all become more eco-conscious, glamping is in the sweet spot of combining luxury with eco-awareness. Not only are you often surrounded by nature itself when glamping, but your site can easily be made eco-friendly, with solar power, showers and low impact building.

As interest in glamping grows globally, now is a good time to invest, in my humble opinion. We should encourage growth in this sector, which, at its heart, revolves around bringing people together in nature, sustainability and healthy outdoor activities.

How technology is driving people of determination to new heights

How technology is driving people of determination to new heights

There are more than one billion people of determination globally – those whose hearing, visual, cognitive, mobility, speech or neural functions are impaired – making them the largest minority group in the world. Ergo, inclusivity is vital in modern society. I feel the UAE is a leading light in the journey towards giving people of determination equal rights and respect in society.

I remember, for example, feeling proud, impressed and delighted when I saw a thin strip of concrete on Jumeirah beach, designed specifically so those in wheelchairs and mobility scooters could get close to the ocean.

Accessibility, in technology terms, is an exciting, bold new horizon. I believe it’s where we see some of the most exciting innovations, and for that reason, it’s a sector worth watching.

And let’s not forget every time you switch your iPhone to night mode, dictate an email while you’re driving a car, or ride a hover board, you’re taking advantage of technologies initially designed to help people of determination.

Indeed, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum himself launched a national strategy to empower people with disabilities in 2017, further codifying plans to make Dubai an accessible, inclusive place for people of determination.

The UAE also has a Disability Act, which became federal law in 2006, and is a signee of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Innovation and creative thinking are being applied to every aspect of disability, heralding a new era of independence, mobility and inclusivity for people of determination.

In the UAE, disability is not even a word we use, and I think we are working towards a society where your physical and mental abilities should not hold you back from achieving what you want in life.

A 2016 report by Nielsen found consumers with disabilities, along with their families, friends and associates, make up a trillion-dollar market segment.

A 2018 Accenture report found that if companies engaged in greater disability inclusion, they’d gain access to a talent pool of more than 10.7 million people.

It’s worth investigating the trends, and what we might see in the next few years. As ever, trend watching, gaining knowledge and developing understanding of a subject area vital part of any entrepreneur’s toolkit.

Here’s some of the trends I’ve identified in my recent reading around technology and people of determination:

More effective/efficient computer accessibility – Bluetooth QWERTY/ Braille keyboards, text-to-speech converters and voice assistants like Siri and Alexa are bringing technology closer to everyone.

Hearing – I’ve been enormously impressed by news of AI-driven hearing aids, featuring neural networks which learn new sounds and process them to sound more natural. To think technology can help alleviate the issues associated with audio and visual impairments is simply thrilling.

Seeing apps – Like Google Maps but driven by audio, visually impaired users can keep their phone in their pockets while being told where to go, and how to reach a destination independently.

Internet accessibility – Websites are increasing built with accessibility options, like being able to adjust font size, text and background colours and have a page read to you. Just a few years ago, this was the realm of sites aimed at people of determination, but is now much more mainstream…the pandemic has also seen speech-to-text apps improve exponentially.

Home automation – As this trend grows, so does the realisation from manufacturers that home automation products have huge potential among people of determination.

Smart assistants/speakers like Alexa, Google Home Mini and Apple’s HomePod can remind us of essential tasks, answer questions by searching online for us, and play music.

Smart sockets mean you can make ‘dumb’ gadgets smart, enabling you to turn things on/off from your tablet or phone. Smart heating can be controlled by your phone or your voice.

Smart locks can be unlocked from your phone, doorbells allow you to know who is at the door, and robot vacuums clean for you.

Electrical stimulation – Nine years ago, David Mzee was left paralysed by a gymnastics accident and told he would never walk again.

He recently competed in a charity run during which he walked 390 metres, thanks to an experimental treatment that uses electrical stimulation of the spinal cord to rejuvenate dormant circuits in patients whose spinal breaks are not complete.

Bionic exoskeletons – American Lyle Fleming was able to walk for the first time in six years thanks to an exoskeleton that has been described as a “legged Segway”.

Designed to help those with paralysis to stand and walk, a similar wearable robotic frame was approved in 2012 by the US Food and Drug Administration for physical rehabilitation, to be used with crutches or walkers.

Future exoskeletons may replace wheelchairs, providing greater mobility and health benefits.

Giving voices to the speech-impaired – Scientists in the US, UK and China are working on prototypes of gloves that translate the hand movements of sign language into speech, allowing real-time verbal communication with people not proficient in sign language.

These exciting, forward—looking innovations are certainly worth watching, and herald an increasingly bright future for people of determination to fulfil their true potential.

It’s thrilling to live in a society that not only respects equality but enables those who are differently-abled to enjoy a rich, purposeful life.

plant-based food

Why is plant-based food becoming so popular?

Food is at the heart of every culture, and a lot of our celebrations revolve around sharing food with family and friends. But access to information means we are learning more about the food we eat, where it comes from, and the effect it has upon us and the planet.

I’ve seen a rising interest in plant-based food in the UAE, driven by a number of factors:

Knowledge

We live in a time where, thanks in most part to better education and information access, there is increasing consumer knowledge of food, its effects, its provenance and environmental impact.

I for one, feel happier eating food when I know a little more about where it comes from, and what it might do for my health and overall wellbeing.

And I’m keen to better understand the concept of food as medicine…as this article states, “many people are catching on to the notion that certain eating styles have the potential to influence disease prevention, too, not to mention influence quality of life, health, and longevity.”

A little reading and you’ll discover than processed foods – whether they are meat or plant-based – are simply not good for the health.

The UAE market

We live in a largely affluent, multi-cultural, tolerant society, so many companies view the UAE as a fantastic test bed for new products.

Food innovators can test new products in the UAE, taking full advantage of the start-up culture, funding opportunities, and access to affluent, savvy consumers.

In recent times, we’ve seen the development of vertical farms, and I’m a great admirer of organic farms such as Mawasim which supplies a growing percentage of foods to the UAE community via its own farm and stores.

Sustainability

You might blame streaming services, YouTube or social media, but people are far more aware and concerned about the environment and sustainability today.

We are seeing a rise in interest in eating local produce, reducing food packaging and food miles, reducing food waste and eating to preserve good health.

For context, I learnt that around a third of all food is wasted globally, amounting to 1.3 billion tons each year. Food waste not only results in an economic loss of $1 trillion each year, but also has a significant impact on the environment and food security.

Sustainability is close to my heart, and I am proud to live in a nation that has taken bold steps towards pushing a strong sustainability agenda.

This trickles down into our food, with the UAE pledging to cut down food waste by 50% by 2030 to meet the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

The Ministry of Climate Change and Environment (MOCCAE) has prioritised tackling the problem of food waste, driven in part by a national initiative encouraging kitchens in the UAE’s hospitality sector to reduce their waste.

Cultural, social and health imperatives

Whether you are influenced by friends and family, or worried about your long-term health, a plant-based diet is proven to be better for your health, the planet and, of course, the animals.

The old norms are being shattered as more people choose healthier and cruelty-free diets.

Celebrations that focus on eating meat are now being catered for with meat-free alternatives, and grandma’s legendary dishes are now being adapted with plant-based ingredients.

With the rising consumer knowledge and desire for healthier eating, we are seeing a shift towards plant—based foods. Many of us are eating more mindfully, ignoring societal and cultural pressures in favour of pursuing stronger personal beliefs regarding our health, our environment and the rights of animals.

This cultural shift is further evidenced by the willingness of local supermarkets to provide a wider range of plant-based foods.

Funding

One of the world’s most renowned and respected advocates for plant-based eating is Prince Khaled bin Alwaleed, himself an avowed vegan and founder and chief executive of KBW Ventures, a company which is investing heavily in global plant-based business initiatives.

His admirable philosophy is that the companies he invests in have to be capable of generating revenue — but must have a positive impact on the world as well.

Here in the UAE, the entrepreneurship which is a significant characteristic among locals and expats alike has led to a start-up culture with a significant number of funding opportunities available.

A locally-based plant-based children’s food start—up, Sprout, recently received US$200,000 in funding from Bahrain-based FA Holding. It plans to use the funding for retail expansion.

Innovation

We grow vegetables in the desert. We’ve harnessed water from the oceans for drinking, and the power of the sun for energy. I’m reminded of Sheikh Zayed’s insistence that Sir Baniyas island could become an oasis for wildlife, despite experts telling him the opposite. With perseverance, he literally turned his vision into reality.

We are a nation of innovators, and at the moment, key global issues include food poverty, food scarcity and security. Innovating with new forms of protein and food – from crickets to lab-grown meat – will help feed a hungry and ever-growing population.

Why are we seeing more UAE homegrown business?

Why are we seeing more UAE homegrown business?

The UAE has a long history of trading, primarily because of its desirable geographical position between Europe and the Far East. The region became an attractive place for global merchants to meet and trade, with Indian and Chinese merchants meeting their European counterparts to trade in exotic spices, herbs, jewels and textiles.

We all know the history of the pearl industry and the oil and gas industry in the UAE, and how our forefathers worked so hard to develop our nation. Their industriousness has allowed the country to thrive.

Today, the UAE is widely considered an excellent place for businesses to grow, and the rich trading history means we have a great reputation globally as a nation of merchants and entrepreneurs.

And since the formation of the modern nation as we know it today in 1971, great leaps have been taken in terms of infrastructure, regulations, laws, taxation and visas to ensure the UAE remains an attractive place for people all over the world to conduct business. Let’s not forget that the vision of our leaders in creating the UAE, was to retain a strong sense of cultural identity, by remaining mindful of tradition while building a solid, future-proof administrative structure.

Attracting foreign companies to the UAE was relatively straightforward in the early days of the nation. A youthful nation, with vast energy income and a desire to rapidly develop world class infrastructure and facilities saw a flood of interest from foreign business concerns. Mindful of the need to protect national interests and income, the sponsorship model meant any foreign concern wishing to begin operating in the UAE had to seek a local partner.

This model ensured solid economic benefits for everyone concerned and boosted the national GDP. Yet today, that model has changed, with a plethora of free zones and cutting-edge business set-up models to suit all stages of business.

Governments, private business set-up companies, lawyers and accountants are all on hand to help create new businesses, supporting an increasingly international urban, savvy population.

Time to diversify

While oil and gas revenues helped build and develop the UAE, we are now moving towards an economic model which is diversifying away from reliance on the ever-depleting fossil fuels. And that national model must be underpinned by a number of factors, including a laissez-faire economy, entrepreneurs and creativity.

At a time when global economies are still reeling from the effects of the pandemic, impartial analysts at FocusEconomics still forecast the UAE’s GDP to expand by 3.0% in 2021, and by 3.6% in 2022.

And the latest figures available from the same analysts suggest in 2019, the UAE exported goods to the value of US$316 billion, a clear indication of a powerful economy.

An attractive proposition

Given the historical perspective, geography, infrastructure and legal and regulatory framework, it’s easy to see why business finds the UAE an attractive proposition.

And now, as a further indicator of a maturing economy, we are seeing a number of homegrown brands – across all sectors – going from start-ups to scale-ups to eyeing international markets.

Innovation is a key government strategy, codified within the exciting raft of sustainable development plans, including the Abu Dhabi Economic Vision 2030, Environment Vision 2030 (Abu Dhabi), Plan Abu Dhabi 2030, Abu Dhabi Transportation Mobility Management Strategy, Surface Transport Master Plan (Abu Dhabi), Dubai Autonomous Transportation Strategy, Dubai Industrial Strategy 2030, Dubai 3D Printing Strategy and the UN’s 2030 Agenda.

The UAE is increasingly considered an active test bed for new business ideas, given the size of market, the international population and the business breaks now offered.

Taking Dubai Industrial Strategy 2030 as an example, this plan, launched by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed, Ruler of Dubai, in June 2016, aims to elevate Dubai into a global platform for knowledge-based, sustainable and innovation-focused businesses.

The strategy revolves around five key objectives: to increase total output and value-addition of the manufacturing sector, enhance depth of knowledge and innovation, make Dubai a preferred manufacturing platform for global businesses, promote environmentally friendly and energy-efficient manufacturing and make Dubai a centre for the global Islamic products market.

These ambitious aims centre upon six sub-sectors – maritime, aluminium and fabricated metals, pharmaceuticals and medical equipment, food and beverages and machinery and equipment.

Whether entrepreneurs choose to invest time and effort into these recommended sectors remains to be seen, but Dubai Industrial Strategy is projected to generate an additional AED160 billion by 2030.

We can all understand, therefore, why the UAE is not only a fertile ground for new business, attracting global talent, but also why these businesses, on achieving great success at home, are increasingly looking to expand further afield.

And our task must surely be to support these businesses, not only to benefit ourselves and our national economy, but to help them carry the flag globally and remind other countries of the success of our visionary leaders’ drive to instigate business success, both at home and abroad.