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Intelligent Growth Solutions to power UAE ‘GigaFarm’ capable of replacing 1% of imports

  • ReFarm, a consortium in the United Arab Emirates created by Dubai-based SSK Enterprises and process engineering solutions group Christof Global Impact (CGI), has signed an agreement with the FoodTech Valley to build a circular, closed-loop “GigaFarm” to boost the country’s food security and decarbonize its food industry.
  • Dubai’s FoodTech Valley is a master development launched by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum led by major Dubai property developer Wasl.
  • Vertical farming technology company Intelligent Growth Solutions (IGS) will provide the infrastructure for the farm, which will grow 2 billion plants a year, replacing 1% of the country’s fresh produce imports. [Disclosure: AgFunderNews’ parent company AgFunder is an investor in Intelligent Growth Solutions.]
  • IGS’ vertical towers will be combined with five other complementary technologies to create a closed-loop circular waste-to-value system, capable to recycling more than 50,000 tonnes of food waste each year.

‘It actually works and is profitable’

ReFarm has built a demonstration farm in the Al Quoz district of Dubai that is fully operational and already harvesting produce for sale to local ghost kitchen group Kitopi. Various stakeholders have visited the site during this week’s COP28 where they can see black solider recycling food waste on-site to create by-products including organic compost, animal feed for replacing unsustainable fish meal and soy oil, and water for use in the vertical farming towers.

“The technologies on site will also recover up to 90% of ammonia sulphate from wastewater for use in plant fertilisers, and produce organic biodegradable polymers designed to gradually release water and nutrients to crops in arid regions,” according to the news release.

IGS CEO David Farquhar is well known for saying vertical farming must be one instrument in the toolbox rather than the whole operation.

The forthcoming 900,000-square-foot GigaFarm will be Farquhar’s words turned into a reality.

“This is so much more than just another announcement about plans to build a large-scale vertical farm,” he says. “This site takes the concept of vertical farming as just one building block in a system that brings together technologies to solve multiple challenges simultaneously, all in one of the most extreme environments on the planet.”

He notes that this farm is “uniquely integrated” with five waste-to-value technologies that will help generate water without needing desalination or rain, will remove about 50,000 tons of waste going to UAE landfills each year, and create a return rate of 20% to 25%.

“It actually works and is profitable,” he says.

The towers will be able to grow more than 250 varieties of plants, seedlings, and saplings, and has already grown at least 20 in just a few weeks since the demonstration farm was constructed.

These include species native to the region like ghaf, moringa, and mangroves. The latter has been highlighted as particularly relevant for the UAE for climate adaptation given its ability to protect coastal communities against storms and floods, host diverse and threatened species, and capture atmospheric carbon. Starting out life indoors can speed up their early growth as well as create resilience before being planted outdoors, as the vertical farming technology can adjust the environment in which they grow, from the type of substrate and salt water to other climate conditions for them to adjust to. 

Oliver Christof, CEO at Christof Global Impact (CGI), commented: “What has been achieved over the past 36 months on the ground in the UAE is a gamechanger for the sustainable food industry. A key factor for success has been the open mindset by the UAE leadership in relation to future technologies and a strong focus on circularity, which allowed us to bring together various groups, including local stakeholders, alongside our technologies, making the project appealing to local as well as institutional investors, while saving massive amounts of CO2.

Cost savings

Profitability has been elusive for many vertical farming company that have struggled with high costs and unit economics, contributing to the ongoing industry fallout of today. But Farquar suggests, the GigaFarm addresses various current concerns around cost and energy usage in vertical farms.

The GigaFarm will be integrated with solar to minimize carbon usage. It will be able to manipulate five-color LED clusters and run on low-voltage direct current, which “greatly reduces energy consumption.”

An IGS farm uses just 1 liter of water for every 250 liters needed on a field and every 23-25 liters required in a greenhouse.

“No mains or groundwater connection will be required to grow fresh produce since water will be recovered as a by-product from the organic-waste-to-value technology and fed into the vertical farm which is up to 98% more water efficient than growing in a field,” said Saeed Al Marri, Chairman at SSK Enterprises in a statement.

Finally, labor costs will run low since the IGS system eliminates the need for humans inside the actual growing area.

Global plans for IGS

IGS sees the global potential of this project, which could inform food security strategies around the world.

“This project is a very exciting step forward for IGS, and we are confident this innovative model has applications in many geographies across the globe,” says Farquhar.

He says IGS is rolling its systems out across four continents, starting with MENA, North America, and Australia.

“We see GigaFarms applying to dry/desert regions and grasslands as well, where there is a population to feed and investment is available. We welcome the support of the UK government in providing export credit guarantees for these projects.”

‘A significant step forward’ for food security

The UAE currently ranks 23 on the Global Food Security index.

The country aims to hold the number-one position by 2051, according to the news release. Its National Food Security strategy reflects those ambitions with a focus on five pillars: diversification of sources of food imports, research and development to increase domestic food production, reduction of food waste, maintenance of food safety standards, and increasing the UAE’s ability to respond to crises.

The impacts of climate change are especially palpable in the Middle East, where temperatures have risen twice as fast as the global average and rainfall has become scarcer. A recent analysis by the International Monetary Fund notes that investment of up to 4 percent of GDP annually is needed to boost climate resilience in this region.

“Nations must prioritize comprehensive strategies that not only address the immediate crises but also prepare for the longer-term consequences of climate change,” says the analysis.

“The United Arab Emirates’ economic growth strategy has placed a strong emphasis on diversification and sustainability, which includes developing new knowledge and capabilities in high-impact industries,” noted HE Dr Thani bin Ahmed Al Zeyoudi, UAE Minister of State for Foreign Trade.

“Rethinking our food production systems is a clear priority, and the decision of ReFarm to launch a facility in Dubai’s Food Tech Valley is a significant step forwards for the development of a technologically advanced, low-carbon agricultural sector. ReFarm’s mission to make farming autonomous, self-sufficient and sustainable is very much in line with our goal to use innovative techniques to meet our food needs.”

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