UAE: Meet the Emirati who transformed a barren land into a food oasis

Ahmed Salim Al Shamsi's farm is a boost to food security amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

Supplied photos
Supplied photos

Mazhar Farooqui

Published: Fri 4 Feb 2022, 5:02 PM

Last updated: Fri 4 Feb 2022, 10:34 PM

“Two European vacations, that’s what it cost me to set it up,” said Ahmed Salim Al Shamsi.

“But look at the rewards,” he beamed, as he let his gaze sweep over the sprawling farm.

A pioneer

The young Emirati gentleman has every reason to be proud. He has transformed the family’s modest pick-your-own farm in Sharjah into a fantastic food oasis in less than two years.

Al Shamsi, who lives and works in Abu Dhabi, visited the farm during the onset of Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020 to relax for a few days.

Instead, he ended up working there, often for three months at a stretch after taking a break from his government job.

The efforts did not go in vain.

Now, rows upon rows of plants stand on the hitherto barren stretch in the middle of a desert between Sharjah and Al Ain.

There are cauliflowers on one patch, eggplants on another. A third patch is awash with corn.

What's aquaponics?

Further up, is a large aquaponics system – an innovative food production method, where fish and vegetables are farmed together using recirculated water.

“Innovation makes for strange bedfellows,” said the father-of-four. The farm has enormous tanks filled with thousands of Tilapia fish, graded by size.

The nutrients from the fish waste are used by greenhouse vegetables such as a large variety of lettuce, kale and tomatoes, while also cleansing the water so that it could be recycled back to the tanks.

A runaway success

Al Shamsi’s Tilapia fish and organic vegetables are in great demand. Several major supermarket chains have signed up with him, and discussions with many more are in progress.

“Our tomatoes are of the finest quality,” he said, plucking a deep ripe one straight from the vine.

“We also have all kinds of lettuce here such as oakleaf, lollo rosso, butterhead, salonova. And our Tilapia fish has real flavour as their water is free from chemicals,” he added.

Al Shamsi said he built the aquaponics system on-site using inexpensive locally available light-weight material, keeping in mind the region’s harsh weather conditions.

“I had to factor things like the scouring winds and the blast furnace desert heat. The same aquaponics system would have probably cost me four times as much if I had imported the equipment from abroad, and for all you know, it wouldn’t have worked this well,” he said.

Al Shamsi said his self-sustaining farm is designed to use less energy and labour, at the same time yielding healthier and more plentiful harvests than traditional methods of raising fish or growing vegetables.

A model organic farm

"Nothing goes to waste here. The fish waste provides essential nutrients for lettuce and tomato plants which, in turn, filter the water for the fish. When the fish tank is cleaned, the sludge from fish feed is used to irrigate crops in the open fields,” he added.

Al Shamsi said it took a good deal of trial and error before he could strike the happy balance.

“Of course, I made many mistakes but I also learnt from them. The challenges only steeled my resolve so much so that I stayed at the farm continuously for three months until I had managed to get everything right. My family would visit me at the farm from Abu Dhabi during weekends those days,” he said.

Diversification on the cards

Of late, Al Shamsi has also made a foray into apiculture or beekeeping, Plans are also afoot to harvest mushrooms.

Though a member of the Federal National Council recently voiced concerns over Emiratis abandoning the production of seasonal crops that are key to food security, Al Shamsi is an exception.

He has bucked the discernible trend with minimal costs.

“I want to make the best use of the land given by the government,” said Al Shamsi while getting into his utility task vehicle.

“And what could be better than providing the local market with clean proteins and greens,” he signed off.

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