Stuart Oda isn’t your average farmer. As the 32-year-old explains it, “I’m a former investment banker turned urban farmer.”
Oda is CEO of Alesca Life Technologies, a Beijing-based agricultural technology startup that creates software-enabled crop growing facilities designed for urban farming. “We build weather-proof, cloud-connected farms that enable food production by anyone, anywhere,” says Oda.
One such “anywhere” is Dubai. Oda is eyeing the U.A.E. as Alesca Life’s first major expansion opportunity outside of its primary market in China, where he and two co-founders formed the company in 2013.
Back then, the founders spied an opportunity to innovate the agriculture industry in emerging markets by using new technology. “There’s a lot of opportunities for us to improve everything from access to highly nutritious foods all the way to food security,” says Oda.
[caption id="attachment_26331" align="alignright" width="222"] Stuart Oda, CEO of Alesca Life Technologies[/caption]
Alesca Life primarily takes old shipping containers and turns them into miniature, automated farms. It outfits containers with hydroponic systems that allow crops to be grown using fewer resources.
As a result, its container farms use between 20 to 25 times less water than traditional agriculture, says Oda. It also uses less fertilizer and is pesticide free.
Simultaneously, Alesca Life cuts down on labor costs by automating most of the growing process using software. It relies on sensors inside the containers to monitor the crops, and the operation can be controlled remotely through a smartphone app.
Alesca Life’s container farms are designed to be embedded in buildings or other unused spaces in high-density urban areas. Oda markets the technology to clients such as hotels, restaurants, supermarket chains and food distributors.
In addition to saving resources, Alesca Life’s technology allows clients to reduce their logistics costs. Rather than transport produce into the city from rural areas, clients can grow fruits and vegetables in the center of major metropolitan areas. “To give them the capability to produce food locally, we believe it would be quite transformative for their business,” says Oda.
He sees potential in the U.A.E. for a variety of reasons. For starters, Dubai is a cosmopolitan city home to a thriving tourist industry, which creates a demand for a large mixture of fresh produce. “The variety of cuisines that exist [in Dubai] is enormous,” says Oda. These cuisines require a wide range of ingredients, many of which are not produced in the U.A.E.
As a result, the U.A.E. is a major importer of food—and it’s not alone. Across the Gulf, food imports are expected to rise in each country over the next three years; overall food imports are projected to grow to $53 billion in the Gulf by 2020, according to a research paper by the Economist Intelligence Unit.
Many types of the imported produce could be grown onsite in Alesca Life’s container farms. “Anything you can imagine, from Italian herbs to the simplest sprouts and micro-greens,” says Oda. “These are typically things that are imported from Europe.”
The company first put down roots in the Middle East last year through the Dubai Future Accelerators program, where it was one of 30 companies to make the cut out of nearly 2,000 that applied to the government-backed startup accelerator. During the 12-week program Oda was introduced to potential local partners and clients in the Gulf. “It essentially allowed us to see if the technology had value in the region, which we were convinced it did,” says Oda.
The program culminated with Alesca Life signing a memorandum of understanding with the Dubai Municipality to be its strategic advisor.
According to Oda, Alesca Life is currently in the final stages of signing contracts with clients in the U.A.E. He declines to reveal client’s identities until after the deals are completed, but notes they’re talking to both public and private sector players. Oda is also reaching out to potential customers in Saudi Arabia.
In China, over the last six months Alesca Life has served clients such as Mercedes Benz and the hotel group Hotel Jen. Oda is currently exploring expanding into Europe and southeast Asia as well, an objective which he hopes to achieve within the next 12 months.
As a result, these days Oda spends more time flying than he does tending to his crops. He’s on pace to take 60 flights this year—or one flight about every six days.
Back in the U.A.E., Alesca Life isn’t the only one exploring agricultural innovation; local companies such as Landex Group and My Green Chapter, to name a few, are also addressing urban agriculture.
My Green Chapter, which caters to environmentally conscious Emirati consumers looking to grow their own food, is an online platform selling all manner of products designed for urban farming, from indoor growing kits to chicken coops.
“We believe urban farming will contribute very well to the U.A.E.’s agricultural industry,” says Jean-Charles Hameau, the company’s founder.
On a global scale companies such as Freight Farms, PodPonics and Growtainer in the U.S are pursuing technology similar to Alesca Life’s. It was a market opportunity that Oda came upon nearly six years ago, back when his office was in the corporate world rather than on a farm.
At that time Oda worked for Dell in China. Born in the U.S. and educated at the University of California Los Angeles, Oda started his career in investment banking working for Merrill Lynch in Tokyo before moving to Dell in 2011.
There he was tasked with mapping global mega-trends in emerging markets to see how—as Oda phrases it—“the challenges of today become the opportunities of tomorrow.”
It was through this he stumbled on the idea that led to Alesca Life. Although Dell was exploring opportunities in emerging markets from a personal computing angle, it got Oda thinking about global challenges that could be addressed by technology in general. One of the areas that caught his attention was agriculture.
He poked around and discovered that access to fresh produce can be a major challenge in emerging markets, with limiting factors such as agriculture’s reliance on land, logistics and climate.
He saw an opportunity for innovation. “From a market size perspective, it [agriculture] was exciting,” says Oda.
Others were exploring the problem too, doing things such as using weather data to optimize field crop production.
They’re part of a precision farming market that is expected to double in size from $3.2 billion in 2015 to $7.8 billion by 2022, according to India-based market research firm Markets and Markets.
Oda became convinced there must be tremendous opportunity in trying to improve the efficiency of agriculture by making it more data driven.
Still, it took Oda awhile to gather the courage to leave his job and jump headfirst into entrepreneurism. Ultimately, a sense of urgency overwhelmed him. “The opportunity isn’t available for very long,” says Oda.
He teamed up with two co-founders, Kazuho Komoda and Young Ha, to start the company in August 2013. Oda knew Komoda from his days working in investment banking in Tokyo, and Ha also worked at Dell in China (Ha has since left the company).
Then came the real challenges. For one thing, none of the founders were farmers by training. They also had to self-fund the venture in the early days.
[caption id="attachment_26332" align="alignnone" width="974"] Old shipping containers become miniature, automated farms.[/caption]
They began by studying everything from plant biology to nutritional chemistry, while simultaneously tinkering with the software and technology. Slowly they began to develop a prototype. “It took a while,” admits Oda, with a laugh.
Early on they traveled to a port city in China, where they bought a secondhand shipping container. They refurbished it and insulated it, and then embedded their hardware—all of which was designed by the company. The resulting container was sheltered from air, water and soil pollution.
They developed the smartphone app to give the farm manager the ability to monitor all environmental parameters in the containers.
Once the container was built, Alesca Life’s team got down to the business of planting and growing crops.
The company scored its first client in 2014. Boasting a functioning product, Oda then turned his attention to fundraising and spreading word about the company.
Alesca Life didn’t get its first outside investment until the first prototype container was built and operational. Its earliest investors were friends and family. Oda recently closed a round of funding for more than $1 million, but he can’t disclose the investors yet. To date the company has secured seed funding and angel investments, although Oda won’t reveal the total amount raised.
Last year, Alesca Life competed in the 1776 Challenge Cup, a global startup competition. Although it didn’t win, through it Oda was recommended to the newly created Dubai Future Accelerators program, leading Alesca Life to apply, also last year.
Oda is now focusing his efforts on expanding Alesca Life into new markets, one of the first of which has been the U.A.E. In Dubai, Alesca Life is currently looking for ways to localize the manufacturing of their containers, as well as preparing to set up an office, where Oda plans to hire everyone from industrial designers to horticulturists.
Although it has planted a seed in Dubai, there are other challenges that may face the company as it expands, one of which is regulation. For the moment, Oda thinks the regulatory environment is quite friendly in Dubai.
Winning over consumers is another issue. In China, it has taken time to convince consumers to accept produce grown in new ways, rather than by traditional methods. So far, that hasn’t been a major issue in the U.A.E. either, at least not yet.
Another problem is growing different types of crops profitably. Some crops can be grown quite profitably in Alesca Life’s containers, while others cannot. It’s an issue Alesca Life’s team hopes to squash as they continue to tinker and refine their technology.
Challenges aside, Oda is adamant that it’s the right time for innovation in the agriculture industry. And in Dubai Oda thinks he’s found an opportunity ripe for the picking.