UAE restaurants to offer bottled water drawn from the air

Ma Hawa, a joint venture with Israel’s Watergen, plans launch of its sleek blue bottles at U.N.’s COP28 climate conference

PETAH TIKVA, Israel – Diners at a selection of top restaurants and hotels in the United Arab Emirates will soon find a new brand of bottled water on their tables produced from the humidity in the Gulf state’s air.

Presented in sleek blue-glass bottles with a silver cap, Ma Hawa non-carbonated water is being introduced in an Abu Dhabi-based joint venture with Watergen, the Israeli company that pioneered the process of extracting drinking water in commercial quantities from the atmosphere.

“We are now building the brand and working on a pricing strategy,” Watergen CEO Steve Elbaz told The Circuit in an interview at the company’s Petah Tikva main office near Tel Aviv.

Sales of Ma Hawa – which means water and air in Arabic – are scheduled to begin during late summer in the UAE. An official launch is planned to take place in Dubai at the United Nations climate conference COP28 in December.

Founded in 2009, Watergen is owned by Israeli-Georgian billionaire Michael Mirilashvili and uses technology developed by Israeli entrepreneur Arye Kohavi that requires only 20% humidity in the air and a temperature of least 15 C (59 F) in the facility where its generating station is housed.

“That means we can generate water everywhere around the world, except Antarctica for the moment,” Elbaz said.

Comparing the quality of Ma Hawa water to that of premium mineral water, the 38-year-old CEO offered me a glass. The chilled water, which has minerals added in the production process, was thirst-quenching, with a neutral taste. It came from one of the dispensers employees use throughout the building that are connected to two generating units on the roof.

Ma Hawa’s bottled water will initially be sold in the UAE through the joint venture, Abu Dhabi-based Baynunah Watergeneration Technologies SP LLC. The company is in talks with potential partners for its production and sale in other regions.

Watergen produces a variety of units that generate from 20 to 6,000 liters of drinking water per day. They are being used in schools, hospitals, army camps, rural villages, natural disaster areas, outdoor events and office buildings. Soon to be introduced is a unit for home use. 

All the units are “plug and play” – meaning you bring them to a location, plug them into an electricity outlet and generate water. Watergen’s heat-exchange technology can produce up to five liters of water for one kilowatt of electricity. Generating water on location also helps save energy by reducing carbon-intensive transportation to remote areas and reduces the consumption of plastic bottles.  

“For companies like Watergen, I think real disruption can happen when the technology is used for home use by the private consumer,” said Eliran Elimelech, vice president of strategic partnerships at Start-Up Nation Central, a Tel Aviv-based nonprofit. “For that, the price needs to be very attractive.”

SNC, which connects international governments and businesses with Israeli tech companies, has often showcased Watergen, Elimelech said. SNC also used two of the company’s units to provide 12 hours of drinking water for thousands of participants at the outdoor Climate Solutions Festival it held in Israel’s Hulda Forest last year.

“I have seen it in action,” Elimelech said. “It is fast and efficient, and there were no hiccups.”

Here’s how the Watergen technology works: a filtration system absorbs air from the environment and transfers it to the heat exchanger, which is the heart of the technology. Using proprietary software, the heat exchanger extracts the water and transfers it into a buffer tank. From there, it passes through filters and UV lamps to purify and add minerals to the water, according to specifications set out by Watergen researchers. The water is then transferred to a drinking water tank and ready for use. 

In-house research teams continue to work on refining the company’s technology, along with the water’s mineralization and formula, Elbaz said. Watergen has also set up water research facilities at universities, including Tel Aviv University, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, in Israel, and Khalifa University in Abu Dhabi, to make sure the company continues to be a leader in the field. At this point, Elbaz asserts, Watergen is “10 years ahead of any potential competitors.”  

According to U.S. data firm CB Insights, competitors to Watergen include U.S. firm SOURCE Global, whose technology uses solar heat to generate water from air, India’s Uravu Labs, which in March raised $2.3 million in seed funding for its water technology that uses renewable energy to create water from air, and Kenya’s Majik Water.

Like Watergen, these firms are tapping into a need to quench the world’s growing thirst. According to the U.N., some 2 billion people globally don’t have access to safe drinking water today, and some half of the world’s population is experiencing severe water scarcity for at least part of the year. With climate change and population growth, these numbers are expected to become ever more severe. 

Watergen’s units have been deployed in some 100 countries, including in hospitals and a municipality in the Gaza Strip, in a medical facility at a refugee camp in Syria and at a girls’ school in Sierra Leone.

To expand its scope, the company is now gearing up for the mass production of its units. “By year-end we will have seven production lines,” Elbaz said. 

Watergen currently produces its machines through joint ventures in the UAE, the U.S., Israel and China, Elbaz said. Another joint venture with India’s SMV Jaipuria Group is in the process of opening production lines, he added, with two more partnerships on the way, though he declined to provide details.

In May, Israel’s TheMarker reported that Watergen was going to lay off 30% of its local workforce and move its R&D lab to the UAE. Elbaz said that indeed some local workers had been laid off, but others had been relocated to the UAE, India and the U.S., to beef up local teams. 

“We prefer to have those talents and brains that we have here, close to the production lines, to the customer,” he said. The company has 200 employees globally, with some 100 in Israel, though the numbers “are dynamic” because of the growing partnerships, he said. The company’s R&D will remain in Israel to continue the development of future products and solutions, he emphasized. 

Watergen is a private company and reveals limited information about its finances.

Elbaz, a French immigrant to Israel 20 years ago, was appointed CEO in January after leading the firm’s mobility division for less than a year. He previously worked with VCs, startups and Skoda Auto’s innovation unit. 

His role as CEO will be to steer the company through the mass production phase and seek out new markets and opportunities. 

These will include making its water units mobile, utilizing solar power and putting them in cars and trucks. The firm has already forged a partnership with Skoda to equip one of its desert rally cars with a water-making device. It has teamed up with U.S. electric vehicle maker Mullen Automotive Inc. to put water generators in its EVs, and with Living Vehicle to put units powered by solar panels in its luxury trailers.

The company is also looking at creating lower-grade units to produce water for manufacturing purposes, like vehicle paint shops or textile manufacturers, and for aviation and aeronautical purposes.

Looking ahead, Elbaz said he believes Watergen’s bottled water “will gain a lot of traction” while the company develops units with lower electricity consumption and expands to wherever water is scarce. 

“Water is a basic human right and this is what we can bring,” he said. 

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