How can Oman – a country where 82% of the land is desert – build a flourishing agricultural industry?

It sounds a tall order. But the future vision for Oman, described in the government’s “Oman 2040” vision document, includes an ambition to develop the country’s agriculture and fisheries sector. The aim is to provide food security in Oman as well as to develop export markets.

The Industrial Innovation Center in Oman is tasked with helping the government to realise the ambition. Strategic Innovation has been working closely with the Center for the past five years. Our latest project focuses on uncovering opportunities for the Omani food and beverage industry, while keeping the Oman 2040 sustainable development goals front of mind.

“It’s been an exhilarating journey,” says Dr. Michala Techau, Director at Strategic Innovation. “We’ve had emotional discussions with farmers who see their land and crops dying and we’ve heard from fisheries about the impact of extensive sardine fishing on yellowfin tuna stock. But then we’ve also spoken to young entrepreneurs who are focusing on sustainable initiatives. They are determined to make a positive difference while they develop delicious Omani food and beverage products.”

Dr. Bashair Al-Riyami, the Center’s Director of Innovation for the Food & Beverage Sector, says “Strategic Innovation’s approach has uncovered opportunities that will feed into our strategy for the sector. The team recommended that we invest in certain regenerative agricultural practices and in primary processing. These approaches will help us to develop resilient ecosystems that protect the environment and ensure sustainability of natural resources to support our national economy.”

Regenerative agriculture encompasses many approaches to food production with the underlying philosophy being a focus on the biological health of the soil. The regenerative path is slowly becoming a paved road, as large corporates including Unilever, Danone, and General Mills start to recognise and support regenerative practices.

Strategic Innovation explored several regenerative practices. Our ‘top three’ for Oman are integrated seawater agriculture, seawater greenhouses, and agave agroforestry (see Box and Figure). And we recommend applying regenerative agriculture principles for sustainable production from large Omani farm operations.

  • Integrated seawater agriculture is a mangrove agroforestry based closed production system that creates ‘rivers from the sea’ to support both aquaculture of shrimp, fish, bivalves and growth of salt-tolerant crops such as seaweed and Salicornia.
  • Seawater greenhouses resemble Bedouin tents constructed from technical fabric. Cooled by evaporated seawater, these self-contained systems optimize conditions for year-round growth of crops, both inside the greenhouse and in an ‘oasis’ of downwind cooled, humidified air.
  • Agave agroforestry is an ecosystem of densely planted agave combined with nitrogen-fixing trees (such as mesquite or acacia), cover crops and rotationally grazed livestock. A recently discovered process of fermentation allows the usually indigestible leaves to create nutritious animal fodder.

Move the slider to compare Oman today (productive land is limited), with a potential future Oman (integrated seawater agriculture and seawater greenhouses generate fertile agricultural ground).

But what are the practical realities of adopting regenerative agriculture approaches? Oman retains a rich heritage of ‘Afalaj’; an ancient method of irrigation and agricultural production, and has avoided excessive investment in western-style intensive production of monocultures. This presents a huge opportunity. Investment now in regenerative agriculture means Oman could ‘leapfrog’ the intensive agricultural approaches that are unsustainable in the longer term. The vision is essentially to take traditional Omani practices and bring them forward, together with technology to create a productive ecosystem, turning the desert green.

Recent research into the history of neighbouring AlUla in Saudi Arabia revealed that what is now arid desert was in living memory green and fertile. Older generations even still remember loosing livestock to leopards. Much of today’s desert landscape is a result of the axe, the plough, poorly managed livestock and excessive groundwater abstraction.  If humans have caused much of this problem, humans can reverse it. At Strategic Innovation we are excited to find approaches that could simultaneously reverse the desertification of recent decades and support Oman’s national economy. Significant proportions of Oman’s landscape has the potential for regenerative production, something that we at SI would love to see.