Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 27 May 2020

Portrait of a Nation: Syrian who helped to lead UAE's agricultural revolution

Yahya Al Kodmani arrived in the 1970s after hearing of a man intent on 'greening the desert'

Yahya Al Kodmani, who came to the UAE from Syria in the 1970s, has set up several successful agriculture businesses.  Chris Whiteoak / The National
Yahya Al Kodmani, who came to the UAE from Syria in the 1970s, has set up several successful agriculture businesses.  Chris Whiteoak / The National

Yahya Al Kodmani arrived in the Emirates in 1974, fresh out of university in Damascus. His plan was to stay for two years, just long enough to save enough money for a house and car in his native Syria.

More than four decades on, he is still in Al Ain, which, with the help of an agricultural revolution that he played a major part in realising, has become known as the nation’s ‘Garden City’.

Following a string of successful research and business ventures, from growing wheat in the desert in the 1970s to setting up one of the region's largest bio-fertilizer companies, he established Emirates Bio Farm, a sprawling 250,000 sqm site around 55 minutes south west of Dubai, in 2016.

Yahya Al Kodmani dreamed of becoming a poet before he fell into studying agriculture in Syria "by accident". Courtesy: Yazen Al Kodmani 
Yahya Al Kodmani dreamed of becoming a poet before he fell into studying agriculture in Syria "by accident". Courtesy: Yazen Al Kodmani

It has become not only a major domestic producer of organic fruit and vegetables but a tourist attraction, with thousands visiting every year to take in the unlikely sight of swathes of plant life growing in the shadow of Al Ain's sand dunes. Tours are offered on trailers pulled by tractors.

It is hard to see it as anything other than the realisation of Sheikh Zayed’s vision of ‘greening the desert’, which served as such an inspiration to the young agriculture engineering graduate all those decades ago.

Emirates Bio Farm at Al Ain, a massive organic farm in the middle of the Al Ain desert. Victor Besa / The National 
Emirates Bio Farm at Al Ain, a massive organic farm in the middle of the Al Ain desert. Victor Besa / The National

“When I reached here, Sheikh Zayed has this vision to make the desert green,” Mr Al Kodmani, a warm and affable father-of-three, recalls. “To tell you the truth, at the time some experts advised that it was not possible. But he gave road contracts to the companies that would build trees to protect the highways, and every year, there were hundreds of projects like this.

“In Al Ain, where I am sitting, he brought in roundabouts and each one is very nice. And in a small city like Al Ain, he built dozens of public gardens. He also built farms. He had a vision, he said he wanted to make it green, and he did.”

The UAE that Mr Al Kodmani moved to, in the 1970s, was incomparable to the one a visitor would find today. He recalls barren single-track roads, not wide, pristine highways, linking major settlements.

He remembers meeting Sheikh Zayed in Al Ain in 1978, when the ruler arrived to co-ordinate plans for a major new hotel. Although the UAE has changed beyond all recognition since then, he said he believes the same mindset continues to drive the country forwards.

“He wanted quality and for things to happen quickly,” he said. “We walked to him and shook hands. The engineers come, and he said to them, ‘this location, you build the hotel. And to help them, I want to make a road. Then, build a bridge’. And within one month, all the activity had started. Within two years, what he said was there. This was the way.”

Mr Al Kodmani’s mission in business has been to make the region more sustainable. The bio farm is helping the UAE become less reliant on food imports and proves large-scale organic crop production in the desert is possible. In 1983, he set up Al Darmaky, one of the oldest agricultural, horticultural construction and supply firms in the country. It specialises in greenhouses, landscaping and irrigation systems.

Yahya Al Kodmani with his two older children, Yamen and Yara, in around 1984. Courtesy: Yazen Al Kodmani
Yahya Al Kodmani with his two older children, Yamen and Yara, in around 1984. Courtesy: Yazen Al Kodmani

A business venture he begun in 1997, the Emirates bio fertiliser factory, met a not quite as glamorous – but no less important – need. Its product is now exported to markets as far away as Germany, Taiwan and Malaysia.

“One time I bought 20,000 tonnes of cow dung from Holland,” he chuckles. “Most of the organic fertiliser was coming from Pakistan.

“But it when it came from outside it wasn’t fresh, it brought insects, diseases and other problems. So because of this I started another big project. We started to use local manure because there are a lot of poultry farms and plant residue.”

Although now 68, Mr Al Kodmani is still busy, usually working at least six hours a day and spending time with his five “very beautiful” grandchildren.

As a young man he fell into agriculture “by chance”, following his friends who had signed up to the course while he harboured dreams of becoming a poet. He still writes, and sponsored a literary prize and festival in Syria until the outbreak of war.

Yahya Al Kodmani at the Emirates bio fertiliser factory, which opened in 1997. Courtesy: Yazen Al Kodmani
Yahya Al Kodmani at the Emirates bio fertiliser factory, which opened in 1997. Courtesy: Yazen Al Kodmani

Just a quarter of his land at the biofarm is currently utilised, and he is working on plans to build an ecolodge and research centre. And he does not just judge success on how much money it makes.

“With conventional farming you are forced to use chemical fertiliser and pesticides, which I believe is very dangerous for health,” he said. “Our food is very healthy, very rich. I wanted to give something back to society.”

Reflecting on his arrival in the UAE all those years ago, he remembers his modest ambitions.

“When I came here, I wanted to work for two years and make enough money for a house and a car in Syria. That was my dream. But when you come here, you find yourself, and year by year you like it more. And, I’m sorry to say, year by year my country became worse.

Yahya Al Kodmani, who came to the UAE from Syria in the 1970s, spoke to The National about his life in the UAE. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Yahya Al Kodmani at his home. Chris Whiteoak / The National

“I’m now 68, but I can’t sit, always I need to be busy. Of course, I don’t have the power I had before. I would work 12 hours, now after six, I’m tired. But I work six hours a day at least.

“My life here has been very good, it’s been like a dream, it’s gone very fast. I’ve watched the country grow and I’ve been involved in it for 40 years.

“We are facing challenges with the climate and the limits of water. But I think what’s happened here with agriculture in the Emirates has been a big success.”

Updated: May 15, 2020 04:10 AM

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