Avir Shah

Avir Shah, the CEO of Armela Farm, on their hyroponics family farm in Dubai.

| Lilys Njeru | Nation Media Group

Farming in harsh Dubai desert conditions; a Kenyan family story

What you need to know:

  • Until 2013, Avir Shah and his family ran Menengei Oil company in Nakuru where they produced cooking oil.
  • They then sold the firm and relocated to the United Arab Emirates where they are the largest cultivators of lettuce.

About 50km from Dubai City, on Dubai Al Ain Road, one finds the skydive desert drop zone, which is characterised by very dry conditions.

It is here that Armela Farm, which is owned by a Kenyan family, is located. Despite the harsh environment, the farm produces a variety of horticultural products all year round.

They farm in greenhouses using the hydroponics technology, which involves growing plants in nutrients-rich water.

“We produce some 6,000 lettuces every day up from initially 1,600 with not only the help of hydroponics but also data analytics, which we use to create precise growing conditions for the crop. Ours is the largest hydroponics lettuce producing farm in the United Arab Emirates  — set on 5,888m2,” says Avir Shah, the CEO of Amerla Farms.

It all started in 2013, when Shah and his family, including his father, Kanti Shah, relocated to Dubai after living in Kenya for years.

“Our roots are in Kenya, in Nakuru, to be precise,” says Avir. “We were a household name. For decades, we ran Menengai Oil refineries which we then sold to Raiply in 2011. Upon moving to Dubai, we realised there was a huge gap in the production and distribution of vegetables. First, most of it was being imported and even then, the demand was still very high,” he explains.

Research showed them they could produce crops using hydroponics farming.

“We had our first harvest in August 2018, two years after setting up the greenhouses. The time in between was spent on research and development regarding the varieties to produce, techniques, and the optimum climate conditions,” says Avir, adding they produce varieties of lettuce, kale and baby spinach.

Lettuce varieties are Lolla bionda, Lolla rosso, oakleaf green, oakleaf red, butterhead, and little gem.

Avir Shah

Avir Shah, the CEO of Armela Farm, on their hyroponics family farm in Dubai.

Photo credit: Lilys Njeru | Nation Media Group

“We are the first producer to grow the salanova range of lettuce in the UAE. What makes this range special is that when one is cut, it separates into lots of lettuce leaves. We also produce a variety of kale such as green curly kale, red kale, and Toscano kale.”

The air in the greenhouses are conditioned to the required temperature, which is about 25 degrees Celsius then blown into the air hoses laid under the plants using fans.

“The air spreads through the greenhouses via porous holes. To regulate the air pressure, the window vents are occasionally opened and a small amount of overpressure is created to ensure a uniform indoor climate. By adopting the close loop irrigation structure, the consumption of water is 80 per cent less than old-fashioned farming,” he explains.

Adding that Armela farms produces 100 per cent organic lettuce during summer and winter using integrated pest management and biological control techniques.

Being a desert, one of their major challenges is water shortage.

“To counter the issue, we practice closed-loop irrigation, which needs 80 per cent less water than old-fashioned farming and recycles part of it through reverse osmosis. We use a fan cooling system, so we do not use much power,” offers Avir.

The beauty of hydroponics farming is that they are able to meet the market through out the year. 

“We are not limited by seasons. We are in business whether it is summer or winter. Further, the growing period of the lettuce is known, so we know when to harvest which batch.”

To grow lettuce, it all starts with planting the seeds in the potting soil. They germinate after about three days.

“We then do the transplanting before the harvest. The entire cycle from seeding to harvesting takes about 45 days,”  says Avir of the Sh4.5 billion investment.

Modern indoor farm

Armela Farm sales the produce to big clients like Carrefour, Delmonte, Waitrose, Spinneys and major restaurants in the UAE.

Demand is so high because 90 per cent of the food sold in the country is imported, notes Avir.

“Our current market share is 76 per cent of local production. However, it has not been all smooth. For instance, it took us two years to fully penetrate the market and have a corporation like Carrefour stock our products. Quality irrigation and branding have helped us succeed. The former is critical whether you are a farmer or manufacturer,” says Avir.

The farm has employed dozens of staff, most of them Kenyans, who were their former workers at Menengai Oil factory.

As restaurants in Dubai continue to introduce salads to their menu and with the teeming rise of individuals’ consciousness of a healthy lifestyle, the demand for lettuce and other green produce will only rise, he says. 

On a piece of land in Abu Dhabi, Avir observes that they are building a modern indoor farm and fully automated lettuce greenhouse. 

“We have brought partners on board and invested more than Sh3 billion into the project. Hydroponics farming is capital intensive but the returns are good because with the new farm, our lettuce head productions will increase to 25,000 per day,” he says.

As part of their plan to increase their product range and get markets for other farmers, the firm has partnered with VegPro, a Kenyan exporter of vegetables and fruits. 

“Currently, we make a weekly import of 2.5 tonnes but we plan to double as we expand our product coverings. To match-make with suitable Kenyan companies like Vegpro, we engaged Kenya Export Promotion and Branding Agency (Keproba) which has created synergy with such farmers in Kenya,” says Avir.

Avir Shah

Avir Shah, the CEO of Armela Farm, on their hyroponics family farm in Dubai.

Photo credit: Lilys Njeru | Nation Media Group

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, they used to do agro-tourism but they have kept that on hold except for VIPs. 

“We hope to allow visitation again soon,”  says the farmer.

Daniel Ndiwa, a horticulturist and agricultural quality system auditor at Hortfarm Solutions,  notes that hydroponics is a system of crop production that uses  soil-less media. The plant’s balanced nutrition is provided in a solution form.

“The system can be made of stagnant nutrients solution (deep culture) or nutrients solution moving through open pipes where plant roots are suspended and could absorb nutrients. The plant is anchored by the soil-less media which may be cocopeat from coconut husks, pumice,  peat moss or spaghnum moss,” he says. 

The simple systems  can easily be adopted in any set up since they need less space and water.

“Every drop of water used in hydroponics count as there is minimal loss of water through evaporation or leaching,” he says.

Hydroponics is one of the ways to reduce carbon emissions into the atmosphere, as the plants utilise available carbon in the air for photosynthesis and does not lead to release of reserved carbon in the  soil into the atmosphere through tillage since crops are grown directly in the nutrient solution.

Before venturing into hydroponics farming, he advises that one should know of the type of crop they want to produce.

Location, though the system needs small space, sunlight requirement for the  specific crop should be met for optimal production.

“Due to the systems  technicality, it needs a lot of care and a miss in management could lead to total failure of the system. Poorly installed system could be difficult to maintain and hence inefficiency in production.


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