Red Sea Farms, SAUDIA sign MoU to bring healthy, locally-sourced meals to passengers

A partnership between Red Sea Farms, a KAUST spinout agritech business, and SAUDIA, Saudi Arabia’s national airline, will provide guests with sustainable, locally-sourced foods while lowering ‘food miles’ by replacing imports. Photo courtesy of Red Sea Farms

Red Sea Farms, Red Sea Farms (RSF), a KAUST spinout agritech business based in Saudi Arabia with global presence, is partnering with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s national airline SAUDIA to provide sustainable meals for passengers in airport lounges and onboard flights.

The collaboration, confirmed with the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding, will provide SAUDIA with high-quality, locally sourced food options, which will help to cut the airline's carbon footprint by reducing its reliance on imported goods. The alliance will support SAUDIA in its objective to continuously improve its environmental performance and become an aviation industry flagbearer in sustainability. Red Sea Farms also assisted SAUDIA on menu development and video content used to inform the airline's customers of the health and sustainability benefits of these homegrown options.

Simon Roopchand, chief executive officer of Red Sea Farms Middle East, commented, "Our new partnership with SAUDIA is another step to introduce our unrivaled fresh produce to a wider and discerning public, while significantly scaling our business. We are delighted to partner with the national flag carrier, and aim to be the country's flag carrier for sustainable foods."

The global airline alliance, SkyTeam, via its Sustainable Flight Challenge, calls on its member airlines to deliver locally sourced sustainable produce in their catering. By partnering with Red Sea Farms, SAUDIA is able to serve Red Sea Farms' snack tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers to guests.

"We are incredibly honoured that our sustainability efforts have been recognized with two awards. The Sustainable Flight Challenge has been a unique and noteworthy challenge for our team, who utilized this experience as a springboard for new sustainable initiatives to come," added Captain Ibrahim Koshy, chief executive officer of SAUDIA.

Local startup goes the distance

Portrait of Ryan Lefers, CEO of Red Sea Farms.
Photo: KAUST

Red Sea Farms was co-founded in 2018 by agritech expert Ryan Lefers, now CEO of the company, and KAUST professor Mark Tester, world-renowned plant scientist and associate director of the KAUST Center for Desert Agriculture (CDA). The company specializes in the development and production of salt-tolerant vegetables and greenhouse technology to provide a more sustainable way of producing food in harsh climatic regions such as the Middle East by growing food with saltwater, rather than freshwater, as the primary input.

Their proprietary technology, which brings together world-leading plant science, sustainable cooling, light and energy management, and artificial intelligence, reduces freshwater consumption by 85-90%. RSF's saltwater-based systems can be quickly and easily scaled in challenging climates where conventional farming methods are not possible or cost-effective.

RSF initially sold tomatoes grown in its saltwater pilot greenhouse at the KAUST Research & Technology Park to local supermarkets. With the help of investors, its operations have grown rapidly. In April 2022, RSF received a venture capital injection of $18.5 million from Saudi, Middle Eastern and US investors to help turbocharge its growth and further commercialize its one-of-a-kind farming solution. This follows a successful $16.5 million funding round last year, with both rounds being oversubscribed, highlighting the investor appetite for locally inspired farming solutions that can increase food production in water-scarce regions.

The drive was co-led by Wa'ed, the venture capital armd of Aramco , and the Savola Group, the foremost strategic investment holding group in MENA (Middle East and North Africa) food and retail. The KAUST Innovation Fund, onne of RSF's original investors, also participated in the round, along with OlsonUbben, a US-based investment firm.

Wa'ed Managing Director Fahad Alidi said, "Red Sea Farms has developed a truly innovative and sustainable business model that not only addresses a global issue around food security and limited agricultural resources, but also is relevant for the region."

Sustainable partnerships

Red Sea Farms recently completed construction of a commercial-scale, 6-hectare technology retrofit site near Riyadh and an R&D facility on KAUST's campus. The next step is to commercialize its technology across the region and globally. It plans to grow its fresh produce business in countries within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), and support agricultural innovation in the region through partnerships with United Arab Emirates-based agritechs, while also expanding its footprint in new markets such as North America. RSF recently announced its expansion into the United States.

Red Sea Farms R&D facility on KAUST campus. Photo: KAUST

To have such esteemed investors believe in our vision is hugely validating and a testament to our business model and strategy," Lefers said. We're excited to continue on our mission to address the reliance on freshwater consumption in food production and improve food security.

RSF remains committed to further developing sustainable food supply chains in the Kingdom. It is also currently building an indoor pilot farm to sustainably feed guests and residents as part of an agreement with The Red Sea Development Company, the developer behind the world's most ambitious regenerative tourism project. The indoor farm will produce a diverse range of fresh leafy greens, herbs, vine crops, vegetables and fruit. Following the pilot, RSF will have the option of expanding the farm to up to 100 hectares, which would make it the largest sustainable farm of its kind in the world.

"Sourcing from sustainable fruit and vegetables makes a significant environmental impact. If all tomatoes consumed annually in Saudi Arabia were grown with Red Sea Farms' cooling technology, 80,500 tons of CO2 emissions would be saved; the equivalent of over 3,000 flights from Riyadh to Dubai," said Simon Roopchand, CEO RSF Middle East.

Partnerships such as SAUDIA and the Red Sea Development Company are emblematic of the rapid operational progress made by Red Sea Farms to date, and its commitment to actively reduce the carbon and freshwater footprint of the KSA food sector. With strong financial backing and partnerships with high-profile Saudi businesses already underway, Red Sea Farms is a sustainable food business with room to grow.