Pure Harvest Smart Farms: MENA’s Next Agtech ‘Uni-Camel’

Pure Harvest Smart Farms: MENA’s Next Agtech ‘Uni-Camel’

By Erika Masako Welch, 02 November 2023

In the heart of Abu Dhabi, Pure Harvest Smart Farms is pioneering the future of sustainable agriculture. Founded in 2016, the Agtech start-up is transforming the way we think about farming, leveraging high-tech hybrid growing systems to overcome the Middle East's greatest challenges: food security, water conservation, economic diversification, and sustainability.

Agtech for the Desert

They couldn’t have chosen a better ground-zero. Pure Harvest’s operations are based just outside the capital city of the United Arab Emirates, a country that is prioritizing food security - as it imports roughly 90% of its consumed food from outside its borders. Furthermore, only 5% of the country’s desert lands are considered cultivable. In 2019, the government of the UAE committed US $272 million in financing and tax incentives to the development of a local agtech ecosystem. In April 2020, Abu Dhabi’s Investment Office pumped US $100 million of grant funding into startups, including local controlled environment agriculture (CEA) grower and local Agtech poster child, Pure Harvest Smart Farms.

Pure Harvest is committed to delivering exceptionally flavorful, affordable and locally-grown fresh produce year-round. Using cutting-edge technology, the company has developed the Middle East's first semi-automated, hightech hybrid growing system. As a result, they're capable of achieving 10-15 times the yield per square meter compared to traditional greenhouse farming methods, all while consuming a fraction of the water. 

Pure Harvest currently produces over 20 commercial varieties of tomatoes, two varieties of strawberries, leafy greens, melons, capsicums, as well as blackberries and raspberries. Pure Harvest’s products are typically 20-40% lower cost versus comparable European imports, but a modest premium to lower cost, lower quality, seasonal regional production. Of this, Sky Kurtz, Co-founder and CEO of Pure Harvest says, “We’ve created a new ‘premium local’ category that did not exist in our markets previously.” 

In frame: Sky Kurtz, Co-founder and CEO of Pure Harvest

In frame: Sky Kurtz, Co-founder and CEO of Pure Harvest

High-Tech, High Yield

The key to Pure Harvest’s success is innovation. “We call our solution ‘veridical’ farming rather than ‘vertical’ farming – ‘veridical’ meaning ‘truthful,’ or ‘realistic,’” says Sky. “We are able to harness the tremendous amount of sunlight at our disposal, to deliver world-leading yields, which also results in a much more favorable unit cost of production versus similar high-tech growing systems in the US, Europe, and Australia, for instance. 

Pure Harvest's revolutionary greenhouses are high-tech and over-pressurized climate-control system, which not only serves to maintain temperatures at optimal growing conditions, but also helps to keep insects and diseases from breaching the growing area. The pressurized air escapes from rooftop vents that resists entry from particles and insects. Their solution also recaptures condensation water, while carbon dioxide dosing is injected into the greenhouse to stimulate the photosynthesis process. Advanced hydroponic irrigation systems recirculate 100% of excess water, while sensors and advanced data analytics manage the greenhouse climate at all times. Today, Pure Harvest currently consistently produces over 17 million kilograms of fruit and vegetables annually. 

“We generally achieve 10x to 15x the yield per square meter versus incumbent lower tech CEA solutions while using 1/7th to 1/10th of the water,” says Sky. Today, Pure Harvest operates 4 farms in the United Arab Emirates, another farm in Saudi Arabia, and aims to break ground on another farm in Kuwait by year-end.

Infographic: Pure Harvest’s Entrepreneurial Journey

The company currently employs a diverse group of 460 men and women, representing over 30 nations; and Sky says there is imminent growth on the horizon. "We aim to more than double our capacity over the next year," he says, citing potential projects in the GCC region and South East Asia. He also anticipates a significant rise in produce sales, supported in partnership with UAE supermarket chains like Spinney's and new partnerships in Saudi Arabia. 

Last year, Pure Harvest partnered with the Singapore Food Agency (SFA) to develop the city-state's inaugural hybrid greenhouse tomato farm to amplify sustainable food security, aligning with Singapore's "30 by 30" food security initiative.

With a population of approximately 5.5 million, Singapore is a regional economic powerhouse but faces challenges with food production due to limited natural resources and arable land. According to SFA data, over 90% of the country's food is imported from 180 countries, with only 1% of national land set aside for agriculture. 

Singapore’s "30 by 30" initiative was launched in 2019, aiming to bolster its agri-food industry and enable it to produce 30% of the nation's nutritional needs locally and sustainably by 2030. This initiative has sparked an increase in local farms, growing by about 18% CAGR to 260 in 2021, from 221 in 2019.

According to Sky, the hybrid greenhouse project is another critical step in the region's efforts to safeguard their communities against climate and food security threats. "We hope that this project pushes the boundaries of the Agtech industry, providing the Singaporean people with the benefits that innovative controlled-environment agriculture solutions can bring."

A major partnership more locally, however, would have to be Pure Harvest’s strategic partnership with Saudi Arabia's National Agricultural Development Company (NADEC). NADEC isn't your run-of-the-mill agricultural company. It was the first of its kind to be listed on the Saudi stock market, produces a staggering 1.5 million liters of dairy and juice every day, and serves over 40,000 GCC stores while employing more than 7,000 people.

“NADEC is a formidable incumbent food supplier with a sterling reputation and brand, sizable landholdings and enabling infrastructure, and an experienced leadership team. We greatly benefit from Nadec’s strength, and together we are pioneering a new category of fresh produce for the Saudi people,” said Sky on the partnership. 

The powerhouse duo aims to deliver a food security project of national proportions, producing locally and sustainably grown fresh produce on a whopping 27 hectares of NADEC's lands. Pure Harvest is set to flex its green thumbs over the next five years, farming an array of crops, while Nadec steps in to market these fresh, sustainable goods to consumers, hotels, restaurants, catering partners, and more.

With its state-of-the-art tech, Pure Harvest is no stranger to global recognition. The company has secured over US $387 million in capital commitments to date, with a truly international investor base, including the UAE's Shorooq Partners, the UK's Metric Capital Partners, Saudi Arabia's Olayan Group, Korea's IMM Investment Corp, Kuwait's Wafra, the UK's Metric Capital Partners, and Archer Private Investments from the USA. Forbes recognized Pure Harvest as the #1 Most Funded Startup in MENA in 2022, and many claim it is the most funded Agtech in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia (MEASA) region. 

Early on, it was a struggle to secure support, though, reminisces Sky. “I often got asked, why did such a promising young man leave Silicon Valley to grow tomatoes in the desert?” 

“My wife’s father thought I’d lost my mind."

In Sky's mind, it made all the sense in the world. For this to have great competitive advantage, you needed affordable land (outside of city centers), water, and energy - for the cooling systems and electrical equipment. Land was available out in the vast desert. Water was comparable to some of the more competitive global rates, and energy would effectively become off-set by using solar energy - an energy source that was available every day, almost 365 days a year in this part of the world. 

But what is most important as an input to agriculture that is completely free of cost and in abundance in the Middle East is natural light! Harnessing this light, together with a proprietary growing system and cutting-edge agronomical practices, has made possible world-leading yields. Which Sky says makes the Middle East one of the best places to farm in the world, once you control for climate. Pure Harvest essentially de-coupled the relationship of food production from climate, and instead tied it to the cost of energy and capital. "This," says Sky, "opens up a new paradigm for where we can farm our fresh fruits and vegetables.

Today, Pure Harvest is far from being in a difficult fundraising position. The last round was oversubscribed, and though the team was targeting a US $100 million raise, it managed to raise over $180 million, with additional investors looking to jump on. That’s exactly what happened when the billionaire Olayan family, who run one of Saudi Arabia’s largest conglomerates, joined Pure Harvest’s cap table.

With global expansion on its mind, Pure Harvest has its heart set on becoming the next Middle Eastern Unicorn and become a company valued at over $1 billion. “I call it a Uni-camel, because of the region,” he said with a smile, “and I believe it's a very real possibility if we continue to deliver on our vision.” The startup is living proof that high-tech farming solutions can be successfully deployed across the GCC. 

Their next big move is rolling out high-tech hybrid smart farms growing fruits and veggies across the GCC and Asia, fueled by the $180.5 million from the latest funding round in 2022.

And the cherry on top? Pure Harvest snagged the “Product of the Year Award 2023” for Sustainable Agriculture Products in the Gulf Region. Their product range was voted a hit by nearly 4,000 consumers across the region. 

This award is more than just a badge of honor for Pure Harvest. It's a landmark moment for the industry's efforts to champion sustainable production and reduce import dependency in the Gulf. As Sky puts it, the award acknowledges the rising tide of consumer preferences for sustainable, fresh, and environmentally friendly products.

As Pure Harvest continues to pave the way for sustainable farming, the vision of a world where fresh, local produce is available year-round, even in the harshest climates, becomes more tangible. The revolution in sustainable farming isn't just on the horizon – it's already here, growing tomatoes in the desert. Here's to greening the future, one harvest at a time!

To read more about the future of food and the growing business of foodtech – read the full report here

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