Dr Lina F. Yousef is a soil scientist who is passionate about finding a solution to reversing the damage being done to the environment. Together with her business partner Saeed Al Khoori, she runs a sustainable skincare business, the De L’Arta Outdoor Living Laboratory, having received support from The Catalyst, a tech startup accelerator that focuses on sustainability, based in Masdar City, Abu Dhabi.
Masdar — also known as the Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company — is one of the world’s most sustainable urban communities, made up of a growing clean-tech cluster, a business free zone and a residential neighbourhood.
After completing her PhD at Ohio State University in the USA, Dr. Yousef came to Abu Dhabi to work as an assistant professor at Khalifa University, in the process meeting Al Khoori, who was then one of her students.
The two began collecting and testing local plants, discovering in the process many naturally occurring, beneficial phytochemicals. This led to a patent and the birth of their skincare range, which uses botanical extracts from native plants sourced in the desert around Abu Dhabi. They operate out of a studio at The Catalyst.
“If you look at the ecosystem here, there is sea and there is sand. It’s a desert,” says Lina. “When people think of a desert they think it’s lifeless. But one of the things we were interested in is the plants that survive in such harsh conditions.”
By running a successful business that can also contribute to the health of the soil and environment, they are closing the loop on production and waste. In fact, says Dr. Yousef, the project is far broader than skincare. “We want to tackle the bigger questions,” she says. “There is huge potential to learn from this natural environment and apply it to everyday life.”
The company has set up an urban farm near their lab, where it is testing her hypothesis that native plants can be co-cultivated with edible food, removing the need for damaging fertilizers.
Simultaneously, they are running a pilot study in conjunction with several local coffee outlets to reuse spent coffee grounds in the development of a new type of compost designed to stabilise the soil, enable it to hold water better, build its carbon content and restore its fertility to make it more suitable for agriculture. In its first few months, the farm has diverted 15 tonnes of coffee originally destined for landfill.
“Coffee is one of the most widely consumed commodities globally,” says Dr. Yousef. “The water footprint of one kilogram of coffee is 19 litres. So, we’re also indirectly reducing that footprint by recycling this coffee waste.”
Eventually, she hopes to implement similar programmes throughout the city in green zones that feature improved soil quality, edible gardens and more green space. “That’s the long-term vision, but we have to start small — which is why we’ve started at Masdar City, which is the perfect place to do it.”
The Catalyst is the region’s first technology startup accelerator focused on sustainability and clean technology.