DUBAI: For the last few decades retailers have treated flavor as a separate commodity to the food they were selling – for one price you get the item, pay more and you get the taste those in their 40s and older used to experience throughout their childhoods.
But a UAE-based multimillion-dollar startup is looking to change that and already has its eyes on Saudi Arabia with plans to start operations in the second half of 2020.
“We are trying to bring back a nostalgic connection to food that is local, that supports your local economy - but also is flavorful, is healthy, and is safe,” Pure Harvest CEO, Sky Kurtz, told Arab News.
“Our slogan at the company is ‘It tastes like it should’.”
And because the produce is grown locally its production will contribute significantly to the local economy.
The Gulf region is notorious for its arid landscape - the UAE alone imports up to 90 percent of its food – Saudi Arabia has a similar issue with import reliance – and the food that is grown in the country usually lacks flavor, Kurtz said.
But he said he believed this same landscape was actually “one of the best places to farm in the world,” when the right technology was used.
“We have an abundance of light, an abundance of labor, cheap land, zero percent corporate taxes.”
Using climate-controlled greenhouses, that offer optimal conditions for growing fruit and vegetables year-round, Pure Harvest is producing approximately two tons of tomatoes every day that sell at the supermarkets for about $3.40 for 300g.
The firm’s customer base includes hotels, restaurants, caterers and a number of supermarkets including Carrefour, Spinneys and Waitrose.
Pure Harvest was set up late in 2016, and initially raised $5.8 million in 2017 in what has been described as the Mena region’s “largest-ever seed financing,” led by Shorooq Partners and the Mohammed bin Rashid Innovation Fund.
The operational side of the company started life in the desert outside Abu Dhabi in October 2018.
“The initial farm we built is really a commercial scale proof of concept. What we are going to build will be over 12 hectares – we’re going to build a much larger footprint,” Kurtz added.
They experimented with different types and varieties of tomatoes – it was a test run, Kurtz said, to convince future investors of the company’s potential.
Kurtz said Pure Harvest was not a conventional farm, but instead a food manufacturer and already the company is looking to add lettuces and strawberries to its product line.
“We believe that if we can bring down the cost and improve the affordability and availability of these crops, we can massively grow those markets,” Kurtz explained, adding: “We believe that we can deliver that here at a more affordable price than other companies that import.”
He said the long-term aim of the business was to “drive the cost out of food production and share that with the customers.”
Rather than selling at a premium, Kurtz explained, the plan was to grow the market share across the Gulf region, but bring down the cost and increase consumption.
And the business plan seems to benefit the local economy, because with every unit of produce sold means more money spent locally, which Kurtz said lead to a “significant multiplier for the region.”
What’s more Pure Harvest has received a significant level of funding from international funders.
“There’s a consumption benefit… we attract foreign direct investment, over half of our capital is from abroad and the expansion is likely to be even more than that,” he explained.
The extra funds – he said – would help secure land rentals from the governments, pay for the various resources and also create some employment opportunities.
Kurtz says the firm is also carbon negative, buying the gas generated by oil refineries to aid with the growing of its crops.
“We consume carbon. We actually purchase food grade CO2 and we feed it to the greenhouse… We displace the airplane that would have otherwise brought the food that is burning jet fuel to get here.
“We use less than 32 liters of water per kilogram of production. A typical farm in the UAE uses over 260 liters.”
It is not just crops that Pure Farms are going to produce, Kurtz said they were looking at the potential for becoming a solar power farm.
With solar energy technology advances it is likely there will be duel-function glass that will provide sunlight for the plants, but also capture the solar power that will not only power their operations, but also be sold onto the national grid.
The ultimate aim, Kurtz added, was to expand across the Gulf region, producing local food for local communities – but with the potential to export the excess.