Korean and Emirati Agritech startups join forces to tackle UAE’s food security

Smart Acres and it's South Korean partner N.thing are looking to expand their indoor vertical farm to 100 containers, ramping up its production of fresh greens from 12 to 170 tonnes annually. This will contribute to enhancing the self-sufficiency of the UAE which is currently importing 90 percent of food consumption.

H.E. Mariam Almheiri, Minister of State for Food Security visited the farm in downtown Abu Dhabi this morning to encourage this agricultural collaboration between Korea and the UAE. She commented back in 2018, "This country is trying to create the equivalent of Silicon Valley of food" by bringing together research institutes, academia and the private sector to meet the growing food security needs.

Now, as a regional technology hub, the UAE is leveraging its status to attract startups with advanced agricultural technologies, accelerating unique and creative attempts to counter the arid desert climate. This strategic collaboration between N.thing’s smart farm technology and Smart Acres’ capital along with the distribution network will create a synergy effect in bolstering domestic agricultural production. Mr. Abdulla Al Kaabi, CEO of Smart Acres commented, "In partnership with N.thing, we are aiming to be the first to put a container farm on Mars in the near future."

Mr. Hae Yeon Kim, CEO of N.thing added, "The Abu Dhabi farm is our first business abroad and we are looking to expand from the UAE to the greater GCC and MENA which face the similar climatic barrier to the conventional agriculture. I see that vertical farms, utilizing ICT, IoT, Big Data, and AI technologies, present the best means of achieving good self-sufficiency to this country and the region."

Established last January, this hydroponics farm is producing leafy vegetables such as Oakleaf, Green Glace, and Batavia which are commonly consumed within UAE hotels and restaurants. This modular farm is easily scalable from PoC size to mass production volume and is equipped with chillers and sensors to control indoor temperature, light, and humidity utilizing IoT technology. The green leaves have a growing cycle of four weeks which means the cycles can repeat a maximum of 12 times a year. This growing process consumes up to 96.1% less water than traditional farming method while increasing the yield by up to 100 times per unit area. N.thing and Smart Acres have already agreed to move beyond leafy vegetables to fruits which are in high demand in the local market and have relatively high profitability.

N.thing is currently wrapping up Series B funding round and is looking to raise a much larger amount at the next funding round to fuel the expansion into the nearby Gulf region which shares the same thirst for self-sufficiency as the UAE. N.thing, Smart Acres, and KOTRA will hold an IR event at the Abu Dhabi farm early October inviting investors and VCs for a site tour and business meetings.

Food security has always been UAE’s top priority. Due to the arid climate, lack of arable land, and a scarce source of fresh water, traditional agriculture is hard to pursue in the UAE. As a result, this country has become heavily food import-reliant. The recent COVID-19 pandemic further raised awareness about the importance of domestic production due to disturbances in the global food supply chain in times of crisis. The UAE currently ranks 31st in The Economist published Global Food Security Index, and aims to make it within the top 10 by 2021 and to the first place by 2051.

In this regard, the UAE government has been keen on employing multi-pronged strategies for food security. It is noteworthy that the UAE government is investing huge amounts of funds into the research and development of innovative agricultural technologies. Last year, Abu Dhabi Investment Office (ADIO) launched a three-year Ag-Tech Program which offers a range of incentives including a 75 percent rebate on all R&D activities. Thanks to this fertile business environment in the UAE capital, many aspiring ag-tech startups from the US, China, and Europe are flocking to the country with ideas novel to the region.

Mr. Kwanseok Lee, Regional President of KOTRA MENA said that ‘Back in Korea, creative minds with innovative agricultural technologies are burgeoning and they aspire to disrupt the traditional way of farming in and out of the country. This makes it the best time for these Korean startups and talents to seek collaborative projects in this country.’

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