Generation Start-up: The mission to grow tasty produce in the desert

By Kelsey Warner / The National


SOURCE: The National - Generation Start-up: The mission to grow tasty produce in the desert

Abu Dhabi's Pure Harvest yielded its first tomato crops this month and is finalising deals with local grocers and restaurants

Far beyond the city limits of Abu Dhabi, where the scrubby dunes and date palms stretch for miles, bumblebees and ladybugs tend to a crop of vine-ripened tomatoes under an October sun.

The bees and ladybugs are Dutch. The tomatoes, too, flew over as seedlings from Holland.

Housed under a one-hectare proof-of-concept greenhouse, the ecosystem relies on perfectly orchestrated temperature and humidity levels controlled through software and hardware for just the right mix of ventilation and cooling. In this greenhouse, it is springtime in the Mediterranean, even if it’s summer in Abu Dhabi outside. A proof of concept demonstrates that a business idea is feasible and in this case, the greenhouse producing its first crop is that proof of concept.

Earlier this month, it yielded its first tomato crops, a milestone for Abu Dhabi-based start-up Pure Harvest Smart Farms. But perhaps more importantly, these locally grown tomatoes are a first for the Arabian Gulf.

Pure Harvest wants to disrupt the imported fresh produce industry by making high-quality, sustainably-grown fresh produce year-round, anywhere. The potential upshot is massive: fresh produce imported to the Middle East was valued at $6.5 billion (Dh23.8bn) in 2016, according to the International Trade Centre.

“I want a world where any country can invest in its own food security,” says Pure Harvest co-founder Sky Kurtz.

The UAE Minister of State for Food Security, Mariam Hareb Al Mehairi, recently called food security “one of the biggest challenges we will face in the future, with the issue likely to become increasingly important with global prices set to rise as demand increases."

With the total global population expected to reach 9.6 billion people by 2050, agriculture production needs to be increased by 70 per cent to keep up, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations.

The UAE, which imports 90 per cent of its food due to its arid climate, is looking to boost local food production by 40 per cent, the Ministry says.

Compared to conventional greenhouses, Pure Harvest’s proof-of-concept is currently yielding ten times more food per metre using one-seventh the water, says Mr Kurtz. And stacked up against traditional field farming, it is 32 times more water efficient while producing 17 to 23 times more food per area.

The Abu Dhabi-based start-up launched in October 2016, after Mr Kurtz met co-founders Robert Kuptas and Mahmoud Adi through the Stanford alumnae network in the UAE, where they all graduated with masters’ degrees.

They are a formidable trio. Mr Kurtz, prior to jumping into start-up life, was running a composite materials manufacturing facility in the UAE. Mr Kuptas is an expert on sustainable agriculture in part from his work at the Abu Dhabi-based International Renewable Energy Agency. Mr Adi is a founding partner in Shorooq Investments, an investor in early stage startups, as well as the landowner, along with his family, for the beta greenhouse. Together, they had access to construction and project management know-how, technical expertise, leasable land and seed funding from day one, a rarity for most entrepreneurs.

Mr Kuptas, who came up with the concept for Pure Harvest, directed the founders to agriculture manufacturers and tech firms in Holland, where, perhaps no coincidence, the world's tulip capital is also a global hub for farming technology and engineering firms.

The team set about raising funds, starting with $1.1 million in a pre-seed round in October 2016 led by Mr Adi’s Shorooq Investments and a year later another $4.8 million from an undisclosed federal government-backed fund, technology partners in Holland and angel investors.

During this time, Pure Harvest also put contracts in place with Certhon for the greenhouse; Priva for climate management software; Koppert, to supply the pest management bugs (those industrious ladybugs and bumble bees); and Royal Brinkman for growing supplies.

A month after closing their seed round, the co-founders broke ground on the greenhouse, assembled a team of farmers and went shopping for the tomato seeds.

The farmers – “agritechs” in Pure Harvest parlance – were recruited by head grower Jan Prins, an agronomist with farming experience in tough climates in China and Ethiopia. When the Pure Harvest team hired Mr Prins he brought along eight Ethiopian farmers who were eager to apply their expertise to an entirely new way of farming.

Every growing tomato (and capsicum, cucumber, strawberry and aubergine, which the company is looking to harvest in the future) has the same basic needs: water, nutrients, carbon dioxide and a temperate environment. But in the greenhouse, the delivery mechanisms are entirely different.

Pure Harvest’s proof-of-concept greenhouse is not only glass walls to protect plants from the Abu Dhabi sun. It houses a climate chamber that removes heat and humidity from the hot air outside and turns it into water for the tomatoes, which are grown hydroponically in a nutrient-rich bath (meaning without soil) and monitored by sensors for health indicators like temperature and hydration. Triple-paned glass “smart” windows deflect heat and temper light levels, while airflow dosed with carbon dioxide is managed to within 1 degree Celsius.

While this orchestrated dance is not cheap (Mr Kurtz declined to disclose the costs for the greenhouse), if done at scale at about 30,000 square metres, Pure Harvest estimates its produce will be 20 to 40 per cent cheaper than imported fresh foods and taste much better, too.

Produce in the UAE is not known for its flavour, but Pure Harvest tests its tomatoes on the Brix scale (commonly used by winemakers) to gauge sugar content, a key indicator the tomatoes taste like ones picked in Naples, Italy not Naples, Canada.

Comparable greenhouses are already operating in less harsh climates (Arizona and Australia, for example) at over five times the size Mr Kurtz says it will take to scale Pure Harvest and bring its produce to local hotels, restaurants and grocery stores.

So far, those deals are still underway so Pure Harvest will not disclose its first customers for its first crop until next month. But Mr Kurtz has been pounding the pavement getting chefs and retailers to taste test and he says the response has been positive.

“Today we are able to demonstrate that we can produce locally when historically nobody has and that our quality is best-in-class,” says Mr Kurtz. “We are grateful, but we aren’t out of the woods yet. Now consumers must vote with their wallets.”