Top agtech companies solving food security challenges in the MENA region

The Middle East and Northern Africa (MENA) region is one of the most food-dependent regions in the world. According to the World Bank, around half of the food in MENA is imported. When it comes to Gulf Cooperation Countries (GCC), the figure jumps to 90%.

Over the past few years, the MENA region has struggled to meet its food needs and imports. Factors such as the COVID-19 pandemic and the blockage of the Suez Canal in 2021 have further exacerbated the need for improving the food supply throughout the region. Over the past few years, a wave of agtech (agriculture technology) startups has flourished to address these food scarcity challenges.

Some of these top agtech companies are using cutting-edge solutions, such as drones, the Internet of Things (IoT), and nanotechnology, to address long-standing issues in the MENA region. As a result, they have helped improve and increase output in the agricultural sector while saving resources like energy and water and switched to more sustainable and environmentally friendly methods.

1. FalconViz

FalconViz offers drone-based services that improve crop inputs by monitoring pesticides, fertilizers, and irrigation water. This modern approach to farming is just one type of precision agriculture that uses specialized equipment, software, and IT services to increase crop yields and profitability. FalconViz drones can also help farmers generate 3D maps for soil analysis, allowing them to make better decisions while planting seeds.

Nitrogen is one of the key nutrients for plants. Drones can use cameras and sensors to detect symptoms of nitrogen deficiency in a crop’s leaves. An algorithm then uses this information to process soil health and weather data to recommend the right amount of nitrogen fertilizer for that crop. This helps farmers maximize fertilizer resources and minimize the amount of waste.

Once seed planting is completed, drones can also show data for irrigation. For example, drones with thermal sensors can identify dry parts in a field. This can help farmers save water by irrigating only the dry patches. While the crop grows, drones can also calculate a vegetation index, allowing farmers to use a number of crop metrics, such as the relative density of the crop, the heat signature, and the amount of energy the crop emits.

How KAUST empowered FalconViz

Luca Passone—FalconViz’s co-founder—carried out his research and performed experiments on 3D surveying and mapping technologies while studying at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST).

FalconViz caught the attention of the vice mayor of Jeddah when he visited KAUST. He was impressed by the quality of its 3D model of the King Abdullah Mosque. At the time, the vice mayor was busy in efforts to have UNESCO recognize the historical Jeddah city center. He was looking for a similar type of model for Al-Balad—a historic area of the city.

FalconViz mapped out Al-Balad via photogrammetry and laser-scanning technology. As a result, drones helped reach areas that were previously deemed inaccessible. This event helped increase the FalconViz team’s morale, allowing them to make their mark on agtech in the region.

2. Edama Organic Solutions

KAUST Photolibrary 2021

Organic waste generation is a serious challenge in MENA that threatens water availability and food security. Edama Organic Solutions tackles that by building organic waste recycling solutions for desert environments. It focuses on turning organic waste into rich soil to improve desert agriculture, raise crop yields, and minimize water consumption.

In KSA, landfills get all the organic waste from the country, which can produce dangerous greenhouse gases (e.g., methane). This waste also leads to the discharge of harmful chemicals into the ground, polluting aquifers and local soils. Edama wants to turn this organic waste into something productive by recycling it—a win-win situation for the region.

Edama has devised composting processes that require lower amounts of water—up to 75% less than traditional methods. It has also introduced quality assurance procedures to address the concerns of local farmers by improving crop health, yield, harvest quality, and growth.

How KAUST empowered Edama

Edama was created in 2017 and launched its first facility at the KAUST Research and Technology Park. It performs testing of its products by using the facilities from KAUST’s Plant Growth Core Labs. In addition, staying at KAUST has also equipped with more support through TAQADAM — a startup accelerator at KAUST. They received US$1 million in funding from the KAUST Innovation Fund.

3. Uvera

According to Saudi Grains Organization (SAGO), 33% of food is wasted in KSA, leading to losses of $10.6 billion to the Kingdom every year. Uvera plans to limit this food spoilage throughout the region with a smart IoT device that increases the lifetime of fresh food, including vegetables, fruits, and meats.

The device uses ultraviolet (UV) light to sterilize food and remove pathogens, viruses, and bacteria that lead to food spoilage. Uvera claims that this tech can increase the shelf life of food by up to 63% in less than 30 seconds without compromising aroma, flavor, taste, or texture.

How KAUST empowered Uvera

Asrar Damdam, Uvera’s founder, was a master’s degree student at KAUST, where she got the idea to launch Uvera. She became interested in using UV technology to address food spoilage while studying a course titled “Special Topics in Solid State Devices.” The course discussed the applications of UV light-emitting diodes (LEDs), including how they can be used to prolong the life of fresh food. This led her to build a prototype with UV LEDs and test it for herself. The success of her experiments led her to launch Uvera, which is now based in KAUST, empowering her team to develop and test their technology at KAUST Core Labs.

4. Ghirass

Ghirass has developed a nano-irrigation system that uses artificial roots to increase plant production and reduce energy and water usage. Ghirass tackles the food security issue by making nano-scale holes in a plant’s roots that can route the required amount of water and nutrients to plants. Farmers can monitor the system via software, allowing them to know what happens with their crops while minimizing human intervention.

The system operates on low water pressure and water flow. It releases water in small amounts to moisten the soil and irrigate crops 24/7. This reduces water loss due to drainage, evaporation, and runoff that results from traditional irrigation.

How KAUST empowered Ghirass

Ghirass joined TAQADAM in 2021. At KAUST, Ghirass announced their collaboration with Modern Architecture Contract Company (MACC) to start a palm tree project, which includes growing 20,000 palm trees with Ghirass’ nano-irrigation system.

Learn more about the TAQADAM Startup Accelerator and the agtech companies emerging from it

Today, many top agtech companies in KSA are thriving and making an impact in the agricultural industry based on support from KAUST’s TAQADAM. Startups at TAQADAM get $40,000 in non-dilutive funding—a type of funding that doesn’t require business owners to give up ownership or equity in return for capital. TAQADAM allocates a co-working space where startups can get help from experienced experts and mentors.

Learn more about top agtech companies.