"Badia Farms is the first commercial vertical farm to launch in the GCC. We officially started operations in the heart of Dubai in 2016, but the seeds were planted further back. My background is in engineering and banking. I first took the entrepreneurial leap in Saudi Arabia in the hospitality sector by opening multiple unique restaurant concepts." That's how Omar Al Jundi, Founder & CEO of Badia Farms, one of the speakers at the upcoming Agritecture Xchange, introduces himself.
Mesmerized by hydroponics
When he decided to enter his next venture, he says "I knew it had to be both challenging and able to add value and make a difference to our society and communities. When I was introduced to the concept of hydroponics, I was mesmerized with this new technique of growing where we don’t require any soil, we can recycle 90% of the water, and it can be grown in a fully closed environment, without even sunlight! Years before we launched I learned as much from experts, conferences, courses, and by working in a high-tech greenhouse facility in Holland."
Food security is one of the main issues in the MENA region, and the development of sustainable farming is crucial. "We have seen this first hand during the early days of the Covid pandemic," Omar says. "Produce supply chains were halted, and many countries (especially in MENA) had to reassess their long-term plans and fast-track their commitment to AgTech models such as vertical farming."
The choice to go vertical
Vertical farming and AgTech is needed in the GCC. Why? Omar explains: "Over-dependence on imported produce and the simple fact that traditional framing does not work in our arid desert climate. I want to tackle an issue that will make a difference to society while preserving our natural resources such as water. Badia products are pesticide and herbicide-free. Since our crops are grown naturally in sterile, soil-free mediums, along with the controlled environment, it removes the need for harmful additives. We can also harvest fresh produce all year round. Our harvest yields 4-8 times the amount of crops in the same space compared to conventional soil farming. As a former restaurateur, it has been amazing to be able to work with the top chefs and restaurants in the UAE and be able to supply them with fresh, better than organic flavourful products that wouldn't be available to them otherwise. The journey from food to table is much shorter."
Optimal growth conditions
In this vertical farming environment, Badia Farms is able to control every aspect of the ecosystem to ensure optimal growth conditions are provided for each crop. "For example, our facilities utilize LEDs, artificial lighting to replace the sunlight, we control and monitor all environmental inputs (humidity, temperature, CO2), and we use computer linked dosing units to schedule the irrigation and feed formulas," Omar points out. "Lastly, our hydroponic growing methods use 90% less water compared to open field growing, and since we recirculate our water there’s no wastage."
There were also some challenges along the way to achieving this, as AgTech and modern farming are still very new to the region. "The biggest challenge is there aren’t off the shelf solutions that we can purchase and implement immediately," Omar says. "In the case of vertical farming, which is still at an infancy stage globally, we had to design our own grow system to form our IP and ensure we have a commercial operation that will yield high-quality products and profits to ensure we stay in business. We surely need a lot more support from the government and private sectors for this industry to see the light. For example, the government can support the industry by introducing cost-effective initiatives that reduce the operational cost that will ensure the viability of the projects. Educating the public and consumers on the benefits of modern farming and vertical farming is very important to ensure the continuity of this new industry. We are seeing more regional and global VC's and investment funds interested in the AgTech sector in our region, but they haven’t made the big investments yet!"
Opportunities in the Middle East
Asked what advice Omar would give to people looking into breaking into the UAE food/ag market, he says: "What's great right now is that we have barely scratched the surface in the MENA AgTech sector, so there are so many opportunities, which has been propelled by the pandemic. The UAE is an open economy, I suggest whoever is interested to enter the market to come and meet with the different governmental entities, to meet with distributors, understand the market dynamics, pricing, etc. Come and do the work themselves vs hiring a consultant to do the job. The journey won't be easy. But even with the advent of technology farming is still what it was hundreds of years ago: to grow something needs constant attention, passion, and patience."
Badia Farms has a lot in store for the future, like increasing their product offering, expanding their facility in the UAE, and growing their team. "We are also excited about the launch of our own e-commerce platform! The crop will be harvested only once a customer places an order and will reach them within a couple of hours. We are also raising our next round of funding. So a lot is going on", Omar concludes.
Omar Al Jundi will be one of the speakers during the upcoming Agritecture Xchange. When registering, you can use the code 'HDaily10' to get 10% off tickets.
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