The Abu Dhabi SME Hub is conducting a series of interviews with SMEs that, with support from the Khalifa Fund, are excelling within their respective industries.
The SME showcased this time is Garden of Eden (GoE), an agriculture firm utilizing state of the art technology to address key issues in the UAE such as food security and water scarcity. Its founder, Faisal AlShimmari, spoke with us to discuss more about his company and the value it is trying to bring to his home country.
UAE, like most other countries in the GCC, is known for its unforgiving climate that makes agriculture an arduous undertaking. Low rainfall, high temperatures, poor soil, and a lack of natural waterways necessitate that food producers consider smart solutions to facilitate optimal and sustainable horticulture, and Garden of Eden is at the forefront of this philosophy.
“The aim is to create an agricultural environment where we can offer recreational and educational aspects, produce organic products, while also addressing food security,” AlShimmari said. “The umbrella of services that we are keen to develop is something unique in the region.”
The products GoE produces include varieties of organic honey and crops, such as jujube honey, figs, pomegranates, mango, aloe vera, and mulberry. AlShimmari’s company is also trying to explore more value-added goods such as dried fruit and processed food products. Moringa, for example, whether fresh or dry, “can be used as animal feed or as a human food ingredient.”
GoE has also branched out to inland fish farming, where it raises tilapia fish primarily.
The importance of agritech in combating the harsh UAE climate
Farms like those of Garden of Eden’s and others have been forced to innovate solutions to combat the region’s scorching climate. AlShimmari explains that these practices include something as simple as watering crops (using smart irrigation systems) in the early morning when the temperature is milder, to more drastic measures such as hydroponics and IoT-powered robotics.
“We have collaborated with several research SMEs worldwide that are looking to reduce water consumption and carbon footprints within agriculture,” AlShimmari noted.
In 2018, GoE collaborated with Norwegian startup Desert Control to help the European company test its patented ‘Liquid Nanoclay,’ which “is aimed at reducing water consumption and waste during irrigation.” You can read more about this collaboration here, courtesy of coverage by the BBC.
However, AlShimmari is also tackling agritech solutions locally, and first-hand.
“We have a sister IT company collaborating jointly with Garden of Eden,” he stated. “We are creating several robotic solutions aimed at reducing the challenges related to agriculture during extreme weather, mainly summer, by utilizing robotics as a means of automation and optimization of day-to-day work.”
The two robots they have designed so far are called ‘Bedar 1’ and ‘Bedar 2,’ which means ‘farmer’ in the local language.
“By enabling local utilization of robotics in agriculture, we help [UAE] farms improve productivity and reduce labor risks,” he said.
Through agritech and their high volume of greenery (nearly over 100,000 trees), AlShimmari hopes that Garden of Eden would be able to help the country offset many metric tons of CO2, as per the government’s climate mitigation roadmap, the National Climate Change Plan of the UAE 2017–2050.
But nature-borne obstacles are only part of the overall challenges faced by firms like Garden of Eden. Like any SME, finance is always a big challenge.
Emiratis like AlShimmari are able to apply for the Zaarie Program by the Khalifa Fund, which provides comprehensive financial solutions for nationals who own or work in the agriculture sector.
According to AlShimmari, the support funding offered to businesses in the agricultural sector has decreased over the past few years.
“The funding used to be much bigger than now,” he said. “If you are going to install electrical infrastructure and hydration units, and build crop storage and labor camps, that all requires capital. The support from Zaarie is a great start, but it’s not enough.”
AlShimmari highlighted that reduced support to the sector would lead to weakened food security, as he observed had happened in other countries in the region.
He believes that cracks in the region's food security were made immediately apparent when COVID-19 struck, leading to imported crops like onions hyper inflating from AED 2 per kilogram to AED 9.
“Such an increase doesn’t happen to oil or gold, or any other crop, and it happened during COVID-19 due to logistical challenges,” he explained.
He stated that while all this had been taking place, local UAE farms producing this same crop were still selling onions for two dirhams a kilo, but their sales hadn’t exhibited the marked increase one would expect.
“This reflects more challenges, which include marketing and the enabling of access to local products,” he said. “The public should be made aware and encouraged to buy local.”
Returning to the financial challenge, he believes that support mechanisms like those put in place in the European Union could bring a lot of value to agricultural firms in the UAE. An example of this would be the European Agricultural Guarantee Fund (EAGF), which provides financial assistance to farmers, in addition to other means of support to the greater agricultural ecosystem.
Khalifa Fund support and the benefits of setting up in the UAE
Like many other KF beneficiaries, Garden of Eden was in need of a financial push to get started.
“When I started Garden of Eden, I used personal financing, and the Khalifa Fund helped with speeding up that process by scaling up the project and upgrading certain deliverables during a shorter time span,” AlShimmari explained. “I am grateful to the previous and current Khalifa Fund leadership for their continuous support and hard work, aiming at building a successful SME ecosystem.”
As for setting up his business in the UAE, he noted the wise and forward-oriented decisions taken by the UAE’s leadership and how they’ve contributed to improving the local economy and the ease of doing business.
He also believes in furthering the collaboration between the government and agriculture ecosystem players like himself and others, which would enable food security challenges to be addressed.
“The SME ecosystem is a comprehensive environment where every entity and unit needs to collaborate with the other to complement each other and to achieve results,” he stated.
Ambitions for the future
While AlShimmari is focused on expanding Garden of Eden’s product range to include value-added items, he also has his sights set on loftier goals: education and recreation.
Under the umbrella of agritourism, he hopes to provide education and recreation opportunities to the citizens of the UAE.
“I’m hoping for agritourism to be fully licensed in the UAE, as it is in countries like the United States, Europe, India, Philippines, and Saudi Arabia,” he said. “Saudi Arabia has had a huge leap in the agricultural field in the past three years, increasing and improving their food products, while also implementing agritourism.”
He hopes that within the next five to ten years, GoE will be able to franchise its agritourism experience across the UAE and other MENA countries.
Garden of Eden is an agro-touristic project which is aiming to be a model solution for addressing the UAE's arid and deserted areas, Eden Garden is hosting animals, fish, bees, in addition to a big variety of plants, trees, and vegetables.