Saudi start-up Red Sea Farms raises $10m to grow food in saltwater

26 Jul 2021

Red Sea Farms, which grows organic, pesticide-free tomatoes using saltwater in Saudi Arabia, has received a $10 million venture capital investment.

The money will be used to scale up its operations, building more than six hectares of new saltwater greenhouses and transforming existing ones into commercial farms.

Saudi start-up Red Sea Farms raises $10m to grow food in saltwater
Image courtesy of Red Sea Farms

Investors included Aramco entrepreneurship arm Wa’ed, the Future Investment Initiative Institute and the King Abdullah University for Science & Technology (KAUST) from Saudi Arabia, and Global Ventures from the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

The start-up currently operates a pilot greenhouse at the KAUST Research & Technology Park.

Salt-tolerant crops

Founded in 2018, Red Sea Farms has developed a growing system that primarily uses salt water, reducing freshwater consumption by 80 to 90% - an incredibly useful achievement in Saudi Arabia which is 95% desert, according to NASA’s Earth Observatory, but has a coastal border of 1,800 km running along the Red Sea and Persian Gulf.

Red Sea Farms uses a combination of solar growth monitoring technologies and saltwater, rather than fresh water, to cool the temperatures in its greenhouses and to irrigate crops (the seawater may be treated to reduce salinity, depending on the crop).

“Our plant science department […] has developed salt-tolerant crops through grafting and hybridization techniques. Plant science innovation is simply one facet of our sustainable greenhouse system,” said the start-up’s co-founder and CEO, Ryan Lefers.

Overall, the company says its technology and processes allow it to reduce both freshwater and energy requirements up to ten-fold.

Tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers

The start-up currently has two products in its portfolio: saltwater cherry tomatoes that are sweeter and have more vitamin C than freshwater-grown tomatoes and heirloom Ramsi tomatoes that are red and green in colour. It plans to add other products, including snack peppers and cucumbers, to its portfolio by the end of 2021. Its produce is grown in both soil and hydroponics.

Red Sea Farms is looking to position its produce, which is certified organic by Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Agriculture, as an affordable alternative to high-quality but premium-priced imports.

Lefers told The Ingredients Network: “Imported tomatoes tend to be high quality but also high cost. Locally grown tomatoes are available at a much lower price but tend to be lower quality. We aim to compete with imports on taste and quality, as well as price because we are saving on air miles. We are targeting a mid-range price point between low-cost local products and high-cost imports.”

‘Sustainable desert agriculture’

In addition to expanding its retail footprint in Saudi Arabia, Red Sea Farms plans to commercialise its farming systems around the world, expanding saltwater agriculture in water-scarce regions.

“We are proud to have designed, developed and delivered one of the world’s most sustainable agricultural systems from our base in Saudi Arabia,” said Lefers in a statement. “The investment from our new partners will help us improve global food security while reducing the carbon and fresh-water footprint.”

Kevin Cullen, vice president of innovation and economic development at KAUST where Red Sea Farms was developed, added: “KAUST is powering an emerging deep tech start-up ecosystem in Saudi Arabia and Red Sea Farms is helping to drive this revolution. The start-up is the product of many years of research in KAUST labs, now commercialized and ready to change the face of agriculture in the Middle East and other water-scarce regions.”

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