Meet The Container Farm Helping To Feed A Dubai Community


Old factories, warehouses and disused shipping containers have paved the way for a global agricultural revolution that is reaping rewards in a Dubai neighborhood.

As more and more indoor farms sprout up in cities across the world, including New York and London, the UAE is firmly on the vertical farming bandwagon.

The Sustainable City in Dubai is the latest community to harness the production of fresh leafy greens and herbs in an urban environment, including lettuce, arugula and basil.

Nestled among the residential neighborhood, Beijing-based Alesca Life Technologies set up a hydroponic shipping container farm in the area two months ago.

“The profile of the farmer is changing dramatically…today’s farming tool is the smartphone not the plough,” Stuart Oda, founder of Alesca Life told The National.

“Where traditional farmers are dependent on the cadence of nature and seasons, urban farms can control nature.”

Over the past few years, the UAE’s urban landscape has proved to be the perfect host for soil-less food production.

With only a small percentage of the UAE’s land considered arable due to its harsh climate, more than 80 per cent of food available in the country is imported, according to the Ministry of Economy.

As the UAE’s vertical farming industry continues to grow organically, this twenty first century approach to traditional farming has the potential to bring this figure down.

Buildings dotted among Dubai’s skyscrapers are brimming with life. Keeping the outside elements out, forward-thinking agricultural companies are using climate controlled technology to turn empty indoor spaces into farms.

Although still in its infancy in the UAE, vertical farming has the potential to meet the growing global food demand by allowing for year-round harvest opportunities.

Bringing food production to cities, indoor farms create consumer convenience. But the benefits reach far beyond that.

Using hydroponics, the method of growing plants without soil via nutrient-rich solutions, they have an environmentally-friendly impact too.

Mr Oda said urban farms use “90 to 95 per cent less water, fertiliser and land” compared to traditional agricultural methods and “no chemical pesticides, herbicides, or fungicides”.

"Annual water use for global food production is about 2.3 million cubic metres...this can be drastically reduced," Mr Oda said.

“By eliminating the need for long haul transportation for import and export of major foodstuff, it cuts down on CO2 emissions too.”

And by growing up, in vertically stacked layers indoors, vital land is saved, he said.

Controlled through a smartphone app, sensor boxes inside the farms monitor the environment and crops.

Running about “24 harvest cycles each year”, Mr Oda said the Sustainable City shipping container produces fresh crop batches every two weeks and has already produced 26,000 lettuces alone.

About 4,000 seedlings can grow at any one time in biodegradable peat moss sponges and each week, 720 leafy greens are sold to residents and cafes within the community for about Dh40 a kilogram, depending on the crop.

“We get to customise a lot of these things so we can reduce our environmental footprint," he said.

“We turn off LED lights when outside heat is optimal and use a drip feed water cycle system.

“We can even customise a crop’s texture and flavour profile by adjusting the light and watering cycle to simulate a change in seasons.”

Alesca Life is not alone in taking an innovative approach to farming in the Emirates.

In 2018, the Ministry of Climate Change and Environment issued a rallying cry to the private sector to encourage innovation in agriculture.

One company who took heed was Uns Farms. Last year it opened one of the city’s largest urban farms in Dubai.

Located in an old warehouse in Al Quoz, the 30,000 square foot space harvests more than 1,000kg of leafy greens daily and supplies produce to Union Coop, Emirates Coop and Aswaaq supermarkets across the country, as well as restaurants and hotels.

In the next few months, Emirates Airlines is also expected to open its own vertical farm facility near Dubai World Central airport. Covering 130,000 square feet, it will have a production output equivalent to 900 acres of farmland. The first products are expected to be delivered to Emirates Flight Catering’s customers, including 105 airlines and 25 airport lounges, in December.

Further Reading