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Greenhouses in the desert: Exploring sustainable alternatives to enhance food security in the Middle

UAE-based startup Greener Crop’s hydroponic farm management solutions contributes to achieving country’s food security targets

Combining his family background in agriculture and the tech skills he developed working with the likes of Groupon and Delivery Hero for 10 years, Alexander Kappes started Greener Crop, a hydroponic farm management company specialised in setting up and operating commercial hydroponic farms, in August 2020.

Back then, food security had become a chief concern for many governments, including the UAE’s, as the coronavirus pandemic wreaked havoc with global supply chains and international food manufactures.

As such, Kappes, who is also the CEO of Greener Crop, came up with the hydroponic farm management solution which could sustainably contribute to the UAE’s food security targets.

A year and a half into its launch, the UAE-based startup is already operating in the UAE, Qatar and Oman and its clients include private investors, real estate companies and hotel owners.

In a wide-reaching interview with Arabian Business, Kappes talks about how hydroponic farming through greenhouses compares to urban vertical farming – which he says is actually not as competitive in the UAE, given the country’s climate and wide availability of land – as well as Greener Crop’s expansion plans.

How did the idea of Greener Crop come about?

Two and a half years ago, you started seeing the government’s focus shift to food security, shortly after which they started announcing plans for a couple of mega projects and investments that were being made in this space.

Once I started doing my math, I realised that the projects announced at that time would contribute only 0.2 percent to the UAE’s annual fruit and vegetable consumption.

That’s when we realised that this technology is still not being deployed at a meaningful scale and if you want to achieve food security, it’s going to be about giving access to advanced farming technologies to a larger group of people and making that easier. We then realised that there were too many entry barriers for this to happen successfully here.

Could you elaborate on what the barriers are?

There is a bit of a lack of expertise. We don’t have a long history here of generations after generations of farmers so where do you get the people to operate those farms from? Who are the suppliers that you’ll work with and where do you get the seeds? How do you decide which type of farm to set up?

If your alternative investments are crypto, gold and real estate, farming is one that gives you a lot more headaches than the others.

So if we could create an ecosystem, a farm management service that would support the entire ecosystem, we might be able to enable more farmers to do [invest in agritech businesses]. And that’s how Greener Crop came about.

Vertical farming is often what comes to mind when people think of agritech. Can you tell us how it compares to other types of farming?

Most of our clients come with the idea of doing an indoor vertical farm and we very quickly convince them that a greenhouse is a much more sustainable solution, at a lower cost and that yields more of a mass product.

At its core, you can produce large quantities of mass compatible markets and you don’t have to aim for a small niche with a very high price point which is typical of urban vertical farming.

Here in the UAE for example, there’s no reason for indoor farm in an urban location where your electricity tariffs will start at around 1.21 dirhams per kilowatt hour when, if you set up a greenhouse farm in a designated agricultural area in Al Ain, that drops to four fils per kilowatt hour.

Land prices are also cheaper there and since we have almost 360 days of sunshine in the UAE, you don’t necessarily need to grow indoors so you don’t need expensive LED lights.

What are the main challenges of farming in the UAE?

The heat is tricky, especially if we record temperatures at 52 or 54 degrees Celsius and high humidity is always an issue. When you have 70 to 80 percent plus humidity, the cooling in greenhouses doesn’t work and that can be a problem but that’s why we try to grow towards the interior of the country.

Greener Crop supports the rapidly growing agritech sector with business analytics, growing supplies, as well as hands-on farm management

Also, more advanced greenhouse technologies have fan-cooling systems that allow you to reduce the temperature inside the greenhouse between 12 and 15 degrees so even if it’s 45 degrees outside, you can drop it down to about 30 which is still a perfectly fine operating range for tomatoes, chilies, bell peppers, craw plants etc.

Could you describe your funding journey?

We’ve been lucky so far that we’ve gotten to this point and everything’s been bootstrapped. We’re an eight people fully employed team, and we have about 11 people on part time or outsource contracts. While we’ve had a couple of good conversations with family offices, but we found that venture capitalists (VCs) were focused on IPs and patents which is a bit tricky in the farming industry where it is more about the expertise than the tech which is usually bought.

What are your expansion plans?

Saudi Arabia and Egypt are next on our radar. Both countries have a decent agriculture industry and they can grow good quality vegetables at low prices so it’s very difficult to penetrate those markets because we’re not competing with imported produce but with home-grown ones.

Full interview on:


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