VeggiTech is an agrotech organization based in the UAE. It has over 40 acres of farms within the UAE that support sustainable and environmentally friendly farming across the entire year; this includes greenhouses, net houses, organic farms as well as the LED assisted hydroponic farms - “We are expecting to grow 2 million kilograms of vegetables in 2021, through our farms”, Bhaskar Rao, Chief Agronomy Officer at VeggiTech says.
Rao leads a team of agronomists with over 140+ years of growing experience primarily in the GCC with a focus on technology-based agriculture driven with data and science. This week, the company is signing partnerships with some of the leading sustainability-focused UAE organizations to create Indoor vertical farms (25,000+ sqft) to be operational by Q1 2021.
The Middle East imports about 35 billion US dollars of food every year. The UAE supplies around 1,1% fresh produce to its own market. Rao continues: “There is a huge acceptance of Hydroponically grown produce and people appreciate the environmental benefits of vertical farming because there is a huge demand for locally grown produce. Hydroponically grown food sees an increasing demand because people are more aware of the health benefits and the environmental impact of growing food with fewer resources with zero pesticides.” Given the fact that 85% to 90% of our vegetables are imported, UAE has made significant strides in supporting local farming. As the government is aiming to support more local farms, they’re also improving the skills of citizens and residents in order for them to produce locally in the future.
Constant Research, Development & Innovation
VeggiTech has conducted extensive research projects on wheat, millets, rice, pineapples and the 3 of the top 5 hottest chilies in the world (including Carolina reaper, white habanero and ghost pepper) in the past few months. “We have successfully grown these products in soil, deep water culture and in our indoor vertical farm labs. The research work provides immense data points to understand the agronomy, plant physiology and growing patterns. On our farms we grew these products in various grow spaces - subsoil, greenhouse, and hydroponically”, Rao explains. The Rice experiment included over 100 plants providing data to Rao and his team. The greenhouse-grown produce took around 131 days from seeding to harvest. The hydroponically grown produce took around 114 days from seeding to harvest. “By having our own data and calculations, we can now develop our research base and improve on the growing conditions, nutrition and yields per square meter while introducing new crops to the country and supporting the Food Security goals”, Rao affirms.
Growing fruit and vegetables & supplying to the local market as a grower. VeggiTech is also growing commercially with a variety of organically grown and hydroponically grown produce. “Local produce is fresh, pesticide-free and with our technology-enabled agronomy team, we provide complete food transparency including the grow space from where the produce was harvested. In the Middle East, no meal is complete without a bowl of salad. Greens are very important to the Arabic culture. The value of its freshness and the supply of local varieties are really appreciated by a growing number of Chefs who visit our farms. This is a huge validation for our teams. We assure an experience of farm-to-kitchen in less than 6 hours,” Rao states.
Consumers are able to scan a QR code attached to the product packaging. It has significant product information enclosed such as seeding date, harvest date for the produce, nutrition used, any crop protection used, the calorie count of the produce, the grow space location, etc. In this way, consumers are fully aware of what they are eating. Growing locally also creates career opportunities in this industry that has seen a huge focus in these pandemic times.
Urban grower course introduction by Bhaskar inside the demo greenhouse
During the pandemic, a lot of disruption took place across trade lines and supply chains resulting in a huge issue across the established food flows around the globe. This certainly raised the focus on the need for local food production. “What we are growing indoor are herbs, lettuce, leafy greens that can be used for the traditional cuisine. Given the great response to indoor farming, a lot of investments are happening in this sector. In the UAE, investors are shifting from real estate, tourism and trading to agriculture. During the lockdown, the importance of food has become even more significant and people have changed lifestyles as they became aware of the food attributes like quality, freshness and source of produce. The agriculture sector is an evergreen sector and with the focus on food security in UAE and GCC; is a great investment option.
A special visit
Her Excellency Mariam Almheiri, Minister Food Security UAE, visited our farm on the 2nd of September, 2020. “During my visit to the farm, I learned about the different technologies that they are using to enhance production efficiencies of many varieties of vegetables, aiming to use less water and power. We also learned more about their training programs to nurture the next agri-technologists.”
‘The Learning Hub’
The Learning hub is the learning and development arm of VeggiTech. This entity was established to tackle business challenges in the areas of Healthy Growing, Healthy Eating and Healthy Living. We believe in processes that enable participation; engaging students in activities and creating opportunities to learn, practice, and increase their skills.
This was the reason why we invested our time, energy and technology to create the Urban Grower’s program, a 10-hour curriculum for Students, Parents & Teachers to have a firsthand on the farm experience to learn about Agriculture.
The Urban Grower course has 2 main components to enhance the learning experience:
1. Online learning (~2 hours)
2. Theory & Practical @ VeggiTech farm (~8 hours)
Urban Grower eLearning provides the academic portion of the course through an online platform with interactive presentations that include videos, audio, graphics and reading. After completing the online portion, the participants visit our farm where the agronomy team takes our urban growers on a journey of the basics of growing; seeding, transplanting, pruning and harvesting while absorbing the new technologies available to create a stable food ecosystem. We also provide formal certificates after completion of the course.
‘Grow App - a virtual agronomist in your mobile phone!’
The Grow app is a simple intuitive app to help everybody grow food in their own grow space indoors, outdoors with grow media of their choice - soil, soil-less, NFT gully’s or pots. The app guides the new growers through the seeding, transplanting and harvesting process. The grower is reminded of tasks to be done to keep their plants healthy. The app is backed by a machine learning database that helps in detecting nutrient deficiencies and pest infestations. The Grow app users also have access to VeggiTech agronomists at all times.