The growing role of space in a sustainable future

20 AUG 2019

Q@&A: We sit down with Manjula Ramakrishnan, the President of SmartLife Foundation, to learn more about the Dubai-based NGO and its humanitarian activities to help low-income workers and their families

Can you tell us more about the SmartLife Foundation?

Licensed by the Community Development Authority in Dubai, the SmartLife Foundation is an NGO that works closely with blue-collar workers living in labor camps to help them improve their potential and quality of their lives by offering them a diverse range of programs.

In our 10 years of operations in Dubai – and still counting – our core philosophy is to devise projects by not sitting in the comfort of our corporate meeting rooms, but by being in their midst – in their labor accommodations – to learn about their requirements and to devise relevant programs that will help them.
What issues did you identify as the most urgent for the blue-collar workers?

We discovered that financial and old-age planning were not a priority for many blue-collar workers, even after working for 20 or more years in the Gulf. To help the workers with planning for their retirement, we started our SmartElder program to help steer them towards a healthy and robust retirement. Our volunteers guide the workers on a range of topics, such as how to deal with old-age problems and manage their finances when they return home.

What initiatives do you have to help women?

When we learnt that there were very few women-centric projects for blue-collar ladies in the UAE, we launched SmartWoman. Here, women can learn new hobbies, discover their creativity and engage with others in a relaxing atmosphere. The idea behind this project is to enable women to use their spare time creatively and productively, thus keeping negative thoughts, if any, at bay.

Do you have a youth program? 

Yes, we do. Our SmartBuddy project uses a “buddy” system to encourage students to inspire and motivate each other. The program pairs a “Dubai buddy” with a “native buddy” (students in their own countries). The students are paired together based on the same gender, language and age group.  The buddies are supervised by our adult SmartLife volunteers who act as mentors. 

What other programs do you offer?

One of our flagship projects is the SmartReading program, which is in line with the reading initiative of the Dubai government and helps semi-literate workers to enjoy the pleasures of reading. Our SmartReading program also aligns with the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) #4, which focuses on offering inclusive and quality education, and promoting lifelong opportunities for all. The initiative helps to build confidence with English communication and reading skills, and about 1,500 blue-collar workers have so far “graduated” from the program and now feel confident when interacting in basic, simple English.

We have a dozen active projects, including SmartIdol, which is a fun platform for the blue-collar workforce to showcase their talents in singing, dancing and playing musical instruments. We help to train them and hone their skills in the best academy in Dubai and then give them a stage to perform to a larger audience. Other projects include SmartMedic, which offers periodic health check-ups and addresses wellness in workers.  This is in alignment with SDG Goal #3, which ensures good health and well-being for people of all ages. SmartCup is a cricket tournament where blue and white-collar workers are part of the same team vying for the coveted trophy. SmartFitness helps workers to stay fit in fun ways with zumba dancing, skipping and running, while SmartRelaxation deals with anger management, de-stressing and breathing techniques coupled with light yoga and meditation.

Where do you get your inspiration for the projects?

We work in conjunction with the Federal Government’s initiatives. A case in point is SmartReading. This started in 2016 as part of the Year of Reading; when The Year of Zayed was announced in 2018, we worked on promoting the core philosophies of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the Founding Father of the UAE. This year, 2019, is the Year of Tolerance, and we are delighted to confirm that each and every project of SmartLife is about inclusiveness, having the maximum number of nationalities on board – both as beneficiaries and as volunteers.

What does the future hold for SmartLife Foundation?

Not an NGO to rest on our past laurels, we are in the process of initiating a social impact audit to gauge where further improvement and value add-on can be brought in. The journey therefore continues, for service to humanity knows no finish line. SmartLife functions with a sizeable pool of volunteers who are united in their mission to give back to society and to derive immeasurable joy from the very act of giving.

By Manjula Ramakrishnan / President of SmartLife Foundation


29 DEC 2019

Effective food security depends on partnerships and the community

By Her Excellency Mariam Almheiri, Minister of State for Food Security

The ability for a country to act sustainably is a determinant of its successful development. In the context of food security, sustainability means enabling all citizens and residents to have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food for an active and healthy life at  affordable prices at all times, including emergencies and crises. 

My role as Minister of State for Food Security sees me tasked with ensuring that the UAE is able to deliver food sustainably across the food supply chain - from harvest to the table - to feed the UAE’s growing population, which is expected to add another million or so people over the next 20 years. When you take the UAE’s adverse crop growing conditions into account - its poor soil quality, shrinking levels of groundwater, lack of arable land, and low annual rainfall - it is not difficult to see that this represents something of a challenge.

Thanks to the UAE leadership placing a priority on forging firm and friendly relations with other governments, the UAE has created strong import supply chains that deliver 90% of its total food. Although these have placed the country comfortably at 21st place on the Global Food Security Index, it means that it remains vulnerable to global supply chain disruptions.  

To reduce the UAE’s heavy reliance on food imports, my colleagues and I launched the National Food Security Strategy in November 2018. Through its various pillars, the strategy aims to take the UAE from its current 21st place in the Global Food Security Index to being in the top 10 by 2021 and number one by 2051. In devising the strategy, we were acutely aware that its success would depend on our ability to create meaningful partnerships and to involve the community. 

Initiating the strategy in the first few months meant finding suitable partners to help get it off the ground. A key pillar is enabling technology-based domestic food production, which has a target of increasing domestic yield by 30% by 2021. One of the first things we did was to remove perceived barriers to adopting technology in this sector. In doing so, we engaged with private sector stakeholders to create 10 new initiatives in 100 days.

Now successfully launched, my office is giving a stronger focus on involving the community – local and global – in our efforts to advance food security. In effect, we are making the community our partners towards our goals. In September this year, we announced, in partnership with Tamkeen, an Abu Dhabi-based company mandated to deliver projects to meet the UAE’s vision of knowledge-based development, the FoodTech Challenge – a global competition that aims to identify and implement sustainable and technology-driven solutions across the food value chain that enhance the UAE’s food security and self-sufficiency at the national, community, and household levels. Launched by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and ruler of Dubai, the challenge is open to all and invites the youth, entrepreneurs and innovators to find solutions across the food value chain to identified challenges in the UAE with a shared prize pool of USD one million for four winners – the largest ever offered for a food technology challenge - winners will receive a host of benefits that include the offer to participate in a six-month business incubation programme by the Catalyst in Abu Dhabi to translate their ideas into actual projects and connection with international investors. 

With respect to creating a healthy population, the Food Security Office and the National Program for Happiness and Wellbeing launched the Nutrition Labelling Policy in September this year. This policy sees the adoption of a traffic light system for healthy and less healthy foods based on their ingredients and nutritional content. Red, yellow and green labels indicate sugar, salt and fat content, with the policy based on the results of a field study carried out by the Community Design for Wellbeing Initiative – another important partner who is helping us meet our goals.

Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week (ADSW) is essential to this concept of partnership. Masdar City is already an important ally in our efforts to create an advanced Agritech sector through its initiatives that include the shipping container vertical farming project, aquaculture farming scheme and the ‘Bustani’ Smart Home Farming Showcase. Each year ADSW further raises awareness of the importance of sustainability in all spheres, including food security, and we wish this year’s programme every success.


15 JAN 2020

The decade of energy transformation lies ahead of us

As we enter a new decade, IRENA Director-General Francesco La Camera suggests the 2020s will be the golden age of renewables 

The 2010s will be remembered as the decade when renewable energy went from the marginal to the mainstream. Cost reductions and the growing climate crisis have propelled renewable energy sources into the social and political discourse in almost every country on earth. Of all the major power generation technologies – traditional or renewable – solar accounts for the largest share of additional capacity over the last 10 years. 

Encouraging as this progress might be, the hard work is ahead of us. Our actions in the 2020s will define the long-term future of our economies, our people and our planet. Any chance we have of mitigating the climate crisis and achieiving sustainable development by mid-century, lies in the policies, investments and emission reductions made this decade. And this critical period of action begins in Abu Dhabi at the 10th IRENA Assembly during Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week. 

The 2020s are set to be the decade that redefines our socioeconomic system. If successful, we will have unleashed 10 breathtaking years of energy system transformation putting us well on the way to generating nearly nine tenths of electricity from renewables by 2050. The hard work starts now to ensure that by the end of this decade renewables contribute half of all power generation globally. 

It could also be the decade in which demand for both coal and oil peaks, where we see 157 million electric vehicles on our roads, and when the last person on earth without reliable and affordable access to electricity is enjoying the benefits of its productive uses. It’s possible. To ensure this happens, however, we must urgently address two key things. Investment and policy. 

Planned energy investments are currently misdirected and should pivot to low-carbon technologies. By our calculations more than USD 18 trillion of energy investments by 2050 are fossil fuel related, including exploration and production of gas, oil and coal. At best, these investments risk stranding trillions of dollars of assets in uneconomical fuels in just a few years. At worst, they threaten to blow the world’s carbon budget this decade, and with it any hope of a climate safe future. 

To hold rising temperatures in the 10 years ahead of us, annual investments in renewable energy must rise from today’s USD 330 billion to nearly USD 750 billion per year. Redirecting capital into more socially and economically beneficial low-carbon technologies, is imperative and must start now. It is also the most economic climate action pathway. Inaction will cost up to 7 times more than the capital needed to transform the energy system.

The Gulf Corporation Council (GCC) countries are taking up the renewable energy race and have everything to gain from moving quickly into a leadership position on future energy. Conservative estimates suggest that by 2030 the region could save more than 350 million barrels of oil equivalent and create close to a quarter of a million new jobs by executing current plans. Solar and wind resources are rich and attractive, and policies have made it cheaper to generate power from renewables than from any other source. Moving from oil, gas pipelines and coal shipments to solar panels and wind turbines strengthens energy security, supports energy independence and builds prosperity for all, not just for the few. 

There is no question we are moving in the right direction. In the last decade renewable power generation capacity has doubled and its growth has consistently outpaced fossil fuels since 2012. A third of global power generation capacity today is renewable. This is the result of investments of around USD 3 trillion over the last 10 years including large hydro. In the decade of transformation ahead of us however, the next three trillion dollars of renewable investments should take around four years. 

Policies must align with the opportunity and reflect the necessity. Under current policies, the peak production of fossil fuels happens somewhere between 2030 and 2035, dramatically out of step with the Paris Agreement which requires a peak in 2020 and a steady, continuous decline from that point. Furthermore, renewable energy targets in nationally determined contributions (NDCs) lag market progress. By 2030 NDCs should target double the amount of renewable capacity, they do today.  

It is no longer a question of direction, but of speed. With policy support, smart investment decision-making and clear recognition of the benefits associated with a renewables-based energy system, the speed of transformation ahead of us could rival the that of any in the post-industrial age. Anything short of this, risks everything.   


25 SEP 2019

The growing role of space in a sustainable future

Sustainability has always been a fundamental motivation behind our mission to explore life and resources beyond our planet.

The consequences of the environmental challenges Earth is facing are becoming more severe as time goes by. The impact of climate change is already evident in the UAE, the region and in most countries worldwide. As such, contributing to a sustainable future is now more critical than ever both within our country and globally.

The space sector plays a vital role in providing global solutions for the environmental threats facing our planet. These threats include climate change, resource scarcity, desertification, rising sea levels, and an increased frequency and severity of national disasters.

We are already putting space technology to work for the benefit of humanity by forming partnerships to foster innovative technologies, launching satellites to monitor and measure the impact of climate change, and establishing research centres dedicated to advanced sciences.

Today, the accumulated knowledge of more than 50 years of observation provides us with a better understanding of Earth, with improved knowledge of its various components including its atmosphere, land, oceans and ice coverage.[1]

A study conducted by the Committee on Earth Observation Satellites (CEOS) and the intergovernmental Group on Earth Observations (GEO) suggests that Earth observation data has a role to play in relation to most of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).[2] The United Nations announced 169 targets associated with these goals, 65 of which directly benefit from the use of Earth observation and navigation satellite systems.[3]

Space technologies can be utilised to pinpoint structures for urban planning purposes, apply global navigation satellite systems, Earth observation and satellite telecommunications, improve city services like the smart waste management systems, monitor air quality, manage disasters, monitor infrastructure, and help in search and rescue operations.