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Dubai city skyline at sunset seen from the desert, from iStock, adrian825

Letter on the way to the desert via MEASA

November 16, 2023

In two weeks’ time, I’ll take my first trip out to Dubai for COP28 and the inaugural World AgriTech Innovation Summit for the Middle East, Africa & South Asia region.

When my good friend Mark Kahn at Omnivore, the leading Indian agrifoodtech fund, first told me about his discussions with Rethink Events about a conference for all these regions, I didn’t get the link. After all, Rethink had just done an event in Singapore, and geographically speaking, South Asia is not that near those other parts of the world.

But as it turns out, the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia have many ties and similarities between them when it comes to agrifood, and increasingly get grouped together as the ‘MEASA’ region.

Mark offered four such ties and similarities:  

  1. Historic trade ties.
  2. Food security: South Asia and Africa are lynchpins of food security in the Middle East via that historic trade.
  3. Historic migration: There is an Indian and Pakistani diaspora across the Middle East, and a lot of Indians are heavily involved in Sub-Saharan African agrifood businesses and value chains.
  4. Smallholder farmers: each region has a significant smallholder farming population that can really benefit from the cross-pollination of ideas and what’s working in one place to take to the other.

Of course, there are exceptions to this rule. The Middle East is a mix of smallholder farming economies as well as desert states that are very modern and heavy food importers; South Africa is an outlier as a whole.

But when it comes to agtech innovation and investment, grouping the regions together makes a lot of sense. For example, we often talk about the potential for technologies developed in India to be especially applicable in parts of Sub-Saharan Africa due to the similar challenges – both climate and social – these regions face as well as their limited infrastructure and access to markets, and farmer demographics.

As a market opportunity, MEASA is a pretty massive area including 88 countries, 4.1 billion people, 5.4 million km2 of arable land, around 1 trillion barrels of oil reserves, and more than $4 trillion of sovereign and pension assets, according to an investment firm focused on the region.

Furthermore, the region represents 53% of the world’s population, with a median age below 24 years; it will represent 70% of the global population by 2100 as population growth slows in other parts of the world. Representing just 15% of global GDP and an average GDP per capita of just $3,100, it’s also home to nine out of the 10 fastest-growing economies, making it an exciting moment for the region.

The United Arab Emirates has particularly ambitious food security goals, according to Henry Gordon-Smith of Agritecture, who’s spent a lot of time in the region. Henry has seen firsthand the increase in investment and entrepreneurial interest from the local government, particularly in vertical and other indoor forms of farming. He calls the Gulf region overall a “hotbed for agricultural technology,” albeit with challenges “such as a lack of training centers for talent development, a mismatch between energy costs and consumer locations, a skilled labor shortage, poor market data complicating farm planning, and a misconception that ‘local’ automatically equates to ‘better.'”

At the World AgriTech Innovation Summit for the Middle East, Africa & South Asia region, I’ll be presenting some exclusive and very preliminary findings from research AgFunder is conducting with our partner ISF Advisors for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation about the state of financing for climate adaptation solutions in Agriculture. (Don’t miss me just before lunch on the first day!)

Climate adaptation is obviously key for the region and, incidentally, AgFunder portfolio company and adaptation technology Intelligent Growth Solutions (IGS) has recently built its first vertical farming tower in the region in Dubai; it’s already growing chilies, greens, and trees successfully but has potential for a lot more. 

The IGS design supports multiple crop types key to the diet in the region as well as flowers with multiple applications and indigenous tree species for afforestation and reforestation. For a region with a combination of economic wealth, growing populations, and a lack of arable land, the ability to deploy towers like these on desert land that needs no buildings and in a closed-loop system using 250 times less water than in an open field or in a greenhouse is pretty transformative. Expect some big announcements from IGS during COP28. I hope I get to glimpse their demonstration farm in Al Quoz, in western Dubai, at some point during the week.

If you have suggestions for COP28 events to attend that might be relevant, do let me know. COP is always a bit confusing and often last-minute but I’m hoping to find more venues to speak about this important work on climate adaptation — an often under-discussed part of the overall climate debate — and learn more about this exciting region.

To get a 10% discount to attend the World AgriTech Innovation Summit for the Middle East, Africa & South Asia, use the code AFN10.

I hope to see you there!

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