Agritecture & Susaintibility in Oman
Henry Gordon Smith CEO of Agritecture
16th June 2020
This podcast has been edited for publication. Any mistakes or discrepancies with the original podcast are the fault of the Editor alone.
Dina Macki Today we welcome Henry Gordon Smith, the founder and CEO of Agritecture, a leading global urban agriculture consulting firm. Henry was born in Hong Kong to a British father and a Czech mother. He's lived in Tokyo, Russia, Czech Republic, Canada, and is now based in New York city where he founded his company, Agritecture in 2011. He holds a Bachelor's in Political Science with coursework in Food Security and Urban Agriculture and a Master's in Sustainability Management from Columbia University. Henry is an acknowledged global thought leader in accelerating vertical urban agriculture industry and has facilitated, moderated and spoken at sustainability-driven forums and events worldwide. Henry serves as an advisor to multiple ag-tech start-ups and is on the board of the non-profit organization Teens for Food Justice. He is certainly a man worth getting to know and Oman is doing just that.
Henry, thank you so much for talking to me. It was great to stumble upon you on Instagram. I guess that's how we stumble upon people these days. So I gather that you're a Brit who lives in New York, but happened to be in Oman when the pandemic hit and ended up getting stuck there. So could you tell us a bit about how you ended up there? Was it for a holiday or was it for business?
Henry Gordon-Smith Yeah, thanks so much for having me and as you'll all notice, I don't have a British accent because I grew up around the world and went to international schools that were mostly American. I watched a lot of American TV shows when I was younger, though my father is British and I'm a British citizen. I was visiting the GCC to do some consulting work and attend some conferences in February and March, which is what I typically do. Essentially what happened is I was on one of my legs to Oman, which was one of my final stops before I was going to go to Australia. My flight back to New York City got cancelled along with my colleague's. So she decided to leave on the next emergency flight out and I decided to stay and that's how I ended up here.
Dina Macki Wow. So you mentioned before that you've been there 90 days, so you've basically turned into an Omani now...
Henry Gordon-Smith Well in fact I do have three kummas now and one dishdasha. I've been given them as part of my experience here. You know, because during Ramadan going to iftars and to see the generosity of the population here and the people here has been really a comfort actually to be here. So yes, it's been 90 days. I continue to try and book flights through my travel agent that had a credit, you know, to get to Australia when that leg was cancelled. And today my ninth flight out was cancelled again. So I continued to try and get a flight out on that credit, wanting, not to kind of buy a brand new ticket and, yeah, we'll see what happens.
Dina Macki Well, good luck on that. You can continue enjoying your time while you're still there.
Henry Gordon-Smith Yeah, making the most of it, I mean, I work virtually these days, so it's okay.
Dina Macki Yeah. I think everyone's adapted to working virtually, which is great. So I think there's no excuse to be in any rush to go anywhere. Right. So I can see that your company is Agritecture and it's all about urban agriculture and farming. And I noticed that the video I saw on Instagram, you were in Barka in Oman, if I'm correct, and you were showing us some Podponics, so can you kind of break this down for us? What is urban agriculture and what are Podponics?
Henry Gordon-Smith Great. So urban agriculture is the production and various supporting infrastructure to produce food locally within and nearby the city. Also the edges of the city, but the idea is that essentially you grow that food, you can deliver it to the customer as quickly as possible and reduce the supply chain and the middleman within that. It's about reducing those food miles. It's about providing a fresher product to the consumer. And in many cases, it's about using technologies to maximise how much you can produce on a given piece of land. And Agritecture does exactly that. We consult globally through feasibility studies and an extensive database we've been building for 10 years and work in 26 countries. We leverage that for our clients to guide them on how they should develop an urban farm. Should it be a greenhouse, should it be soil with micro irrigation systems or should it be a vertical farm? Like the video I posted on my Instagram of the visit to Podponics in Barka. And so that visit was to Podponics, which was a JB project between a US company based out of Atlanta called Podponics and a local Indian entrepreneur here in Oman. And an Omani partner was also part of that for the land as well. And so it's a facility that's quite large actually for vertical farms. It definitely for a period of time was the largest in the GCC and probably is the first commercial vertical farm in the GCC having launched and started harvesting in as early as I think, 2017/2018. So it's a 40 shipping-container-based vertical farm. Vertical farming is the production of typically leafy greens and herbs within an indoor environment using no soil and no sunlight. So you essentially engineer all the parameters for growth of the plants and you stack those plants on multiple levels to maximize the output per square meter.
So imagine 20 containers on one side, 20 containers in the other side, and a kind of utility aisle in between it, and then other container structures that have things like systems to clean the water or to maintain the temperature or to deal with a processing of the food. And so it's sort of this indoor farming campus of sorts. And that's what you typically see with vertical farms on the outskirts of major cities around the world that are getting popular now. So that was a great tour and it was great to see that this technology is being utilised in Muscat already. I think many Omanis don't know that.
Dina Macki I really don't think they do. So what are they growing? Typical produce that they usually grow in Oman , or is it things that you would never find in Oman?
Henry Gordon-Smith Well, I think it's both. So on the one hand, the business is about providing something that's being consumed. So you identify that market, that customer, the price they're willing to pay for it, and you're trying to grow it and actually a lower price or a much higher quality at the same price. And so they sell to hotels, they sell to some restaurants, but mostly hotels and retailers. And so the entrepreneur goes through this journey of choosing the site, their technology, and then they have to find those customers. So Jibar, who is the CEO, has done a lot of work on the ground to visit Carrefours, Spinneys and to create those relationships, to buy the product. What they're growing is a variety of leafy greens, different lettuces, you know, different colours that can be made into mixes. They're also growing some herbs - I think Basil, various Arugula, things like that.
They also grow micro greens, which are a little bit unique. I don't think that there's that much microgreen production happening in Oman. And these are essentially young plants that have a lot of flavour and a lot of nutrition, but take very short period of time to grow and are really easy to do in vertical farms. Those are consumed in huge volumes, but it's an interesting new part product in that sense. So I wouldn't say that they're growing drastically new products, and Oman does have a very diverse agricultural sector because of its varied micro-climates, but they do want to grow strawberries in the future, which I think would be quite unique for the region.
Dina Macki Yeah, I was going to say that because for instance, what I know from Oman when I've been there all of the berries tend to come from Australia and they're extremely expensive and I wouldn't say they have so much taste. It's crazy. So that would actually be amazing to see them grow something like strawberries.
Henry Gordon-Smith Yeah. I think the difficulty is it has to be cheaper than that product, but berries do have some challenges to grow. Lettuce requires a typical temperature consistently through its growth cycle. That growth cycle is only 30 days. Berries require varying temperatures throughout their growth cycle. So if you're creating kind of a control of all those variables, the costs get quite high. So it's getting there. I think we're going to see many more berries being grown in vertical farms in the coming five years, but it's kind of not there yet, commercially.
Dina Macki Amazing. So why did you start Agritecture and was it something you were doing before? What sparked the whole business?
Henry Gordon-Smith Having grown up and had the privilege of growing up around the world. I was born in Hong Kong, was in Tokyo, Germany, Czech Republic in Russia all before the age of 18. And then I went to Canada for my undergraduate degree. I wanted to be in the foreign service. So I took the tests for it to be kind of going to the foreign service in Canada. And I also looked at the UK as some options. I started preparing for doing some internships. I found that the bureaucracy of the NGO sector - I was working for the IOM - is so slow, that it turns me off so much. And so I kind of had this 'aha' moment where I said, you know what, if I really want to change the world, I have to do it through business. So I started thinking about, well, what is business about? I hadn't studied it. I started talking to some mentors and my conclusion was that business is about solving a problem, identifying one specific problem that isn't solved and solving it through business solutions.
So I started looking around. I created three blogs about the environmental sector that interested me. One of them was called Urban Layering. It was about new ideas for density in cities. Density is a major driver for the reduction of carbon footprints. So I called that urban layering. The other one was technology water, which was about the relationship between emerging water efficiency technologies, ‘What's Happening’ was kind of like a new site. I created both of those and I created Agritecture, which was about the gap identified where most entrepreneurs, policymakers, real estate developers, architects, and investors don't know enough about high tech local agriculture to make the right decision, whatever their decision is going to be. And, you know, starting one, investing in one, giving a policy for one. And the reason they don't understand is because we've removed agriculture from our cities.
So urban populations generally don't have the backbone experience to understand that, so I started studying it and making it accessible in kind of an urban architect kind of way where I broke these down into typologies. You know, what's the pros and cons of these various types? What climates do they work in? I started sharing that on that blog. And frankly, what happened is Agricitecture just was overwhelmingly more popular. There were entrepreneurs all around the world asking these questions, architects that were trying to integrate us into projects. And so the demand and the traffic to the site grew rapidly. I began being invited to speak at events, podcasts. I created a workshop structure around planning these farms. And so that was really the birth of Agritecture and how we got here.
Dina Macki I love that you saw the problem and you found the solution and it definitely looks amazing from what I've seen and it's really beautiful how it’s gone global. So have you worked with Oman before? Was this the first time? Why Oman?
Henry Gordon-Smith So yeah, my Corona refugee host, Majid, was interested in this and he represents that entrepreneur profile of a GCC young entrepreneur. Millennial-aged, has a U S education, but wants to make a difference for the world. And sometimes those individuals don't feel that working in hydrocarbons is going to be the way to do it. And so they want to do something different. Agriculture really connects with that profile of entrepreneur because they're similar to me and our work at Agritecture relates to them as well. You know, they want to go a similar journey to me. So it's about helping them find what they need to do next. So, you know, certainly with Majid, that's the reason why I came here. He was interested. I thought there was a consulting opportunity and we've ended up becoming sort of partners to grow Agritecture’s business in Oman and beyond.
We don't have any clients in Oman right now. We have about five proposals to different entrepreneurs right now that are reviewing our services and thinking about it. And so that's been exciting to be kind of stuck here and then to also find opportunities here. Now I will say that about 35 or 40 of our past clients have been in the GCC across Kuwait, Bahrain, UAE, Saudi Arabia. We've done a lot of work, so it's not that well, I'm familiar with the region, but Oman hasn't been a place that we've directly broken into yet until I got stuck here, I guess.
Dina Macki Wow. Okay. So do you see a big future for this type of farming in Oman and on the other side of that, would you say there are obstacles for Omanis doing this on a large scale and a long term scale?
Henry Gordon-Smith Well, as far as the opportunities are concerned in Oman, the GCC in general is a high import region for food. And the reason is because of the extreme temperatures in the summer that prevent year round production. Now Oman relative to the rest of the GCC has many advantages in regards to its ability to produce food and to actually be an agricultural leader in the GCC. Some of those include the microclimates and different regions that can lend itself to producing more diversity of product than some of their neighbours. And that is a big advantage. And I think the other one is also that the brand of Oman is so strong. You know, Oman is known as a diplomatic peaceful, collaborative country. It's also known as a country for its beauty and safety. I think that those are all things that relate to food.
Those are all things that can be very appealing for brands here to actually not only produce food for Oman, but produce food for the region. And we've seen some of that. There's a lot of work that's been done around the dairy sector here in Oman that have localised production and have created really strong brands. There's really a lot that Oman should be proud of. I think the gap remains around the pathways for entrepreneurs to enter the sector and to innovate it because around the world, technology is evolving rapidly and around the world, consumer interests are evolving rapidly. When you add the layer of climate change, making outdoor agriculture more predictable, every country needs to start investing in workforce development, entrepreneurship, and ag tech, the technology aspects of agriculture to improve efficiency. And I think Oman is struggling to get to the next step beyond making tenders and making announcements, um, to actually move entrepreneurs through those pathways and to lead them to operational and market strategy, market success, I would say, so that's the gap I identified, that's where agriculture can help on an individual entrepreneur level.
We do also want to help at the university level with government where, you know, we're trying to get some good conversations forward on how we can assess because we've done some of that. We've advised cities and governments on how to localise agriculture and how to engage that next generation of farmers.
Dina Macki I like how you explained Oman in terms of its beauty and being a safe place. Helping it to be a place that actually grows all of this food. That's really nice how you identified that. So a little question, a bit more of a personal question: during your time in Oman, like how has it been, I mean, it sounds like you've enjoyed it, but has there been a bit of a culture shock?
Henry Gordon-Smith Well, I'm a positive person. I try to stay positive, but if I'm being totally honest, it's been also very, very difficult. I travel most of the time to go to different conferences and I meet lots of people. I'm an extrovert. Now in contrast, this is the longest I've been in one place in five years. So that that's been a big part of the shock. In addition to that, you know, while at the beginning I could get out and go to some of the hikes and some of the Wadis, the lockdown plus Ramadan plus the additional heat at this time of year has really limited my ability to do the outdoor activities that keep me sane and healthy. I try to exercise in the apartment, but we're in a one bedroom apartment. We don't have an outdoor space or a balcony. So, you know, it's, it's been a challenge in that regard if I'm being totally honest.
Dina Macki Yeah. Is this your first time in Oman?
Henry Gordon-Smith No, I was here last year, for three days.
Dina Macki Okay. So you really didn't get to experience it. So it sounds like you're going to have to come back post lockdown.
Henry Gordon-Smith I plan to come back. We've been looking for an office in the GCC, somewhere for me to be based because of how much a business there is here and how much opportunity we can support. We really have so many great services and digital products to offer Oman and the GCC. So I feel like this kind of jumpstarted my vision of that happening. To me, it feels like my next chapter. I spent the ages of when I was born until I was 10 years old in Southeast Asia and from 10 until 18 I was in Europe and from 18 until now I've been in the United States and Canada, maybe the Middle East is my next region for my next decade!
So in November I plan to come back, I'm going to do some more farm tours and create content. And I think we'll have clients by then here. And there is an agtech conference. I don't know the exact name of it, but I can send you the link. But there's an agtech conference happening in December that Agritecture intends to be at, certainly with Majid our regional representative here.
Dina Macki Oh, that would be amazing. So I was going to ask you what your three favourite places are in Oman, but by the sounds of it, you haven't had a chance to explore?
Henry Gordon-Smith I was here before the lockdown a little bit. So let me just ask the question if you're interested. I think by far my favourite place is Jebel Akhdar because I'm interested in agriculture and seeing the irrigation systems and the farms and just the natural beauty and the change in temperature really helps. I think you understand just how much diversity exists in Oman. So I absolutely love that. I'd say my second place was, I can't remember the name of the beach, but it was one of the beaches in Salalah. And we went there with a guide before I came to Muscat and it was completely secluded. We set up a tent and we were on the beach, you know, for half a day, completely alone. Didn't see anyone, ate coconuts, drank coconut water, you know, that kind of thing. It was just so, so, so beautiful. I think the third place is Wadi Shab, which we also got to escape to once. So in that place, I got to obviously swimming the watering holes and go up, I didn't make it all the way to the top, so I need to go back, because we kind of arrived a bit late, but those are probably my top three places so far. I'm sure that they're going to change as I come back.
Dina Macki No, it's true though. But you've picked the best top three. Definitely, definitely the most spoken about places and universally I think we all love those places. We love to escape to Salalah just for those amazing beaches. And obviously during August is the best time to go because they have Hareef season. Yeah. You need to experience that. And then obviously Jebel Akhdar is amazing. Again, everyone loves it because it's the green mountain. So it's really a beautiful place. And then Wadi Shabis the place for fun. So you definitely nailed that one.
Going back to Agritecture , I noticed that you guys offer workshops. Would you say these are just aimed at professionals in the industry or would you say they could benefit individuals who do things on a smaller scale, who just want to learn about it for their own benefit.
Henry Gordon-Smith So just on the first question around home gardening or the use of hydroponic systems at home, Agritecture is a consulting and digital services business, we don't have a lot of offerings for that right now. We do have a do it yourself, vertical farming system that you can do at home. You can find the instructions and how to run it online here. And that's kind of a contribution to people that want to explore this at home or even small hobby growers, but it's not something that generates significant or any notable revenue for us. We focus on business activities, on entrepreneurs, institutions basically, consulting customers B2B, if you will. And we do workshops for B2B clients. It could be a team of entrepreneurs, two of them that want to go through a digital workshop that we now offer through Zoom.
We teach them about the strategy, how to do their market research, help them prepare their business plan. They have to do the work, but we're guiding them through the workshops and the activities and transferring knowledge. We also do those for hospitals. We do them for investing in think groups who do them for architecture firms. We've adapted them to essentially a suite of, I think, five different ones right now, workshop options that you can learn about here. And so that's one thing we do there. We do some in-person workshops, which are more for the community. We typically need a sponsor for that. And, in that case, we bring together interdisciplinary teams of professionals and we pick a site. These are the workshops I did, you know, when I was a young blogger, starting architecture and these workshops are usually in person. What they do is we visit a site and then we collaborate and the three teams kind of compete after Agritecture transfers knowledge to them. Then they pitch their ideas for the site and what they would grow on it. So that's something we've done for universities and schools and architecture firms and even some city agencies as well. That's also something that can be requested through our website.
Dina Macki Wow, good. You guys offer so much!
Henry Gordon-Smith We are very passionate about this topic and we really love to accelerate other people that are passionate about it.
Dina Macki That's amazing to hear. You guys have an incredible portfolio of work. What would you say if you could narrow it down three favourite projects?
Henry Gordon-Smith Oh my gosh. So, New York is a place that I really love because I moved there with big dreams of being an urban farmer. I had a job interview and I didn't get the job interview and I really worked my butt off to essentially break into the industry. And, and the first two years nearly crushed me, I would say. But then once I got through that, we really had some exciting work that we've done in New York city. So, most of them are there to be honest, that I'm super interested in. The first one is where I learned hydroponics at a commercial scale, which is Sky Vegetables in the Bronx. It's a rooftop hydroponic greenhouse about 1,100 square meters. And it's integrated into the lead platinum building and the building is limited to affordable housing. So it kind of has this really interesting combination between architecture, social equity, food equity, and technology. And so I learned there and then, and then they struggled actually after I left my internship, not because of me, but they were struggling with getting enough sales. And then when Agritectrue tried enough consulting experience, the place I'd interned at hired us to help get them on track. And so we actually took over the greenhouse and worked, worked on it for two years and we got them to profitability. So that was something I was really proud of my team for. That full circle experience.
I'd say the second one was Square Roots, which was Elon Musk's brother Kimbal Musk, who hired us to design a vertical farming accelerator. The first one ever in Brooklyn, New York, not far from where I live and it was super exciting because I got to handle many parts of it, but the recruiting was the part I was most interested in. So I got to kind of develop the recruiting strategy and help with the promotion of it. And I did the screening interviews of the candidates for 10 spots in the accelerator. We got 480 applications. I interviewed at least 70 of those and ended up really getting to understand the psyche of these young people that are excited about agriculture and hydroponics and growing food in the city and technology and AI and all that. And it was so interesting for me and valuable to talk with them.
I think the last one is Farm One. What makes Farm One unique is it's Manhattan's first commercial vertical farm. They took the basement of a historical building and converted it into a vertical farm. Uh, we assisted with design and crop selection and various parts of the operations planning, but they developed their own mega strong brand. It's just such a beautiful brand. And the products grown in there are very unique. You asked about berries, and these things Farm One grows, but it doesn't grow any lettuce. They only grow for Michelin star restaurants and they grow super flavourful, unique products. And so when you go in there, it's really a beautiful tasting experience when you take their tours. And so it's definitely, you know, ultra high end, uh, local food, but it's so interesting because we learned, and we were able to contribute a totally different idea to the market with their incredible CEO, Rob Lang. That was really a fantastic experience too. So those are my top three. We obviously have like 26 countries, so there are others, but those are the ones that want to highlight cause I'm missing New York.
Dina Macki Yeah. I can imagine that these are totally Epic. I'm kind of hooked on the last one. I'm a massive foodie. So I can't believe our like special farming is done just for Michelin star restaurants. So that's really cool to hear.
Lastly, what would you say would be your top three pieces of advice for a budding urban farmer?
Henry Gordon-Smith Yeah, that's a great question. So I actually have an article on my media or my LinkedIn that's called 'I want to be an Agritech' and it's more really about how do you break into the urban agriculture, urban ag tech industry. And you really need three things. The first thing you need is your archive. So what gave me a competitive advantage is that as I visited farms as I research them, as I go to events, I store data in a database and archive. What was the investment? How much? What are they growing? How did they start? What was their main challenge? And that becomes this really concrete asset for you when you're having conversations about the topic and also trying to identify what you're going to do in the industry.
So that's the first thing you need. The second thing you need is hands on experience. So it's very difficult to be legitimate in this space, if you haven't worked on a farm at all. And so if you're in more of an executive role, or if you're in more of a marketing role, you may think you don't need it, but no matter what you should do at least three months of volunteering on some kind of farm, ideally six months to get that experience and understand what farmers experience on a daily basis. Now there's many different kinds of farms, but there are some typical challenges they face that would really boost your confidence and boost your reputation as someone legitimate to provide solutions to the agriculture sector. It's the last thing you need is to grow your network. And this was super critical to me when I was young and trying to break into the space.
Some of the typical networking strategies of identifying and attempting to meet people are good. But my biggest advice that I feature in the article is not toapproach networking as what that person can give to you, approach networking as to what you can give that person. You have value, you have something you're good at - social media, writing, editing, organising events, it could be law, accounting, whatever it is, you should go to an event or reach out on LinkedIn and you should approach it as wanting to offer them something. And then that way you build trust and respect and long lasting network in the industry, that can be extremely valuable. That's how you get referrals. That's how you get spoken about when you're not in the room. That's how you get what you eventually need, whether it's a job or clients or whatever it is.
And so one of the things I did is I said 'I'm a blogger reporting on ag tech. I'd love to interview you'. And I just interviewed a lot of people and that's how I broke into the industry. So those are my three tips. I do have a bonus one, which is have a brand for yourself. You need to develop a brand as your foundation across those three angles. So if your brand is 'I'm the lawyer solving urban policy issues in this area', then your archive, your network, and your experience should relate to that brand. And that's very difficult to choose that brand, but read the article if you want to learn about how to do that!
Dina Macki Yeah, no, I actually love that. I didn't even want to do Agritech, but now I feel like, wow, that was actually really great advice. Thanks so much Henry. It was amazing speaking to you. Thank you for everything. Where's the best place to direct people if they want to learn more?
Henry Gordon-Smith Thank you, our main website is agritecutre.com and you can check that out and definitely dig through the various pages because there's a lot there's workshops, free content research. There's our own podcast where we actually did a podcast here in Muscat an interview of farmers and policymakers. So you can dig through all of that. And of course you can feel free to contact us or definitely check us out on social media, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, just @agritecture.