Coronavirus highlighted the need for producing food locally
The UAE’s investments in agriculture technology (AgTech) accelerated over the past year as coronavirus brought food security concerns to the forefront, industry experts said.
Inefficiencies of the UAE’s over-reliance on food imports were highlighted when the pandemic, which hit the UAE in March, disrupted global supply chains.
But the disruptions prompted increased interest in AgTech to bolster food security, said Bina Khan co-founder of investment fund Summit Venture Partners. And as the UAE seeks to improve its global food security ranking, entrepreneurs are asking to be part of the plan.
Khan, who is also an adviser and investor at UAE’s Pure Harvest smart farms, a tech-controlled agriculture concept, told Arabian Business that previously they had struggled to get the message across that reducing reliability on imports was important for food security.
“No one wanted to pay attention to this and suddenly, when Covid-19 hit, it was like the biggest blessing for us,” she said.
Pure Harvest’s CEO now sits on government panels about food security as the industry must adapt to Covid-19 related challenges, Khan said, who spoke on Sunday as part of a panel in Gulfood’s Start-up Programme. The panel also featured the CEO of Abu Dhabi Catalyst Partners, Cinar Kurra, and Bhushan Yengade, a food technologist at Binder Technology.
AgTech is particularly vital to UAE’s ability to produce food locally, given the region’s arid climate. Start-ups within the AgTech ecosystem are actively developing solutions they hope will be a key part of the country’s food security strategy.
“If you have conquered the desert climate, which is the harshest to grow in, you can pretty much grow anywhere. The technology is the same no matter where you go in the world: it’s just a matter of adjusting the technology to the local scenario,” said Khan.
“The government is now providing more support given the importance of food security and with that, if you are incorporated in Abu Dhabi, you have access to incentive programmes for R&D initiatives,” she added.
The government has also offered support for start-ups navigating the process to launch their business, Khan said.
Although the capital may be readily available, Kurra said the main challenge AgTech start-ups face is having a solid financial plan to attract investors and grow their business.
“Angel investment is all well and good, but angels are very careful and will not waste their money,” Khura said. “Yes, there is a lot of money in the UAE but it is not for the un-planned start-up.”
“The biggest challenge for AgTech start-ups is to make sure they have a solid plan on the table regarding how they will spend their money and how they will make it,” he continued.
Speaking for the Catalyst fund, which was established in 2019 and is managed by Mubadala Investment Company, Kurra said most of the start-ups they have recently invested in are in the AgTech or food security industries.
The UAE aims to be among the top 10 countries globally for food security by 2021, and Khan said the country, currently ranked 21st globally, is moving in the right way.
“The UAE is making efforts to make allies in different countries and opening up doors that were previously closed, such as with Israel. Since the technology exists all over the world, I think it’s just a matter of countries making a joint effort to feed the population,” said Khan speaking to Arabian Business after the panel.