Grown in the UAE: Daughters of the soil

Defying gender stereotypes and enabled by technology and innovation, a growing band of women are consciously cultivating sustainability on the agri-scape


Sushmita Bose

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Published: Fri 10 Jun 2022, 7:29 PM

Last updated: Fri 10 Jun 2022, 9:55 PM

Unlike modern-day gender-neutral ‘working’ nouns like “doctors” or “engineers” or “journalists”, “farmers” are still considered overwhelmingly male. Rolling up your sleeves and getting deep into cultivation, in popular culture and urban mindscapes, are still considered ‘tasks’ that men take on: authoritatively — and leading from the front.

The UAE was among the first Arab countries to recognise the role of women in several sectors, specifically the farm sector, points out Dr Henda Mahmoudi. Dr Henda is a plant physiologist at the Dubai-headquartered International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA), an international, not-for-profit applied agri research body. “Farming in the UAE is not easy,” she admits. “The harsh sun, sand, and scarce, high-salinity water present significant challenges. Empowering women in this sector and the related sectors was among UAE priorities to achieve the country’s goals of self-sufficiency and food security. Studies have shown that gender-balanced teams improve innovation and productivity. The latest research also confirms that women are critical to innovation. One study, for example, found that the proportion of women in teams is positively linked with the teams’ success.”

Building women’s capabilities is a key driver to stand up to climate change, ensure food security and, overall, improve countries’ economy, Dr Henda adds. Involving women in agricultural sectors ­­— as farmers, scientists, researchers, leaders and informed household decision-makers — will increase their contribution.

“Women are the backbone of rural economies, especially in developing countries. They make up almost half of the world’s farmers. Over the last few decades, female farmers have increased their scope in agriculture. At the same time, female farmers experience disadvantages and discrimination [compared to their male counterparts]…

“In 2016, ICBA, together with the Islamic Development Bank and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, launched the design and inception phase of Tamkeen — a one-year career accelerator programme aimed at building science and leadership skills of Arab women agricultural scientists in the research and development field. Following its successful implementation in 2016-17, ICBA secured the funding support of the Islamic Development Bank and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

“In 2018, each of these founding donors guaranteed full sponsorships for 10 women researchers to participate in the AWLA fellowship programme. The CGIAR Research Program on Wheat, represented by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, sponsored two additional fellows.

“In 2019, ICBA launched the AWLA fellowship programme. A 10-month-long capacity-development programme dedicated to Arab women researchers focused on building their leadership and research skills in agriculture-related fields with a particular focus on food, nutrition, and water security in the MENA region. Thirty-eight Arab women researchers from seven countries — Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Tunisia and the UAE — participated in the programme.

“Nearly half of all farmers worldwide today are women. Although men still frequently outnumber women in agriculture-related positions in laboratories, legislatures and boardrooms, women’s presence and contributions in these spaces continue to grow significantly. Women in agriculture is an important factor for its vitality.”

'My plants are like my babies’

For Arva Gadiwala, the idea of Farm Fresh Harvest in Ras Al Khaimah originated from her father-in-law Yusuf Gadiwala who studied hydroponics. “We implemented his vision by growing strawberries, cucumber, tomatoes and bell peppers on our balcony. Then, together with Ashok Doshi, a businessman with a love for agriculture, we formed Farm Fresh Harvest in 2015, and there has been no looking back. My husband Ibrahim and my kids are all an integral part of it, and we have learnt new things and grown… and enjoyed the journey so far and [acquiring] different skillsets…"

Farming today is different from traditional farming, she says. "It involves technology, infrastructure planning, strategies, marketing, product development. At the same time, it involves growing food — which is like giving the love and care of a mother and being able to multitask and play different roles.

There are challenges, yes. For instance, there is no platform for local farmers as such to sell their produce at a good price and since it’s an open market, we have to compete with international produce in pricing and we do not get any privilege for growing produce in this challenging environment and heavily investing in infrastructure and setups and providing local and fresh produce. But I’m happy to see the initiative taken by some companies to promote local produce and work with the sustainability objective of less carbon footprints… there’s much more that can be done to get right value for what we produce.

My plants are like my babies, and I have spent early mornings, late evenings, and even stayed overnight to just ensure they are doing fine during rough weather conditions, or if I want to achieve my targets according to market requirements. I have driven my kids along with me [from Dubai] to RAK before and after their school hours so that I could spend time with them as well.

One day, I received a call when I was sitting with my younger son, who was eight years old then, that the basil plants had got downy mildew and almost all leaves have turned black overnight. It had been a lot of hard work to grow around 20,000 plants at that time, and I cried because it was very painful for me… My son said ‘Mama, is there anything we can do?’ We both drove next day early morning, reached at 6:00 am and removed all the black leaves with the team, kept telling each other that it’s going to be fine… then we slept nights at the farm just to keep watch on whatever we had saved.”

‘I love checking on the produce on my farm firsthand’

Founder of Oasis Greens Nikita Patel grew up in Dubai, inspired by a grandmother who she says had 'green fingers'. “There was a huge vegetable patch at home, even a mango tree, so we — as a family — were always really interested in planting things… even if for six months you can’t really grow anything substantial outdoors, the rest of the year is very fruitful, literally.

"A few years before the pandemic, we were looking at ways to expand our family business. One of the businesses under the family is food distribution, so we thought: if we can distribute food, why not think about going one step lower in the value chain to either manufacturing or growing… and that’s when I did research on the whole concept of indoor farming, hydroponics, vertical farming. This was about the same time when the drive towards food security and sustainable food systems in the UAE had started to pick up.

"We had warehousing space in Jebel Ali and we repurposed the whole setup, and made it into a farm… we have hydroponics and vertical farming, 12 layers, which really reduces the space that you need. And because we grow indoors, we don’t have to use pesticides. I didn’t study agriculture but, after setting up the farm, I feel I have a pseudo-degree now!

"We follow the same-day harvest and same-day delivery model: harvest at night and trucks go out first thing in the morning; by the time the produce reaches the end consumer, it’s 12-hours-old, super fresh.

"Around 90 per cent of it is contract farming. We tie up with restaurants, hotels, distributors and we take their order for the next three or six months upfront, so we plan exactly what they could need, so, even though we keep a buffer, our wastage is really low... During the pandemic, the focus shifted to food security like never before. It was a wakeup call… The UAE really made capacity investment into ensuring food shortages were not a reality… so that was amazing.

"Most industries are predominantly male, but I have been working for eight years across sectors… The fact that I’m a woman in a male-dominated sector has never been a deterrent. I see farming as a challenge and a learning opportunity, and, so far, I have enjoyed my work thoroughly. The way I see it, people working in agriculture are almost like a different breed… they are so passionate… it’s almost like being an artist, being creative.

"I’m at the farm every day, and even though it’s a very controlled environment [we have to be super careful about external contamination since we don’t use pesticides], I love walking through my farm, checking on all the produce firsthand…

"We have started organising farm tours; we have kids from schools coming to see how we grow food. Recently, an Alzheimer’s group came over for an interactive session. We are also conducting micro-green [growing] workshops too… It feels really good to be doing our bit in educating and helping others.”

‘Women are not naturally built to take the easy way out’

“The organic movement started early in Denmark, so when I finished university, I was very taken in by the idea… my first job was with an organic company… I had to travel and source organic, sustainable food from all over the world… and that is how I got into the food sector," says Jeanette Kristensen, General Manager – Emirates National Food Company, Dubai

"I came to the UAE 14 years ago as head of a Danish company for the Middle East… It was an amazing learning curve, checking out different markets in the region. After four years, I had my first kid, so I couldn’t travel as frequently… I had to think about doing something else. Emirates National Food — at that time, it was called Al Rawdah — was one of my customers, and when they asked me to come on board, I thought why not, food I have done before, agriculture is in my blood from where I come from, so I jumped in…

"The poultry farm sector was totally male dominated — still is! — but when I came on board I made it clear that I was not going to do the front-facing, ‘traditional’ female role. I wanted to do things my way… I would not be where I am today without the support of the board and the chairman, they took a risk with me, making me the GM of the largest poultry company in the UAE.

"But it worked! We became the first company to produce organic chicken in the UAE and sell it in the supermarkets under a branded name. Our farm is the first to be certified to produce organic processed food items like sausages, burger patties etc.

"I want word to come out that more women should be involved in the poultry sector — even though it’s a 24-hour commitment… Chickens don’t sleep, you know [chuckles]… I haven’t turned my phone off for three years. I cannot come home at 5pm and switch off my phone — that will never work. It is seen as being tough, which it is, there’s no doubt about it… but it’s being mentally tough… doing stocktaking… running the business… being okay dealing with men, and being okay with saying ‘no’ to a man… standing up for yourself. It’s hugely satisfying.

"Working on a farm is different from a regular office environment. There won’t be chitchat with colleagues on the new designer bag. Let’s face it: it’s not glamourous. And I’m sure there are women who are out there who would be amazing at it.

"There are challenges. For instance, because we are very focused on being a free market in the UAE means products can come over the border, and we have to accept the fact that the UAE is not the cheapest place to produce, so there is a cost of production in the UAE which is significantly higher than the cost of production in our neighbouring countries. Food security wants us to increase our production, fair enough, we can all do it, but can we sell it? Having said that, over the past three years, the poultry sector has come together and become more transparent… Today, we are proudly flaunting ‘Made in the UAE’ because it has become more important for people to think local.

"So why do I think women would be better in the farm sector than men? For one, women can get in 100 per cent focus… no more dragging of 15-minute meetings to two hours. We know how to stick to the topic. General male instinct will be to jump in and say ‘I have also this other problem’… sure, but is it relevant right now?

"Women also have a better sense of community and bringing people together. In the matter of strategy and insight, they are way more open-minded… you see, we are not naturally built to take the easy way out.”

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