The female share in the agricultural workforce in the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) hovers around 30 per cent, making the sector one of the largest employers of women across the region.
Within the tech sector, the historic gap in the number of male and female founders remains quite significant, yet agritech has turned out to be among the top sectors attracting women founders. The rising interest from women to start entrepreneurial ventures in the field of agritech has been a core reason behind the launch of Dana Global, a female-focused desert-tech venture studio.
"In our region, one in seven companies in the tech sector has a woman on its founding team. In agritech, one in every four companies is headed by at least one woman,” says Katie Wachsberger, a co-founder and chief operations officer (COO) of Dana Global. “There are a lot of women in our sector who are starting their own businesses who are entrepreneurial, who are working within the cultural and social roles that maybe are more accepted or easier to innovate from within, and then taking those roles and building businesses from their areas of expertise.”
Wachsberger together with Zada Haj, chief executive officer (CEO) and Shirley Shahar, chief strategy officer (CSO) co-founded Dana Global with the aim to expedite the development of scalable, sustainable agritech companies co-headed by women.
Agriculture is one of the oldest industries in the region and one of the most important pillars in the economy be it in terms of internal consumption or exports. It represents 13 per cent of the total gross domestic product (GDP) across Mena. With droughts becoming more frequent, agricultural output has been on the decline, placing the entire region in a precarious position when it comes to food security.
For Wachsberger, the idea of Dana spun out of a dire need for agritechs that can address climate challenges through context-specific and localised solutions.
"The big blind spot of the regional ecosystem is homegrown solutions. There's enough capital here in the region to buy technology from anywhere, or to encourage or incentivise companies with advanced visionaries to come and make the UAE their home or their headquarters. But at the end of the day, a lot of these solutions are not properly addressing the elements of the climate that we need to deal with here in the desert, whether it's water scarcity or high levels of humidity and arid areas," she elucidates.
Dana aims to fill this “blind spot” by operating as a venture studio that is committed to seeing companies through from pre-Seed and Seed stages to commercialisation and fundraising, ultimately making it easier for VCs to find investment-ready startups.
"We launched first as an accelerator and then we quickly realised that it doesn't make sense because the founders in our region need more hands-on engagement than just across the board curriculum,” she says. “They need more than just expertise or tools thrown at them. They also need partners for commercialising, they need access to corporate design partnerships, which is super crucial. As shareholders, our success is now based on the success of our portfolio.”
The agritech sector has gained momentum in the region’s tech ecosystem, which is reflected in the number of startups coming into the space as well as the relative growth in funding geared towards agritechs.
According to Wamda Research Lab, agritech startups raised $203 million in 2022 so far thanks to UAE's Pure Harvest’s $180 million round and Saudi Arabia-based Red Sea Farms, which raised $18.5 million back in April. The total amount invested in this space has grown 38 per cent from 2021. But, the progress made in the sector is still dwarfed by a regulatory labyrinth and limited investor interest.
Wachserger expects that the VC funding allocated to agritechs is likely to rise as the pandemic has heightened awareness about the insufficient food supply, an issue that has been further aggravated by global supply chain disruptions.
"The pandemic was really pushing the GCC into a place of panic. There was some degree of understanding that food security is an issue that needs to be solved through technology and the supply chain and investment," she says. "As the climate crisis becomes a reality that we're all going to deal with on a day-to-day basis, we're going to see capital move from the less tangible world of fintech and crypto and software and to the much more tangible world of investing in what will be essential for survival. And technology is leading the way for that whether it's indoor farming, regenerative agriculture, or reclaiming land that has already undergone desertification."
The agritech sector has the potential to be dissected down to multiple sectors. Dana primarily targets companies supporting the circular economy and operates in multiple areas including watertech, foodtech and cleantech.
Dana has so far worked with seven companies from the UAE, Israel, Palestine, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia and claims to receive 10 startup applications a month.
Examples include The Food Engineer, a Moroccan startup developing aeroponic systems; Datys, an Israeli startup that turns the date fruit syrup waste into natural preservatives for B2B businesses, and Eco Bricks, a Palestinian startup working to address waste management challenges in the stone industry in Palestine by developing a solution to extract the sludge from bricks so they can have higher insulating qualities.