With desert making up the vast majority of its land – and most of the rest taken up by urban development – it’s easy to see why the UAE imports as much as 90% of its food from abroad. Just 5% of the country is considered cultivable.
The story is the same across much of the arid Middle East. But with the emergence and continued improvement of technologies in areas like indoor farming, irrigation, and water desalination, the region is beginning to contemplate a future in which it no longer relies as desperately on imports from more temperate, fecund climes.
While they’re short on arable land, something that the UAE and several of its neighbors do have in abundance is the money needed to invest in these technologies – or bring them in from overseas.
In 2019, the government of UAE constituent Abu Dhabi committed $272 million in financing and tax incentives to the development of a local agtech ecosystem. In April last year, the emirate’s Abu Dhabi Investment Office pumped $100 million of grant funding into startups including local controlled environment agriculture (CEA) grower Pure Harvest Smart Farms, with the startups sharing in a further $41 million injection last December. Also in April 2020, nearby Kuwait invested $10 million in Pure Harvest to bring the company’s desert-customised smart farming solutions to its own shores.
In March this year, Pure Harvest announced that it had closed a $60 million growth funding round, including a $50 million sharia-compliant, structured sukuk financing led by SHUAA Capital and anchored by Franklin Templeton. Sancta Capital made a “sizable” invesmtent in the round, the startup said at the time.
AFN recently interviewed Pure Harvest founder and CEO Sky Kurtz about the company’s funding frenzy, its plans for expansion in the Middle East and beyond, and how it has managed to grow ‘green gold’ in the desert. Read on to hear more from Kurtz.
AFN: Pure Harvest recently raised $60 million in growth funding. How will Pure Harvest use this capital?
SK: This complements our earlier $29.3 million Series A capital to fund capital expenditures that will complete three new high-tech hybrid greenhouse projects, including two in the UAE and a beachhead in Saudi Arabia. The two farms in the UAE are nearly complete and will harvest late-Q2, while the Saudi Arabian farm is to be completed by Q3 and harvesting in Q4.
[We’re also making] additions to headcount, including key functions that further our capabilities, such as data science, machine learning, agronomists with specializations in new crops such as leafy greens and berries, and other high-skilled personnel.
The funding complements sizable R&D incentives received from the Abu Dhabi Investment Office to fund and further develop pilots of new technologies, enhancements to our climate control systems, and product development of new tools, equipment, and sub-systems that will improve the efficiency of our production systems.
AFN: What makes Pure Harvest different from competing indoor farming players in the market?
SK: Pure Harvest Smart Farms designs, constructs, and operates high-tech growing systems equipped with proprietary climate management technology to enable year-round production of local, affordable, premium-quality fresh fruits and vegetables in the world’s harshest climates. We are also committed to supporting public initiatives focused on improved food security, water conservation, economic diversification, and sustainability. Through constant engagement with governments, schools, and research institutions, we believe that together, we can lead the Middle East into the next generation of sustainable agriculture.
Our representative differentiators are our proprietary climate management system design and system integration. We buy what we can, build what we must. This is heavily informed by data from nearly three years of continuous production and operation in the UAE’s extreme heat and humidity. This is an extreme laboratory and we have unmatched insight into how to design systems to operate here and how to actually grow in this environment.
We have an exclusive design and IP [intellectual property] partnership with Larssen Greenhouse Consulting. [Its CEO Thomas Larssen] is a world-leading design consultant to the high-tech horticulture industry with over 30 years of experience and 1,000 successful projects worldwide. We co-develop designs and solutions; however, Pure Harvest maintains the IP. Thomas Larssen also serves as a director on our board and is a significant investor in the company.
We have regionally exclusive technology licenses with certain sub-suppliers that supply equipment or solutions that we deem to be head-and-shoulders above comparable solutions providers. With these partners we enter mutually exclusive relationships for [our] markets [and collaborate on R&D] efforts to modify their solutions for extreme climates.
We leverage our incumbency [in terms of] data, knowledge, and learning curves to both inform our future designs and procurements, but also to train agronomists. We can deploy them into existing assets within the extreme environment to train them before inserting them into new farms, benefiting from our institutional knowhow and de-risking new projects and new market entry.
AFN: What differentiates Pure Harvest from a tech perspective?
SK: The technologies being utilized in Pure Harvest’s growing systems differ from existing systems used by growers in the Gulf region and abroad. Pure Harvest’s solution features an overpressure climate control system which not only serves to maintain the most optimal growing conditions, but also helps to keep insects and diseases from breaching the growing area.
As pressurized air escapes from the rooftop vents [it] resists entry from particles and insects. This is a first-of-its-kind in the Gulf region, but indeed exists in other parts of the world.
We also recapture condensation water created by our system to ‘create’ water, reducing our reliance upon groundwater and municipal water.
To maximize yields, carbon dioxide dosing is injected into the greenhouse which stimulates the photosynthesis process. Advanced hydroponic irrigation systems recirculate 100% of excess water, while sensors and advanced data analytics provide climate management. Many of these solutions are used in the Netherlands or the US, but are truly novel for the markets that we serve.
AFN: Are Pure Harvest products already available on general sale to the consumer? At what price point?
SK: Pure Harvest products are found in some of the most respected and far-reaching retailers in the Middle East — such as Spinneys, Waitrose, and Carrefour — as well as numerous reputable hotels and restaurants in the UAE. The company currently grows 26 commercial varieties of tomatoes — including six that have never before been seen — and six varieties of strawberries. Leafy greens, baby spinach, and much larger production of strawberries are coming by mid-year.
By early next year, upon completion of the company’s Kuwaiti facility, the product portfolio will broaden even further, including raspberries, blackberries, additional vine crops, and additional lettuces.
Pure Harvest’s products are typically at 20% to 40% lower cost versus comparable quality European imports, but a modest premium to lower cost, lower quality, seasonal regional production. We’ve created a new ‘premium local’ category that did not exist in our markets previously.
AFN: Can you explain what a structured sukuk financing is and why it was necessary in this instance?
Sukuks are a novel financial product whose terms and structures comply with Islamic [sharia] law, with the intention of creating risks and returns similar to those of conventional fixed-income instruments like loans or bonds.
Unlike a conventional bond, which represents the ‘debt’ obligation of the issuer, a sukuk technically represents an interest in an underlying funding arrangement structured according to sharia law, entitling the holder to a proportionate share of the returns generated by such arrangement and, at a defined future date, the return of the capital. It’s more like a sale-leaseback transaction, resulting in ‘profits’ being generated from leasing the property, plant, and equipment as opposed to ‘interest’ on capital, which is not permitted in Islam.
For a corporation tapping the sukuk market there is a potential marketing benefit for issuers active in Islamic markets, if they are seeking investments in those markets. The investor base represented by sharia-compliant investors is still largely untapped and there has traditionally been significant unmet demand for products.
AFN: What is the biggest challenge that Pure Harvest has faced so far – and how has the team overcome that challenge?
The early challenge was securing capital – to convince investors to believe this was possible in unprecedented markets due to the extreme climate + deploying ‘unproven’ assets in an emerging market.
We have now raised approximately $45 million from the US, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East over the past four years. To do so has taken significant time, energy, and conviction in our vision. The GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] region is a relatively new venture market with a limited number of venture investors, with smaller ticket sizes. We are pioneering agtech in an asset-intensive sector within an emerging market – it’s very, very hard being first. Now that we have proven our solution and our product-market fit, we are able to tap more established institutional investors and capital markets. Early on, however, there were no successful reference cases or analogs to point to. We entered truly uncharted territory.
Now, we are that analog, which new competitors are pointing to when pitching to investors [as to why they] should trust them to enter the GCC markets.
I cannot underscore just how hard it has been to be first. Even with consumers, convincing them that a premium local offering could be better than European imports – it was previously thought impossible, and ‘local’ was looked down on rather than celebrated.
[Operationally] the most difficult issues to overcome in the region are related to heat and humidity during the long summer months, to be able to deliver European product standards to customers. Developing and integrating world-leading horticulture technology has helped us to overcome the challenges presented by the extreme climate.
AFN: Pure Harvest appears to have raised quite a substantial amount of funding to date. What is the total funding figure and how is it all being deployed? Is building indoor farms in the UAE and Saudi Arabia more capital intensive than, say, Europe or the US?
Total funding commitments secured exceeds $216 million, including a performance-contingent $100 million commitment from our Series A lead investor, Wafra International Investment Company. This also includes the sizeable, non-dilutive incentive package received from the Abu Dhabi Investment Office, the exact value of which we can’t disclose.
Our core use of proceeds is indeed capex. Building these high-tech, ultra-high productivity farms is expensive – but it works [because] we have tremendous amounts of sunlight. We are able to harness that light to deliver world-leading yields, which helps absorb that capital and results in a favorable — often much more favorable — unit cost of production versus similar high-tech growing systems in the US, Europe, and Australia, for instance.
We call our solution ‘veridical’ farming rather than ‘vertical’ farming – ‘veridical’ meaning ‘truthful,’ or ‘realistic.’ We actually meet our claims to investors and to our customers, achieving about 10x to 15x the yield per square meter versus incumbent lower-tech CEA solutions while using a seventh to a tenth of the water.
AFN: What’s next for Pure Harvest?
We aim to be a regional leader in agribusiness in five years and to have expanded into at least two to three foreign markets, including within Southeast Asia. We will have advanced our solution to be 20% to 40% cheaper to build, build it in half the time, and deliver 20% to 40% greater output per unit of ‘light — that is, solar energy — that we can harvest. We will standardize our integrations with renewable infrastructure for our power and CO2 requirements, while utilizing treated wastewater in our cooling systems to reduce our environmental impact, and thus that of our customers when they buy our products.
The future of sustainable farming is here. We wish to serve the underserved billions who live within an eight-hour flight of Abu Dhabi and within 2,000 miles of the Equator, who have historically relied upon imports from other markets. Delivering to these nations is a true and tangible food security solution, and contributes to water conservation, economic diversification, and more sustainable, high-quality, safer, and tastier food.