The entrepreneur securing the UAE's food security

Emirati Mahmoud Adi is building the region’s first fully climate-controlled greenhouse near Al Ain.

Mahmoud Adi is one of the smartest Emiratis in the UAE – he has the grades to prove it. Back in 2004, he graduated from high school with the highest grades in the entire country and today, the 30 year-old serial entrepreneur is betting on tech to address the UAE’s food security issues. The impressive multi-tasker is not only an investor, but he’s also a senior associate at Mubadala and now he’s looking to revolutionise the way his country grows food by co-founding Pure Harvest, a ‘smart’ form of farming through hydroponics technology.

Given the arid conditions of the GCC, the region’s governments are under pressure to ensure its food security for future generations. The UAE alone imports 90 per cent of its food while its agriculture sector contributes just two per cent to GDP. “The most notable strategies have been to invest abroad in farm lands in an effort to own the supply chain,” says Adi. “This is a good first step, but doesn’t really address the food security entirely. Moving food supply and production to your own backyard is a game changer.”

Pure Harvest is building one of the region’s first hi-tech, fully climate-controlled greenhouses near Al Ain in the UAE to grow high quality produce and sell directly to retailers. Rather than using soil, the crops are grown in a coconut shaving solution without the need for pesticides or fertilisers. Each plant is monitored by sensors which relays information back on how much water it requires and when. This enables more efficient use of water resources and cuts back on wastage.

The company plans to start growing tomatoes this summer and introduce other crops like cucumbers and peppers, which they will supply directly to the local supermarkets. Growing fruit and vegetables in the desert, however, was not how Adi imagined life would pan out. He graduated from the Petroleum Institute in Abu Dhabi and began his career as a mechanical engineer. But rather than staying in the oil and gas sector, Adi left to join Mubadala in 2009 and retrained to become a financial analyst. “When I joined, I was not very familiar with investment and business,” he says. “It was eye opening for me. From being a technical person to having to think about things from a financial perspective – it was very different.” Adi still works with Mubadala where he has been promoted to senior associate on the technology team after completing an MBA at Stanford University in 2015.

“I had become very competent in the local context, but hadn’t challenged myself in the global context,” says Adi, explaining his decision to move to California to pursue his MBA. His time at Stanford provided the personal and professional challenges Adi sought and Adi soon built up an appetite to invest. “I convinced my family to allocate some capital for me to invest in a start up,” he says. “I looked at more than 50 deals and invested in five.” His family, founders of the Shorooq group, gave him $250,000 and he invested in a range of tech start-ups including, Tank Utility, Luma Health, Ubicall, Echo Labs and Kibbit. Three out of the five are still doing well, although one went bust “which is very typical in early venture fields,” he says.

When he eventually moved back to the UAE in March 2016, he met his current business partner, Sky Kurtz, through a mutual friend from Stanford and together, and they founded Pure Harvest. “I took a class in agriculture and realised that using hydroponic technology – a method of growing plants without soil, would work perfectly for the UAE,” says Adi. “I was ready to jump on the opportunity when I found the right people.” The right person did come along and Adi decided to use his family’s investment fund to invest $1 million in Pure Harvest. The company is currently in its second round of investment, looking to raise $4.5 million. This month though Adi will be enlisted in the UAE military to serve the now-compulsory military service. “This was one of the reasons why I came back, to do my duties and serve the country,” says Adi. Undoubtedly, his year of service will affect his work with Pure Harvest. “This was the biggest consideration I had – how can we make sure the business is not interrupted and investors are comfortable,” he says. The solution was to hire the right talent to grow the business and plan in advance by finishing their capital and fund-raising before Adi’s military service. He is confident that once he returns, Pure Harvest will be producing vegetables in its hi-tech farm and taking a step to reduce the UAE’s reliance on food imports.

Adi will also focus more on the family business, tilting its traditional investments away from real estate to more entrepreneurial endeavours. “I believe there are significant opportunities in this region. A lot of wealth has been created in the past decade and it has been conventional – in real estate and oil and gas,” he says. “But it is becoming harder and harder to make money.” He believes that the emergence of an international services sector, of money management, hedge funds and private equity will flourish soon as an industry in the UAE and that’s where opportunities will thrive. “These kinds of services will emerge and my long-term vision is to be in that sector of managing money,” he says.