Blog written by TFF’s writer & poet-in-residence: Peter Bickerton
The Middle East and North Africa region (MENA) is one of the homes of agriculture. Many thousands of years ago, this hotbed of innovation domesticated wheat, barley and rye, chickpeas and lentils, dates and olives. Cumin, anyone? Food here is amongst the finest on Earth.
Today, however, the region that gave us bread – and most of our global daily calories – is one of the places most at risk from climate change.
Temperatures are soaring, regularly hitting 50 degrees centigrade or more. That severe heat will shorten the growing season and reduce the land area available for agriculture, while demand for water – already a scarce resource – will increase. Crops that can grow are at greater risk of succumbing to drought and harvest failure.
Future food security in MENA is severely under threat.
Introducing the MENA Innovation Challenge
If there’s a region on Earth that can tackle our climate woes, and food security, it’s MENA.
Here, semi-arid and mostly covered by deserts, getting enough water has always been a challenge – and the dry place that invented irrigation is ripe with ideas and startups that are innovating our food systems.
At the Food For Future Summit and World Expo in Dubai this year, the best and brightest of these mingled together in a celebration of next generation agricultural innovation.
Obviously this was a match made in heaven for us here at TFF – and among the leading lights were the winners of our TFF MENA Innovation Challenge 2022, which revealed we have a lot to be positive about.
So, before you despair about the fate of food security in the face of water scarcity, let these stunning startup ideas renew your optimism for a regenerative, sustainable future of food in MENA and beyond…
👨🌾 Farms Not Arms: brings food security to conflict zones
If uninhabitable heat and water scarcity weren’t enough, several ongoing conflicts in MENA have created a refugee crisis that leaves millions at risk of food security.
Lebanon’s Farms Not Arms – though not your traditional startup – has a great solution to this that will warm your heart while already having a massive impact.
The problem: There are over million refugees in Lebanon, comprising a quarter of the population! Added to an ongoing economic crisis, in which the currency has devalued so much that the price of food has tripled in recent years, food security is a major concern.
Ongoing instability was further compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the devastating attack on Beirut port. Yet, Lebanon has more agricultural land as a percentage of land area than any other MENA country.
The solution: Farms Not Arms is a diverse collective of designers, farmers and agriculturalists who have come together to bring a community-centred solution to the problem of food security in Lebanon.
Their pilot project is Turba, a woman-led farm in the country’s third largest city, Zahlé. Their model is to look after the land (Turba means soil in Arabic) by combining regenerative agriculture with hydroponics, in a solution that can provide three times more food in a given space.
In a modern twist on the tale of teaching a person to fish, rather than simply giving them one, their vision is a self-sufficient system that can feed all refugees in Lebanon.
As such, Turba is not only a farm already producing and selling food, it’s a centre of education. People come to learn how to build and run such a farm, while being paid to practice their skills.
Farms Not Arms believe in “co creating a future of food with the communities who need it most” – and we do too, which is why they are the runner-up of our MENA Innovation Challenge.
💧 Manhat: water, water everywhere – and plenty to drink
In the “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” Coleridge famously lamented that there was “water, water everywhere – nor any drop to drink.”
For those living on the coast in a highly deserted region suffering from water scarcity, that line is perhaps just as apt as any thirsty sailor cast adrift on the wide ocean.
The winners of our MENA Innovation Challenge, the United Arab Emirates’ Manhat, decided that this was a situation best rectified through sustainable desalination.
The problem: Water scarcity is not just a problem in the UAE – a country that is 80% desert. It’s a global issue. Agriculture is responsible for sucking up 70% of all the freshwater we use.
To invoke our poet once more, we really are staring down into the dregs of an emptying barrel.
But irrigation is vital. It’s twice as productive as rain-fed agriculture. We need as much freshwater as we can get.
You might well be reading this and thinking – surely desalination exists already?
Yes, it does – but traditional techniques have a large carbon footprint and also pose an environmental hazard due to the release of brine back into the ocean: two things to avoid in a sustainable future of food.
The solution: Manhat’s solution is to use water’s natural propensity to evaporate (a lot), with a patented technology that can distil water directly at sea for use in coastal irrigation.
The team estimates that the Arabian Gulf sweats more than 350 cubic kilometres of water a year, which is something in the region of ten times more than is currently claimed from desalination.
They’re making rain – a rare commodity in the UAE – and we love the idea.
Going a step further, the patented technology is designed to be integrated into floating farms, where vegetables can be grown right at the source. (If that’s an idea that floats your boat, check out this floating city in South Korea. The future really is now.)
Hugging the coastline for a second, Turkey’s Algdeha, another MENA Agri-Food-Tech Challenge team, has a regional solution to the global problem of overfishing. In the International Year of Aquaculture, their sustainable alternative to fish feed is exciting and we hope it will catch up!
The problem: We need to stop harvesting wild fish at the levels we do, particularly when so much of it just goes to feed farmed fish. Essentially, we want to eat fish with a healthy profile of fatty acids such as omega-3, which is why farmers feed them fishmeal and fish oil made from crushed up small fish like anchovies.
However, there’s a much better way of getting that from the source.
The solution: Algae! It’s literally the base of the food chain. Baby fish eat it, so why don’t we make fishmeal from it? Algae is jam packed full of nutritious goodness for fish (and people, too).
A no brainer, you’d think – but the world is still only just catching on (see what we did here?).
Algdeha’s solution is to grow algae in the Mediterranean, off the coast of Turkey. It’s in the sea, so no freshwater is necessary. It’s also a highly productive place to grow sun-loving plankton.
We love this nifty solution because it tackles many problems at once. Not only does a tonne of algae save 60kg of fish feed, it mops up almost two tonnes of carbon dioxide in the process. When aiming for a carbon neutral future of food that can limit global temperature increase, every little bit helps.
Eventually, the team also aims to make high value products from their algae to displace heavy polluting elements of the pharmaceutical, cosmetic and food additive industries – all of which currently rely heavily on oil – with sustainable alternatives.
🌱 Pure Harvest
This team wasn’t part of our TFF MENA Innovation Challenge, but Pure Harvest deserves a mention as their indoor agricultural solution is helping to ensure food security in the desert.
The problem: In the big wide world outside of greenhouses, water evaporates a lot. In many MENA nations it doesn’t rain much either. As we’ve discussed, water is scarce – and so is agricultural land. The UAE itself imports somewhere in the region of 85% of its food – but it wants to be able to grow much more closer to home. For food security, that’s key.
The solution: Though rain may be scarce in the desert, sunlight is abundant, and plants love that – so Pure Harvest is “converting sunlight into smiles”.
They’re one of the companies at the cusp of a $100 million investment in indoor farming in Abu Dhabi. In the middle of the desert, Pure Harvest’s IoT-enabled Smart Farms grow tomatoes in controlled greenhouses, year-round – proving greenhouses can keep things cool, as well as hot.
With 83% of the water used in their farms going into the tomatoes consumers eat, it’s a great way to use what little resources are available.
But while using the vast, untapped space in the desert is a nice trick, we did find another exciting approach in the TFF MENA Innovation Challenge shortlisted team KRISPR. They are showing that ‘brown spaces’ in the city such as empty warehouses or abandoned industrial sites – deserts of a kind – can also be adapted to grow food right where it’s needed. They’re already producing leafy greens such as lettuce, kale, and basil that can be delivered to customers within just a few hours of harvesting.
Other companies such as Madar Farms are showing that vegetables such as tomatoes can be grown entirely indoors under UV light. And Graze It are producing nutritious fodder for cattle and other livestock using vertical farming systems right on the farm.
All of these examples really show that the MENA region will be the catalyst for the oft-touted vertical farming revolution.
Moving from indoor farms to the average household, we also found Uvera, a Saudi startup bringing IoT solutions to the consumer in a bid to reduce waste and make food go further.
The problem: Food waste is the worst!
While many can’t access enough food, a whopping amount rots right there in the field, plenty never gets sold, and then what is sold sits going mouldy, lost behind the potatoes in the back of a kitchen cupboard, or forgotten under a pack of carrots in the fridge.
A UN Food Index Report last year found that “17% of all the food that’s available to consumers didn’t make it to a mouth.”By far the biggest waste happened not in the supply chain, but at home.
The solution: Uvera’s solution is a smart device that can prolong the shelf life of food by up to 97%. It uses UV light and electric vacuuming to create a sterile environment, while incorporating Google Speech to allow users to quickly add ingredients to an inventory that tells users when their food needs to be eaten, and even provides tasty recipe ideas in the process.
In a world in which people lead increasingly hectic lives and are spending a lot more money – and a lot less time – on food than they used to (many in what has been a growing global ‘middle class’ are falling back into poverty due to increased living costs), it’s a handy solution.
🔬 Amai Proteins
Food security isn’t all about water and crops (though we’ll get back to that, bare with us). Enter Amai Proteins: an Israel-based startup with a solution to our overindulgence in sugar, a global issue that is putting increasing strain on our metabolisms, and health systems.
The problem: In line with global trends, the percentage of adults who are overwight or obese in the MENA region is as high as 38% in Kuwait. Compare that with Yemen, where the figure is 17%, and you can see the disparity in food access.
Being overweight according to our narrow and arguably poorly-understood definition in itself isn’t necessarily unhealthy (in fact, some studies show having a little podge is better than none). However, what we eat most certainly can be.
Sugar is high on the “not good” list of ingredients. The overconsumption of sugar is linked with all sorts of ailments, type-2 diabetes amongst them, which affects an alarmingly growing number of adults worldwide yet is almost entirely preventable.
The solution: Stop eating sugar!
Ha. If only it were that simple. Are you really willing to drop the chocolate? We didn’t think so. You deserve a treat.
Thankfully Amai Proteins has a healthy solution to this predicament. Amai means “sweet” in Japanese, and their designer protein is thousands of times sweeter than sugar. It can be added to any ingredient that doesn’t rely on sugar’s bulking effect.
They’re already working with huge companies, including PepsiCo, Danone, Mars-Wrigley and Ocean Spray, to develop products with up to 70% less sugar “without compromising the delicious full-sugar sensory experience.”
Very importantly – and back to water and crops – sugar production is actually a huge guzzler of water. Amai Proteins predict that just 1% reduction in sugar production would save 2.5 trillion tonnes of water, not to mention the agrochemicals used to grow sugarcane.
Their protein is made in low-waste fermenters, making it much more eco-friendly.
So you can have your cake and eat it, sustainably, after all. Thanks Amai Proteins.
A special mention for all of the teams shortlisted for the TFF MENA Innovation Challenge: Algdeha (Turkey), Beanboat (Bahrain), Farms Not Arms (Lebanon), FoodSight (Lebanon), Graze It (UAE), KRISPR (UAE), Manhat (UAE), Natufia (Saudi Arabia), Uvera (Saudi Arabia), Zr3i (Egypt) and Amai Proteins (Israel).
As we’ve seen at the Food For Future Summit & Expo, the MENA region is bustling with startups really pushing the boat out to bring the region, and the world, into a sustainable future for agriculture.
If you have a jaw dropping idea to share with the world, keep your eyes out for updates on this year’s Thought For Food Challenge, which will be launching on Earth Day, April 22 2022.
Like our winners Manhat, you could be in for a funding boost as well as access to expertise to help grow your startup. Get in touch with us today!
You’ll also – simply by taking part – become part of our growing international community of next generation changemakers making green, regenerative agriculture a reality.