Chandra Dake, the Indian innovator who turned UAE deserts into farmlands

Dake's company hold over 600 original invention patents

Desert farming Chandra Dake, Executive Chairman of Dake Rechsand

Arabian folklore has an uncountable number of stories that combine the magical, mystical, and mythical with the real and the historical. Dubai, the epitome of contemporary Arabian opulence, is now witnessing one such fascinating story of sustainability powered by a “magic sand”. The man who brought this sand—that enables agriculture even in deserts and saline-alkali soils—to the Arabian land is a 44-year-old Indian, Chandra Dake. He leads Dake Rechsand, a company specialising in sustainability solutions for desert farming and water conservation.

Colloquially called the “magic sand”, Dake Rechsand’s revolutionary solution to transform deserts goes officially by the name ‘breathable sand’. And, Chandra asserts that his sand can indeed “breathe.” During a visit by THE WEEK to Dake Rechsand, the Indian entrepreneur provided a brief demonstration of his technology using a pot made of this breathable sand.

Dake filled the pot, which boasts high air permeability, with water and then blew air from outside the pot. Remarkably, bubbles emerged inside the pot. “The breathable sand is made from desert sand,” explains Dake. “We modify the sand particles to alter the way it behaves with the water and air, and this allows the sand to hold water for a longer period while allowing the aeration,” he said.

In scientific terms, the sand particles undergo 'surface tension modification' through a complex manufacturing process that involves adding specific minerals and applying heat. The resulting water-retentive and air-permeable medium ensures optimal crop yield with an 80% reduction in water input. In the UAE, where deserts cover nearly 80% of the total land and water scarcity is a critical issue, this unique technology provides a compelling solution

Utilising this technology, the company is currently engaged in establishing a forest of 11 million trees in Dubai's arid and desert lands. This massive afforestation and carbon sequestration programme, done in collaboration with the Dubai government, is the first such programme in a desert anywhere in the world, done with private investment

Interestingly, a scaled-down version of this cutting-edge desert land reclamation technology is on display at Dake's home garden in Dubai. Welcoming THE WEEK for an exclusive home tour, the entrepreneur showcased a diverse array of flora, ranging from coconut trees and mangoes to Chikoo, jamun, and tamarind—all cultivated using his breathable sand.

The lush landscape features a variety of plants that typically face challenges in surviving and producing fruit in arid climates, including moringa, grapes, papaya, grapefruit, and pomegranate. The garden's vibrant tapestry is further enhanced by the presence of roses, hibiscus, and jasmine in various hues, showcasing resilience even in the scorching summer months.

Desert farming Chandra Dake at his Dubai residence and home garden made using 'breathable sand'

The concept of breathable sand originated in China, stemming from an idea proposed by the renowned Chinese scientist Qian Xuesen in the early 1980s. Qian's desert development theory aimed to transform deserts and Gobi deserts into oases through the application of advanced science and technology.

Inspired by Xuesen, Chinese scientist Qin Shengyi embarked on a journey to develop a method for transforming Gobi desert sand into a "special coated sand." The process involved conducting over 6,000 tests using more than 9,000 kg of sand before successfully creating the first high-temperature coated sand. Shengyi, currently the chairman of Beijing Renchuang Technology Group Co., dedicated over 35 years to studying, developing, and testing to create breathable sand suitable for farming in deserts.

In a significant trial, Shengyi's breathable sand demonstrated remarkable results by producing optimal rice yield across 1,500 acres of the Ulan Buh Desert on the western Inner Mongolia plateau. This desert is considered one of the seven driest deserts globally, with temperatures soaring as high as 57 degrees Celsius. The success of this experiment showcased the transformative potential of breathable sand in revolutionising agriculture.

Collaborating with Shengyi, Dake worked to enhance the sand's capabilities, adapting it for use in high-saline soils to make it more stable and suitable for desert farming and water conservation. Together, they co-founded Dake Rechsand, which has expanded globally with 15 manufacturing plants and multiple product lines in the US, South Africa, UAE, India, and China.

Growing up in a middle-class family, Dake’s interest in agriculture resilience sparked at an early age. His father Dake Visaradha Rao worked as an assistant executive engineer in the Andhra Pradesh Irrigation Department. “Because of my father’s job’s nature that involved frequent relocations across Andhra Pradesh, I had earned diverse experiences from Hyderabad to Kadapa and Vijayawada. Meanwhile, the farming background of both maternal and paternal families also sparked my interest. I witnessed how my paternal grandfather transformed an arid land into a lush farm in Rayalaseema. The challenges of drought-prone Rayalaseema created in me a deep respect for agricultural resilience.”

Following his graduation from Nagarjuna University, Vijayawada in 1999, Chandra's exposure to systems audit during his Chartered Accountancy (CA) audit articles influenced his transition into technology. This shift led him to attain an MCSD certification in 2000. Subsequently, he delved into Environmental Sciences, ultimately earning a Ph.D. in 2022 from Sorbon International for his significant contributions to soil improvement.

Presently, Dake's company boasts an impressive portfolio, holding over 600 original invention patents. Notably, this innovative firm has developed an alternative version of breathable sand, aiming to prevent floods and introduce a pioneering water harvesting concept known as 'sponge cities.'

Sponge cities encompass extensive areas where rainwater is absorbed by permeable pavers, directing it either to proper sewers or storing it in underground reservoirs. In contrast, breathable sand, utilised for planting, retains water while allowing for aeration. Meanwhile, a patented 'honeycomb' structure, employed in constructing sponge cities, possesses both air and water permeability.

“With that technology, we create surfaces to harvest the water and store the water sustainably for a long time,” said Dake. “The honeycomb storage in which water is collected allows the air to circulate within the storage without the need of electricity and chemicals and keeps water in constant motion 24 by 7, 365 days. So far, our longest record of keeping the water clean has been about 12 years.”

The passionate innovator asserts that his unique technology will play a crucial role in building a sustainable future while sounding the alarm about the rapid desertification occurring in various parts of the world. He states, "We are not only reclaiming deserts but also transforming desert sand, which is otherwise deemed unfit for any other purpose, into a material of significant utility." Now, that is undoubtedly akin to magic!

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