CEO OF MADAR FARMS, Abdulaziz Almulla (Republished from 2018)

Why did you choose the UAE to set up the indoor farming business?

Being from Kuwait, a lot of people question why I am here and not in Kuwait, especially since the main driver for us is a social one. If you can solve the problem in one location, you can immediately deploy it elsewhere. We were looking at execution capability. The UAE has become a center of excellence for innovation, for starting something in a new field. We are dealing with new regulatory challenges, new logistical challenges, new operational challenges, it is a new industry after all. For that reason, we needed somewhere that had a very strong focus on innovation and public sector support for that innovation. We see the UAE as our springboard and our center of excellence. Beyond solving the problem for the UAE, we are trying to solve the issue for the region. The UAE supports a change in mindset having come very far in a very short time themselves. If the end goal helps the country, they are open to new ventures.

The two biggest challenges are education awareness and regulatory. On education awareness, we need scale and so the government has been pivotal and needs to continue to do so to educate eight million people in one go. On the regulatory side, we have had to deal with a lot of issues, for the first time. We are not just a technology company, we are also dealing with real food which brings about a whole other minefield in the regulatory aspect.

For us, the very long-term goal is to empower through sustainable agricultural technologies and create food self-sustainability and sustainable production locally. Now how we do that, I think will differ over the years. Initially, we spent the last two years or so focusing first on understanding the market and deploying a few solutions and testing all the pain points. So, for example with our container farm, we managed to test everything from importation of equipment, importation of consumables, getting the equipment to market, working with the utility providers, working with the regulatory clarifiers, getting it certified, selling it etc. All of these things on a very small scale. So, what we are building right now in Abu Dhabi is a much, much larger scale indoor farm. I think that for us to have tested all of these things and then prove it out on a larger scale operation is key. Because it is a new industry, not everybody has the same risk tolerance or the same long-term vision that we do.

We hope to act as an empowerer of change which might mean supporting households, providing farming as a service to conglomerates or corporates. What we are looking to do is to reduce the number of imports and shift our dependence on water down. 80% of water is used for agricultural irrigation. Less than 1% of land in the Gulf is arable or crop land. The math doesn't add up. Our food quality isn't up to scratch and when the quality is high, it is expensive and out of reach for most people. Should there be any sort of trade disruption or supply disruption we will be in a very tough situation. We are trying to increase local production and reduce the dependence on natural resources. We are trying to increase the local skill transfer into sustainable agriculture, and we are trying to do it in a way that becomes accessible to more people.

Focusing on education is important - we need to make the growing aspect as accessible as possible if we want to widen adoptability. We are rolling out a series of educational programs where we build small farms with school children. We build a connection between the children and food. And this teaches them and builds that connection that none of us had growing up.