He never meant to be a farmer. A business graduate from the American University of Culture and Education in Beirut, Ali Makhzoum’s first foray into hydroponic farming was in Bahrain, a desert country on the Persian Gulf. Inspired by the spacious roof of his apartment building in 2009, Makhzoum, “started dabbling in tiny little systems, duct taped. They looked hideous.” His biggest challenge? Designing a system that could grow produce in 122 degree heat.
“That was the beginning of starting to put things together and giving scientific value to them,” says Makhzoum. As the political situation in Bahrain began going “ballistic,” Makhzoum moved to Lebanon in 2010 to pursue a career in advertising and communications.
“I started thinking about the problems I see on the TV,” says Makhzoum, whose family hails from southern Lebanon, a less developed area of the country. “There is so much land in the south that nobody is doing anything with. They keep complaining that Lebanon has a deficit in agriculture. The farmers are losing their crops and the government isn’t doing jack about it.”
Acknowledging that it was a “little cocky” to think he could change the situation in the South, Makhzoum began to work on a system of hydroponic farming that could increase farmers’ yields, decrease the amount of labor needed to harvest and reduce the water necessary for growing up to 90 percent, by his own accounting. The product: his Life Labs systems.
“If little people do stuff together, it is like throwing a stone into water. It has this ripple effect that can effect the people around you,” says Makhzoum.
Using data collected about specific plants over the years, Life Labs systems are completely automated, self-contained, and, Makhzoum hopes, “smart”–with the ability to govern themselves.
An innovation grant from Euro-Lebanese Centre for Industrial Modernisation provided seed money, along with an angel investment by Walid Hanna, a Managing Partner at Middle East Venture Partners. Hanna serves on the board of Life Labs. The company has also received a grant from the World Bank’s Innovation in Small and Medium Enterprises program. It is currently seeking Series A funding.
Seeking advice from local agro-engineers as well as friends who ran or managed hydroponic farms abroad, Makhzoum began building his systems after taking numerous online university courses in agro-science. He also used NASA’s research into hydroponic farming in space as inspiration, as the American space agency is something of a path breaker in the industry.
“We use the basic idea of the solutions they use for certain problems, but don’t implement it at the level they do,” says Makhzoum. The systems NASA uses are not only extremely high-tech, but also expensive to create. The expense problem is exacerbated in Lebanon because many such high-tech solutions would involve importing key components, an issue that all hardware startups face in Lebanon.
“We can’t afford to tinker with that level of technology,” explains Makhzoum. “You would end up with a head of lettuce costing you $10 and nobody is going to buy that.”
As a hydroponic farmer, Makhzoum finds that some people assume he is just interested in growing marijuana. Despite this stigma, he does use the marijuana growing community for ideas about cutting costs in hydroponic systems using DIY tactics, like building wicks to accommodate the changing levels of water in the pipes rather than changing the level of water in the pipes themselves.
“It would be $600 for a tiny system. That would have been a stupid solution. What we did was use wicks that cost us $10 for an entire roll that would fit three systems. We solved it for $10,” says Makhzoum. “That kind of advice comes from these sorts of people.”
In a small country where pesticides and pollutants are common, Makhzoum believes that it is impossible to say a farm is “organic,” because even if the farmer follows those principles, the soil or water was likely already contaminated. Life Labs’ systems bypass this challenge since the closed system is constructed and kept separately from contaminants. “We don’t use soil, we use substrate. And the substrates we use are completely clean and sanitized,” explains Makhzoum. The system relies not on sunlight but rather on artificial light. In case of a power outage, it can be powered by a car or truck battery.
The first phase of their project, which the company plans to roll out in the next few months, aims to target smaller farmers, making them 15 times more productive. Makhzoum also hopes to construct a Life Labs farm in the South, where people can visit, experience the systems working firsthand and buy produce.
Although the systems aim to decrease problems that farmers face worldwide like pests and weather uncertainties, they do come at a price, a fairly high one for subsistence farmers. Acknowledging that it is “capital intensive” to start off, Makhzoum believes that by saving on labor costs and increasing productivity, such farms can eventually pay for themselves in seven years. Makhzoum is working with several governmental and non-government agencies to create a plan where partner farmers benefit from special financing.
His ultimate goal? Food sovereignty. Makhzoum says, “I dream of a day when this catches on and Lebanon develops from being an importer to becoming an exporter of high quality organic produce year-round.”