An Egyptian company has teamed up with a Saudi start-up to bring sustainable farming practices to the kingdom.
Schaduf, a hydroponic farming business in Cairo, and Mishkat, a Saudi Arabian agritech company, will grow dozens of varieties of produce in the kingdom, strengthening the country's food security by decreasing reliance on imports.
Schaduf was the first company to introduce vertical gardens — plants that are attached with special materials and a built-in automatic irrigation system — to the Egyptian market and has expanded to neighbouring Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia.
“We want Cairo, and all cities in the Arab World to be ideal sustainable cities, to ease the process of growing organic and reusing minimal amounts of water to grow their products,” said Sherif Hosny, vice president of Schaduf.
“We currently have a partner in Saudi Arabia, Mishkat, and we have been working together on organic hydroponic, vegetables and tomatoes in the middle of the desert in extreme weather.
“Using these kinds of technologies here in Saudi Arabia makes a lot of sense.”
After its establishment in 2017, Mishkat opened Naeem Farms, Saudi Arabia's first certified organic hydroponic farm.
“Once the greenhouse was built and the production facilities were up and running, we focused on collating organic seeds from the best providers in the world and tried many different seeds and variations to get to the ones that actually work the best for the environment here,” said Fadi Ghalayini, vice president of business development at Mishkat.
This week, the kingdom's Public Investment Fund and US sustainable agriculture company AeroFarms signed a joint-venture agreement to build indoor vertical farms in the kingdom and the wider Middle East and North Africa region.
Schaduf is an Arabic word that describes an ancient agricultural tool used to lift water from the Nile in low tide.
“It's one of the first irrigation tools in the world and had a huge impact on Egyptian civilisation,” Mr Hosny said. “We still use it in Egypt today.”
How does hydroponic farming work?
Hydroponic farming saves up to 80 per cent of the water typically used in standard methods, Mr Hosny said.
By removing soil from the process and placing the roots directly in nutrient-rich water, food can be grown in almost any controlled environment. This allows precise adjustments to important growing factors while using 70 to 90 per cent less water than conventional farming.
The word “hydroponic” is of Greek origin — “hydro” meaning “water” and “ponic” meaning “work”.
This method of farming, the water can be reused by pumping it back into the aquifer, the underground layer of water-bearing rocks in the soil.
Hydroponic oases in Saudi Arabia's deserts
In 2020, Saudi Arabia announced two initiatives worth 2.5 billion riyals ($665 million) to support farmers and enable food imports in an effort to bolster the country's food security.
“One of the sectors that we were looking into to provide business solutions for was agriculture, to consolidate Saudi Arabia's food security goals,” said Fares Bardeesi, founder and managing partner at Sukna ventures, one of the co-founding companies of Mishkat.
“We only plant organic and non-GMO seeds,” said Mr Ghalayini.
The farm is only 40 minutes outside Jeddah and takes advantage of the kingdom's plentiful sunlight to provide organic and pesticide-free produce.
The farms source their water from wells or aquifers that hold water with higher than normal saline levels.
Saudi Arabia receives more than half of its water through desalination methods and continues to invest significant resources in trying to make these more efficient.
The kingdom now has one of the world's largest seawater desalination plants, the Al Jubeil plant, which produces 1.4 million cubic metres a day.
“The water that we use has some salinity, so we do apply desalination methods,” Mr Ghalayini said.
The two companies are seeking to spread the message of sustainable farming by hosting workshops for farmers and schoolchildren at their greenhouses.
“It is important to provide local farmers and future agro-entrepreneurs, both economical and environmentally-beneficial solutions for a future that's food secure and more mindful of our already scarce water resources,” said Mr Bardeesi.
One of the major drawbacks of hydroponic farming, however, is that only a handful of crops can be successfully grown using the technique.
“There are limitations to hydroponics — it's more usually suited for leafy greens, tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers for now,” said Mr Ghalayini.
The organic greens are quite affordable too, competing with other organic produce in the market in price. A 250g pack of wild arugula sells for 13 rials.
Mr Hosny believes the greatest benefit of this farming technique is improving water security in an arid climate.
“By recirculating the water, both Schaduf and Mishkat have been able to decrease their water consumption by up to 80 per cent,” he said.
Water resources in the Middle East are becoming increasingly scarce, having diminished over the decades due to the region's arid climate.
Rising global temperatures and drought are putting food security in peril, with Unicef identifying the Middle East and North Africa as the most water-scarce region in the world in 2021.
Countries reliant on fresh water have seen their rivers dry up or have had to contend with political water-sharing problems, in a region where agriculture plays a crucial role in socio-economic life.