Dubai is emerging as an ideal testing ground for sustainable and climate-resilient tech advancements in the critical agricultural sector. Dubai’s emergence as a hub for Agri-tech innovation, driven by its pursuit of food security, sustainable solutions, and economic growth, can be evaluated through the lens of 4Ns: the Need, Nurturing Environment, New policies, and New end users.
Agri-tech is a diverse sector, encompassing technologies for efficient cultivation, monitoring, precision farming, supply chain improvements, and end-user dynamics. Notable successes in the UAE and Dubai include homegrown Pure Harvest Smart Farms, raising $180 million in 2022, and Emirates’ joint venture with the US Crop One for the world’s largest hydroponic farm (Bustanica) in Dubai. Sovereign Wealth Funds, local family offices, and Emirates Development Bank (EDB) have funded the sector, including a new Agri-tech loans program by EDB. These developments have attracted interest from India, the EU, Israel, and the US to Dubai’s Agri-tech domain.
Evaluating Agri-tech opportunities in Dubai on the 4Ns
The NEED for advanced Agri-tech is clear – Dubai’s (UAE’s) limited land, water, and challenging climate conditions restrict traditional agriculture. With 80% of food imports and supply chain concerns induced by the 3Cs – Covid, Conflict and Climate – food security has become a national priority and a strategic challenge. Dubai is growing economically and placing itself as a hub of modern concepts – sustainability, technologies of the future and east-west fulcrum. Politics, economics, and tech innovations are combining to create Dubai’s tryst with Agri-tech.
Nurturing Environment: Policies, Research and Investments
According to Sharad Bachani, the head of Merlin Aquaponic Farms, Dubai’s (UAE) pro-active government sets a top-down agenda, fostering an environment for innovation. The Merlin farms are a pan-emirate story, starting at the Sharjah Research Technology and Innovation Park, where they experimented with their aquaponics technology. Subsequently, they were nurtured at the Mohammad Bin Rashid Incubation Centre in Dubai, gaining access to global networks and mentors. They are scaling up in the Dubai Maritime City to meet the rising demand for organic, chemical-free local produce.
The National Food Security Strategy 2051 (NFSS -passed in 2018) is UAE’s pioneering food strategy setting the federal agenda for sustainable food production, supply chain and modern technologies for local use. Its ambitious goals include a 30-40% production boost within a decade and raising local food share from 20% to 50% by 2051. The NFSS has become the umbrella under which all Emirates have aligned their food strategies – Dubai, for example, has instituted a Food Security Dashboard, which uses AI and artificial intelligence to deliver food security. The focus is paying off, as the UAE now ranks 1st in the MENA region for 2022, up from 3rd in 2021 on Economist Impact’s Global Food Security Index.
Dubai’s ecosystem also encompasses incubators, research centres, and industrial zones. Dubai Food Tech Valley, inaugurated in 2021, is conceptualised as the world’s first agri-tech city and is expected to house R&D facilities, innovation hubs, logistics centres, and vertical farms. The Dubai Multi Commodities Centre (DMCC) supports agricultural trading and is starting to nurture promising ag-tech startups.
Crucial incubators, such as the Mohammad Bin Rashid Innovation Fund and In5, empower startups with networks, funding, and platforms. High-profile events like Gulfood Manufacturing provide global exposure to Agri-tech innovators. Dubai’s business-friendly environment and export status further enhance its appeal.
The investment landscape, though growing, requires acceleration, especially from global investors. According to a Deep Knowledge Analytics Report titled ‘Agritech in the UAE Industry Landscape Q3 2022’ – the UAE secured 22 investment deals totalling $600 million, ranking 15th globally (in 2021). Sovereign Wealth Funds have taken the lead in funding, exemplified by ADIO’s Agritech incentives, Emirates’ investment in Bustanica, Mubadala’s ventures, and support from family offices, such as KAIZEN FCO’s pre-seed funding for KRISPR farms in Dubai.
New end users and market potential
Dubai’s thriving hospitality and food industry presents a substantial market for locally grown, sustainable produce. According to data from news sources, Dubai has 812 hotels and 13,000 restaurants, of which 340 are fine dining and 20,000 food venues. The HRI (hotels, restaurants and institutional) market value in UAE is USD 12.3 billion, of which 60% is in Dubai. This aligns with Dubai’s positioning as a hub for dining experiences. Mr Bachani adds that supply from Agri-tech farms has the potential to be absorbed within a 1-3 km radius through local eateries, restaurants and supermarkets like Spinneys.
“For Sunjeh Raja, the Head of the International Centre for Culinary Arts (ICCA), using fresh local produce is ethical and profitable. Despite higher costs and limited variety, sourcing locally supports farmers, guarantees freshness, and connects with the community. Aligning with Dubai’s sustainability goals, ICCA is also training the next generation of chefs and hospitality workers to be mindful.
This opportunity landscape in Ag-tech has drawn the attention of other countries and global startups. India is a natural partner with its strategic ties with the UAE through the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement and India-UAE Food Corridor, I2U2 (India, Israel, US and the UAE) and G20. With more than 450 ag-tech startups – India and UAE enterprises are collaborating on expertise, funding and expansion.
Gaurav Narang, Founder of City Greens, an Agri-tech company in India, participated in the June ELEVATE pitching series organised by the Indian Consulate in Dubai. Narang highlighted that Dubai’s government policies, robust incubation centres, available capital, and networks make it an ideal market for expanding his ag-tech firm. Bachani also emphasised partnerships with Indian companies for data analytics, AI and consultancy services.
Supporting Her Excellency Mariam Almheiri’s (Minister of Climate Change and Environment) perspective that the Emirates serves as a global technology hub across domains, including food security, startups like Norway’s Desert Control are experimenting with their Liquid Nano-clay agricultural tech solution in Dubai.
Agri-tech in Dubai is in its early stages, where the visionary goals must align with practical challenges. Indoor farming, Precision agriculture and agri-input sub-sectors are gaining traction, but scaling up, managing high operational costs, regulatory clarity and addressing financing gaps would help the sector. As entrepreneurs, government bodies and Emirate-level offices aim for improved coordination and work towards the Food Security 2051 vision, Dubai’s favourable blend of need, supportive environment, policies, and market demand makes it a promising Agri-tech opportunity.