The world's growing population is posing major challenges for the global agricultural sector - and solutions are emerging from interesting places: a Saudi company that competed in last year’s Entrepreneurship World Cup (EWC).
The World Bank estimates that agricultural production must expand by 70% by 2050. Currently, agriculture uses 70% of all freshwater. With growing demand for water from other industrial sectors, new solutions must be found to supply the world with food.
Using saltwater - which makes up 97.5% of all the water on earth - is a possibility. However, many crops are salt intolerant, while constructing saltwater desalination plants is an expensive and energy-intensive process.
Saudi-based Red Sea Farms is creating new ways of using saltwater for agricultural purposes, including its innovative evaporative cooling systems. The company started with growing tomatoes, which are bred to be salt-tolerant, so reducing the amount of freshwater required to grow them, while making their irrigation energy and cost-efficient.
Red Sea Farms finished third out of over 100,000 participants in last year's EWC. Co-founder, Mark Tester believes that entering the competition has provided significant benefits to his business.
Mark and co-founder, Ryan Lefers created Red Sea Farms while they were both working at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Saudi Arabia.
"This region clearly needs serious agricultural innovation to help reduce the water footprint of food production," Mark said. "This need is global, but it's particularly sharp here in the Middle East. So that's the bottom line."
Red Sea Farms started with tomatoes, because they are the largest horticultural product in the world and can grow successfully in slightly salty water. This enabled Red Sea Farms to devise a business model that was both innovative and profitable.
KAUST's Innovation and Economic Development department helped Red Sea Farms with initial funding and support.
Participating in the EWC provided extra impetus.
"I'm not sure I could quantify the EWC in terms of how many millions of dollars it's worth to our company," Mark explained. "It's countless. It opened doors. It meant people were getting in touch with us; and it meant when we were getting in touch with people, they were more likely to reply.
"I'm fine with plants and Ryan is a great engineer, but for business development you need a different set of people. Anybody who's got a good idea, don't think you're clever in business as well, because it's odds on you're not. You need to interact with people who are clever in other things."
During last year's competition, EWC provided Red Sea Farms with a fabulous mentor, Steve Dauphin, from Kirchner Group, and that relationship has subsequently thrived. Kirchner Group helped the company with evaluation of potential strategic partnerships, development of growth channels and attraction of talent and preparation for future fundraising activities.
In April 2020, Red Sea Farms and Kirchner Group announced an agricultural enterprise development collaboration, to enable local production of fresh fruits and vegetables in freshwater-constrained regions of the world.
Looking to the future, Red Sea Farms' co-founders are plotting the journey from startup to growth phase.
"We are forming a joint venture with another company locally," Mark said. "We are raising money. Once you start, things start to snowball. There's no way we're just going to be growing tomatoes. We've already starting to grow some other vegetables. I want to start experimenting with some strawberries as well. That might not be for another six to nine months, but pretty soon. In other words, we will be diversifying, no doubt."
"We're also working on developing licenses for our technology and its applications in other sectors. The prospects are pretty good. We've got quite a few strings in our bow."
And Mark has some words of advice for anyone considering whether to enter this year's EWC.
"Do it! It's as simple as that. Going through the EWC really focuses your mind. So throw yourself into it, and think carefully when you're filling in the forms because they're not just forms for bureaucrats; they contain good questions to help you develop your business."
For more information about Red Sea Farms, visit www.redseafarms.com