Al Ghalia Farms: Advancing Hydroponic Farming in the Kingdom of Bahrain
AL GHALIA: The growing populations of Kingdom of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, also called the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), point to increased dependence on imported food. The United Nations’ figures reveal the population of GCC countries jumped by 18.9% in the last five years. Food imports are projected to grow to US$53.1 billion by 2020.
Major factors driving this import into the GCC market include growing domestic and expat populations, rising health consciousness among the population, changing tastes and preferences, and growing disposable income leading to higher consumption of nutritional foods as part of a staple diet. The Middle East currently imports about $35 billion of food annually, and this is set to rise to $70 billion in two decades as climate change impacts crop yields and the population rises.
On an average, GCC countries are importing 90% of food products from other countries. Qatar topped the GCC in terms of their dependence on foreign imports at 97%, followed by Bahrain at 92%, Kuwait 91%, and the UAE and Oman at 89%.
Increasing awareness regarding the risks of consumption of contaminated food is driving demand for crops and vegetables that are cultivated in a safe and controlled environment. Hydroponic plants are an ideal choice in this scenario as hydroponic systems eliminates the need for soil, which is where pathogens incubate.
Moreover, the increasing rate of urbanization in developed regions is expected to cause a major shift towards preference for hydroponic vegetables. Consumers with changing tastes are willing to pay a premium for an assortment of produce offering freshness, quality, flavor, safety and convenience. Young and affluent Western food-loving consumers are driving the growth and demand for imported foods in the Middle East.
Al Ghalia Farms (AG Terra Aqua) was specifically developed to fill the Kingdom’s need for locally and sustainable grown produce. We believe that growing locally and encouraging the use of hydroponic products is a necessary step to growth and modernization.
We take great pleasure in announcing that Al Ghalia Farms has been certified for the 5th year in a row with Global GAP (Good Agricultural Practices), BRC (British Retail Consortium) Global Food Safety, LEAF Marque (Linking Environment & Farming), SMETA (Sedex Members Ethical Trade Audit), ISO 9001 - 2008 certifications from Acerta, Spain. Al Ghalia is the only farm in the Kingdom of Bahrain that has adopted Global GAP, LEAF Marque, BRC, ISO and ETI certifications in the production, post-harvest, packing (HACCP) and distribution systems by using advanced hydroponic systems of cultivation in a controlled environment.
We perform laboratory analysis from accredited institutions for the water we use for growing. All our products are non GMO, contain zero traces of heavy metals and do not have any sort of microbiological contaminants. We are able to achieve this because we use the cleanest, purest, potable water from our own RO desalination plant. All farm vegetables are tested for MRL (maximum residue limit) as per FAO norms and are certified for the absence of deadly residues.
To learn more about Al Ghalia Farms and the CEA industry in the GCC, Agritecture talked with Bhaskar Rao, Operations Manager at Al Ghalia Farms:
AGR: How did you first get involved in agriculture? What inspired you to do so?
Bhaskar: From a very young age, I had a passion towards growing plants in our kitchen garden and a few seasonal flowers in the front yard. My mom was my inspiration as she was in the garden early morning working and harvesting vegetables for the day. It was such a happy moment to see the plants bear fruits and the whole family eating them for dinner. Right away I made a decision that this would be my profession when I grow up – which brings lot of joy and satisfaction when feeding a hungry stomach. I did my graduation in Agricultural Sciences and my post-graduation in Agricultural marketing Management.
What do you see as the main challenges for agriculture in the Middle East? What are the greatest opportunities?
Bhaskar: The opportunities for agriculture in the Middle East are numerous: Increasing awareness regarding the risks of consumption of contaminated food is driving demand for crops and vegetables that are cultivated in a safe and controlled environment. Moreover, the increasing rate of urbanization in developed regions is expected to cause a major shift towards preference for safe fruits & vegetables. Consumers with changing tastes are willing to pay a premium for an assortment of produce offering freshness, quality, flavor, safety and convenience. Young and affluent food-loving consumers are driving the growth and demand for foods in the Middle East.
Hydroponics in particular in the ME has the following “cut above the rest” pointers to establish long term investment benefits in all ways. It’s a “win-win” situation for all stakeholders:
Severe lack of arable land.
Ability to grow food 12 months of the year even in the warmest climates.
Huge reduction in the quantity of water currently used in the food chain, plus reduction in the fertilizers and energy currently used.
Immediate employment opportunities in harvesting, retailing and distribution, thus stimulating new markets locally and nationally.
At the same time, of course, there are also challenges: Agronomic challenges are the only hindrance in the way to grow crops. THe climate is very harsh and high temperatures and high humidity tends to aggravate cultivation issues.
Most of the CEA that takes place currently is done in traditional plastic (PE Film) greenhouses or high tunnels that use evaporative fan pad cooling. Due to the long and hot summer months, this process is extremely water and energy intensive, which further depletes our available resources. Alternative methods of protected cultivation is therefore a huge opportunity in the Middle East.
What advice do you have for entrepreneurs planning or hoping to start farms in the MENA region?
Bhaskar: The MENA hydroponics market is estimated to reach USD 61.3 million by 2021 from a market value of USD 27.6 million in 2016 at a CAGR of 15.5%. MENA has an untapped market and key players are slowly expanding to this region which is the main reason for the regional market’s current growth.
Locally grown vegetables, indigenous/native herbs, micro greens, wheatgrass, salad greens and the concept of “farm to fork” are becoming increasingly common in market places throughout GCC. Thanks to alternative agricultural practices such as hydroponic farming. The ME is now taking definitive steps towards being self-sustainable with certain food items that frequent our dinner table. RTE (ready to eat) salad mix, diet bars, detox juice centers or even the snacking section like cherry tomatoes, baby carrots, and the likes are hitting the hypermarket shelves.
Commercial hydroponic farming facilities are well established in GCC with a highly promising and very green future. Hydroponic farms are successfully operating in GCC even in the summer months when the ambient daytime temperatures are 40-50 degrees Celsius and night time temperatures are 30-35. But during summer months the crops performance is not very promising.
Hydroponic farming has a lot of plus factors especially when practiced in an arid environment, such as Bahrain. It is a prime solution for growing plants where soil nutrient quality, salinity and water availability are the limiting issues. It is also a perfect solution in countries or regions where the amount of arable land is very limited, apart from being an ideal solution in regions where there is ample light.
Rooftop farming is being given huge boost by federal departments to local enthusiasts and hobby farmers, and DIY hydroponic grow kits have become the talk of the town with many more joining the bandwagon.
Hydroponics provides an economically, socially and environmentally sound investment utilizing a modern science which can be adapted to provide intensive food production in a multitude of environments both large and small anywhere in the world, and most importantly it provides a reduction to our carbon footprint.
What's next for Al Ghalia Farms? Will you be expanding to other GCC countries in the future?
Bhaskar: Feeding the demands of the local market is of prime importance at present for Al Ghalia Farms. There is a huge market demand and we are working towards it with a sustainable and zero carbon footprint. We do not have any expansion programs in the GCC currently.