Vertical Farming in the UAE: Drivers and Key Considerations

Vertical Farming in the UAE: Drivers and Key Considerations

Rapid urban population growth, climate change, disruption of global supply chains due to pandemic and geopolitical crisis are all working to increase local food production and vertical farming technologies across the world.

The Middle East and North Africa have a great potential for vertical farming. One of the main reasons is a historically high demand in local produce: Across the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, 90% of food has been imported. From a macroeconomics perspective, the flexible economic environment, low electricity costs, and stable energy production provide quite secure conditions for indoor and vertical farming in the Gulf region.

Market research firm Data Bridge forecasts that the vertical farming market in the Middle East and Africa will have reached $6225.19 million by 2030. At the same time, total food consumption in the GCC is predicted to rise from 46.8 million tonnes in 2020 to 52.4 million in 2025, according to Dubai-based investment bank Alpen Capital.

In this blog post we will talk about opportunities for vertical farming companies in the UAE, one of the most vibrant food destinations among Gulf countries.

Drivers for vertical farming in the UAE

Vertical farming offers a significant advantage over greenhouses or conventional growing in the Gulf countries, including the UAE. Places with limited water supply and predominance of arid soils benefit most from savings in water while providing fresh crops grown locally.

What are other drivers for vertical farms in the UAE?

Socio-demographic factors: Global community, wealth, and a growth of urban population

With a strong focus on manufacturing, trade, and tourism, the United Arab Emirates has established itself as a thriving Food & Beverage hub. In the UAE, the consumption of fresh greens and salads has grown significantly over the last years. Consumers are willing to pay more for the quality, taste, and safety of food.
Vertical farming, trays with leafy greens, salads, photo iFarm
Ultra-fresh leafy greens grown on a vertical farm.
Source: iFarm.
The growth of a diverse expatriate population has generated a significant demand for fresh food, particularly to accommodate a wide range of global cuisines. Most of the new arrivals are well-paid professionals with a high standard of living who choose premium services and products.

In 2021, the UAE consumed 22.9 thousand tons of greens, which is estimated at $49.1 million. The indicators will continue to grow due to an increase in the urban population and the arrival of expats, one of the main target audiences of fresh produce.

Increasing tourist flow and a high demand for ultra-fresh

The growth of tourism in the premium sector also positively affects the demand for ultra fresh produce. According to Statista (2021), 72.5% of tourists in the UAE are of medium or high income. Total revenue in the Travel & Tourism market in the Emirates is expected to reach $1,285.00 million by the end of 2023, demonstrating a full recovery from pandemic drop in 2020.
Dubai, United Arab Emirates. A beautiful view of the golden Al Wasl Dome at the Expo 2020, photo
Dubai, United Arab Emirates. A beautiful view of the golden Al Wasl Dome at the Expo 2020.
Source: Shutterstock..
More and more executives of the HoReCa sector in the country choose high-quality ultra-fresh products produced locally in a sustainable way. iFarm (Research, 2022) has found out that large hotels like The Royal Atlantis consume up to 50-60 kg of fresh greens per day.

High share of imports, a way to self-sufficiency, and sustainable food economics

Food security and sustainable food economics are on the agenda in the Emirates, this is why an intense growth of vertical farming is bolstered by high investment and interest from Gulf governments.

Apart from that, the disruption of global supply chains has emphasized the importance of investing in domestic production capacity and shortening the supply chains. In the UAE, industrial zones located near cities further reduce the distance that food needs to travel from a farm to the shelves.

Different programs aimed at developing sustainable agriculture are destined to help the Emirates to increase their self-sufficiency in food production. As per the 2021 Alpen Capital GCC Food Industry report, the UAE and Saudi Arabia are the largest food importers in the GCC, accounting for 74.9% of the region’s net imports. The same research states that the self-sufficiency ratio in the UAE was 16.6% (2019), demonstrating a sustainable growth over the last decade.

High share of imports is a great growth factor. According to the iFarm’s Greens market research in the UAE, the import of lettuce leaf crops to the UAE in 2020 amounted to 17.7 thousand tons worth $27.2 million.
iFarm sees large-scale commercial indoor vertical farming as a way to increase the Gulf countries’ self-sufficiency ratio. A notable initiative is the Bather Smart Farm (Saudi Arabia), which was built with iFarm Leafy Greens technology. The farm was opened in October 2022, featuring an estimated production capacity of 3,5 tons per month. We also have projects in Dubai (at construction stage) and one more in KSA (at design stage).
Max Chizhov
co-founder and CBDO of iFarm
The UAE plans to become the number one country in the Food Security Index in less than 30 years, as outlined in the National Food Security Strategy 2051. Overall focus on food safety is one of the top priorities for the UAE government, which is, of course, also driving the development of vertical farming technologies and Closed Environment Agriculture (CEA) technologies in the country. As per the National roadmap for the transformation of food systems, the government plans to establish the UAE as a Closed Environment Agriculture (CEA) hub.

Public support and private initiatives

The UAE government and public institutions have programs for farmers who are willing to develop and implement CEA technologies in agriculture in the Emirates. The government offers subsidies for seeds, fertilizers and pesticides; there are also loans for the purchase of machinery and equipment.

The combination of political will and private sector innovation is giving rise to an extraordinary surge in agricultural technology initiatives, all headed towards enhancing food self-sufficiency. Creation of a business environment, parks for FoodTech companies like Food Tech Valley (Dubai) and the AgTech Park (Abu Dhabi) is also accelerating the development of high-tech agriculture and, particularly, vertical farming.

Another leading player is Hub71, the largest global tech ecosystem of the Gulf region. Hub71 is a flagship initiative of the "Ghadan 21" economic accelerator program led by Mubadala Investment Company and backed by the Government of Abu Dhabi. In 2022, iFarm was selected to join their incentive program as a vertical farming startup to develop high-tech agritechnologies in the area.
“Hub71 has brought us opportunities that are of great importance for any startup, such as support to set up an office and R&D facilities. The decision to relocate from the EU to MENA was a strategic move, and Hub71 enabled us to accelerate it.” said Max Chizhov in an interview with CNN.

Vertical farming in Dubai: iFarm Leafy Greens farm

Dubai, the city of the future and tourist attraction, hosts over 3.4 million people, with tourist traffic of 15+ million in 2022 alone. Food expos, conferences, shows, and other global events account for over 120 events held annually in Dubai. Innovation and opportunities offered by the city to its residents and visitors turn Dubai into one of five best places to live in the world (Resonance Consulting, 2021).
A street in Dubai, UAE, photo

Dubai, UAE.

Source: Shutterstock.

The status of the city means that innovation in food safety, production, and sustainability are of extremely high importance, to guarantee the ultimate quality and security to consumers.

iFarm is building an innovative leafy greens vertical farm in Dubai, the facility that will have a 712 square meters of growing area, with an estimated production of around 3.2 tonnes of ultra-fresh leafy greens and microgreens per month. Based on the hydroponics vertical farming technology, the farm is semi-automated, with the major part of operations without any human labor needed.

This high-tech facility employs advanced technology to guarantee the highest possible variety of greens grown on the farm.
It will be the first farm using the iFarm Microgreens technology that implements Flood and Drain hydroponic system. The system periodically floods and drains the roots with nutrient solutions. This allows to increase the number of ways to cultivate plants and, therefore, significantly expand our product portfolio. At our Dubai farm we can grow leafy greens and herbs in rockwool plugs, baby leaves and microgreens on a broadcast seeding, and also microgreens in punnets for live sale. This variety gives us room for creativity: we can grow most of the well-known greens as a stand-alone product as well as make unique salad mixes from them.
Nikita Zubko
VF Launch Manager in iFarm
iFarm Microgreens technology. Sunflower tray. Source: iFarm.

iFarm Microgreens technology. Sunflower tray.

Source: iFarm.

To learn more about other innovative farms built with iFarm technologies, visit our farms portfolio. To read about indoor vertical farming in Saudi Arabia, the biggest food producer and consumer in the Gulf region, check out this article.
Contact iFarm to build your own vertical farm in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, or anywhere in the world
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