For the first post in our new ‘Priva Partner’ series, we had the opportunity to sit down with Khadija Hasan, Founder & CEO of KRISPR. KRISPR is a UAE based Ag-Tech that was born with the vision to create a movement for better agriculture by helping transform food production and reverse nutritional decline—without damaging the planet.
First-off we asked Khadija what motivated her to set up KRISPR in the UAE and what her entrepreneurial journey has been like.
“Launching an indoor vertical farming company was happenstance. What I wanted to build was a company that tackled a key climate-change related issue, combined hardware and software, and would use existing technologies in a new context. And that is how KRISPR came to be. With over 90% desertification, more than 80% in food imports and water a scarce resource, locating KRISPR in the UAE made sense and our farming pilot in Dubai went live in 2021. KRISPR converts warehouses into farmland using less land, less water and no pesticides; and we’re able to do this by using existing advancements in HVAC, climate control, nutrient fertigation and LED lighting.
“My own journey had its ups and downs. Irrespective of the “coolness” of growing in a warehouse, KRISPR faces the same challenges any business does, from building a brand, raising market awareness and developing the right team, to driving purchase decisions and educating consumers. I enjoy what I do though and am grateful to be playing a small role in the development of this sector.”
Secondly, we asked Khadija about her outlook for the agriculture sector in the Middle East in 2022 and beyond. “There has been a lot of development during the global pandemic, and supply chains are more resilient because of it. The national and regional emphasis on food security has encouraged many companies to come into the sector, including builders, operators, and technology-as-a-service companies, which is great. There is, however, still a lot more that needs to be done before we can make a real dent in current farming practices. I think that once the hype associated with ag-tech dies down, companies operating here will have to find sustainable, commercially viable business models. Ultimately, for us to make a real difference, a focus on business fundamentals is key. Scale has been a driver of success in the past since the sector is so capital intensive, but bigger may not necessarily be better and there is no excuse for poor unit economics. It could be that smaller, more distributed farms (more of them in population centers with their own catchment areas) could make more sense in cutting down supply chains, improving upon freshness and delivering a better consumer value proposition. “
Next, we were keen to know what Khadija sees as the biggest technology developments in vertical farming in the region, and globally. “Autonomous and automated farming and operations are interesting developments to keep an eye on as well as further developments in LEDs. In addition, the portfolio diversification away from leafy greens, microgreens and herbs is definitely something to watch.”
Operating a business inherently has its challenges and we wanted to find out what issues KRISPR faces as an Ag-Tech business in the UAE. “Being based in Dubai, our main challenge is the electricity tariffs. The current tariff structure does not allow for an agriculture band such as is available for farms in Al Ain or Sharjah. As on-grid electricity currently remains a key resource for our operations, it is a huge component of our cost. The other challenge is having to compete on price, not value, with non-traceable, lower quality, soil-grown imports often grown with pesticides. The low price at which such products are sold frequently becomes the opening gambit in conversations with potential distributors and retailers.”
As the name of this post suggests, KRISPR has a partnership with Priva. We were keen to find out what value the partnership has brought to the business and what we can look forward to from KRISPR in 2022.
“We have been working with the team at Priva for over a year now and their sensors have been key in helping us develop and maintain stable environmental and fertigation controls for our plants to thrive. Priva has also supported our very young startup with advice and experience born from years of building and controlling high-tech greenhouses. Hence, we have been quite lucky!
“2021 has been an awesome year for us as we went operational and started sales. In 2022, we plan to focus on what we’ve built so far and understand and refine our value proposition vis a vis our customers, to build better brand and market awareness.”
Lastly, we asked Khadija what initiatives, developments, partnerships and/or projects the Middle East needs to achieve its security goals and how we as an industry can collaborate and support the region’s self-sufficiency goals.
“We need a holistic eco-system-based approach for the sector to tackle the key areas that can make the most difference. CEA and vertical farming are not going to solve every food related issue in the region, or globally. Increasing production capacity is only part of the answer. For example, food loss through wastage comprises more than 30% of the issue. In addition, support and development of renewable energy sources and/or supportive electricity tariffs for the sector would not only help early-stage companies but also provide an even playing field.”