22 Jan 2020 19:33 IST

Smart farming creates a tomato revolution in the desert

The Madar Farms team with CEO Abdulaziz al Mullah at far right

Abu Dhabi-based Madar Farms uses 99% less water for vertical farming than conventional methods

Some of you may remember a Coca-Cola ad featuring Aamir Khan. Three young girls whose car has a flat tyre arrive at the farm looking for water to drink. An incredulous Aamir Khan exclaims in Punjabi, “ye ganne de khet vicch tamater kittho?” (How did ‘tomatoes’ pop up in a sugarcane farm?)

If tomatoes on a sugarcane farm were a surprise, what would you say of a tomato farm in the middle of a desert?

That is exactly what an Abu Dhabi-based company called Madar Farms has set out to do. Last week, it announced the setting up a 5,000 sq metre tomato farm in the Khalifa Industrial Zone, Abu Dhabi.

On the face of it, it may look highly improbable. Over 70 per cent of a tomato is water; The UAE, as all countries in the Arabian peninsula, has hardly any potable water. It meets all its water requirements by taking out salt from sea water, using its abundant hydrocarbon resources to do the trick. Now, for a country that is 100 per cent dependent on desalination for its water needs, to put up a tomato farm seems to be a ‘you’ve got to be kidding me’ kind of situation.

Hydroponics, the answer

But I can assure you that Madar Farms are no fools. They will produce tomatoes using 99 per cent — yes, 99 per cent — less water than conventional agriculture, using technique called hydroponics.

In conventional agriculture, soil is needed to hold the plants in place and to retain water. Water is needed to dissolve nutrients that can be taken in by the roots (due to capillary action) only in liquid form. But you can completely do away with soil if you can devise a means for holding the plants in place and dipping the roots in nutrient-enriched water in, say, a bottle or a tray. And you can have an array of bottles in a room, or even in a shipping container, inside which you have contrivances to control everything needed, such as oxygen, carbon dioxide, light (LED), temperature and humidity. Since you can keep LED lamps wherever you want, you can stack up the bottles or trays too. Welcome to ‘vertical farming’.

Looks like this ‘vertical farming’, or ‘container agriculture’, which is gaining ground, is the answer to the production of more food at a time of climate change. First, you use minimal water, you know exactly how much to give, where and when — instead of hosing the entire area. Second, productivity is higher, again because everything from nutrients to light is computer-controlled and you can grow plants round the year — seasons don’t matter. Furthermore, you can grow any plant because controlling the climate is in your hands. You don’t need pesticides. You eliminate the need to transport the food, which creates a significant carbon footprint. And, you could grow, for instance, high-value saffron in a hot place like Chennai and watch the money flow into your bank account. Aamir Khan might well wonder, “ye coastal city vich saffron kithon?” (How did saffron pop up in Chennai?)

Other players

Madar Farms’ tomato project may be new, but it has been doing container agriculture for some time. Its co-founder and CEO Abdulaziz al Mullah says the company uses repurposed shipping containers to grow leafy vegetables. “We take ‘guessing’ out of agriculture,” he says. The company also sells these container farms. Want one? Let them know and you are in business in 24 hours.

Madar is not the first, though it is among the bigger ones. There is, for instance, a company called Thaker Agrotech in Chennai, which offers hydroponic agriculture solutions. Other notable biggies include the Dutch company Certhon, its compatriot Signify, and the Canadian Inno 3-B.


Certhon container


You may not grow rice or wheat or sugarcane the hydroponic way but certainly horticulture and floriculture lend themselves to vertical farming.

Hydroponics is an entrepreneurial opportunity. Those of you who might wish to get into the business of growing food but still want to live in the comfort of a city could try your hand at this. And, to start with, you could put up a shed on your terrace to grow saffron.