This interview details RedSea, an agriculture science and technology company based in Saudi Arabia. The interview is with Mark A. Tester, CSO & Co-Founder of RedSea.
What is the origin story of RedSea?
RedSea started as a collaboration between three passionate academics at KAUST.
Professor Mark Tester, the leading Plant Scientist, Professor Derya Baran, a leading Materials Scientist and Dr. Ryan Lefers, a specialist in water conservation in farming combined their extensive experience and knowledge to address a growing world challenge of how to feed a growing world population while mitigating the impact of climate change.
They realized that by bringing together their complementary skills, they could develop a suite of solutions that could transform agriculture in arid and high-heat environments, enabling and empowering subsistence farmers to cultivate in inhospitable climates by reducing the risks of crop failure and offering greater reliability of successful farming.
With their vision of Feeding the World Sustainably they created a start-up enterprise focused on developing adaptive solutions for low to mid-tech farmers in hot climates - that would use less water and energy, and offer more robust dependable crops: opening up farming opportunities in regions where cultivation is challenging and hard.
Looking at the process of farming, literally from the roof to the roots, they focused on problems such as removing the damaging heat that stunts crop growth, how to use less water in cultivation and developing seeds and rootstocks that are more robust to salt, heat, and drought conditions.
With the backing of a number of seed investors, technologies on which they had been working for many years were honed, extensively tested in a trial farm and when these technologies were proven, commercialized.
The company, then known as Red Sea Farms, harvested crops that were sold in the Saudi market, however, the intention was always to focus on developing enabling technologies for farmers, rather than become a major produce supplier.
RedSea, as the company is now known, is an AgriClimate Technology company specializing in hot climate agriculture.
What are some of the biggest challenges facing RedSea in the future?
RedSea is addressing one of the biggest existential challenges that the world faces today. How will it be possible to feed a growing population sustainably? With the global population expected to reach 10 billion by 2050, food security is an increasingly important global challenge. Fresh water resources are becoming increasingly scarce and climate change is increasing the challenges of cultivation in areas that were once abundant and fertile.
1% of humanity feeds 99% of the population, and within that 1%, 70% of the farmers are subsistence farmers, using low- or mid-tech solutions to grow their produce.
These are the challenges that RedSea faces. Our mission is to continue to develop technologies and solutions that provide these farmers with the tools that they need and will need to meet these challenges.
Our aim is to bring high technology products to the farming community that are easily accessible, both technologically and financially. These solutions should have an immediate impact on the farming community so that a farmer can see a return on investment in any RedSea product within a single crop season. We also believe that these products must be easy to implement.
A great example of this is our Iyris SecondSky greenhouse roofs. This is an award-winning innovative greenhouse roofing material that blocks infrared heat radiation (potentially damaging to plants) from entering the greenhouse. This results in immediate climate changes inside the controlled environment, resulting in water and energy savings for the farmer, as well as improved crop quality, yield and an extension of their possible growing season. The technology in that material is leading edge materials science. For the farmer, however, it is simply a case of using this new covering when they replace their old roof. It is installed in exactly the same way as the old roof, requires no new techniques or equipment, and can be done by the same people that the farmer has worked with for years.
It’s the same with our rootstocks. It does not make sense for a company to try to create a new type of tomato, as the market already has a favorite look and taste. Instead, we have focused on developing stronger rootstocks for the plants. Having a more robust and reliable root system for the crop, onto which we can graft a scion (fruit bearing plant), the farmers have much less risk in cultivating. We do all the hard work of growing the rootstock from seeds and where needed grafting the scion to that root - the farmer simply has to plant the seedling and get the benefits.
What is unique about RedSea compared to competitors?
RedSea is unique in its focus on AgriClimate Technology for hot climate agriculture. That focus allows our technology to be relevant and reliable in harsh climates - and for the future world with climate change. Instead of adapting our technology to the climate, as many other companies attempt, everything we do has been developed and tested in harsh heat conditions.
Additionally, RedSea technologies are targeted at low to mid-tech farmers, making them accessible financially and technologically to the majority of farmers, not just a small group that can afford to invest in the most advanced solutions.
Delivering products that payback for the investment within a single crop season is also quite a different approach to many of the companies working in this space.
While we hold 19 patents across the technology stack, and we are using very advanced science, the commercial reality of farming is that the growers are looking for technology that is cheap, low risk, easy to implement and shows quick results. The risks of something going wrong with a season’s crop are very real for the growers, and we are working to reduce their risk with affordable solutions.
Take for instance our Coretex monitoring platform. The sensors collect multiple data points, similar to those of the competitors and are delivered at around 20% of the unit cost of comparable systems. We’ve developed a wireless version, because we know that for some farms, connectivity is a problem, or they simply cannot afford to hard wire the system.
At the heart of everything we do, sustainability is critical. That’s not just about the impact on the physical environment, it’s also about the ability of the growers to generate more sustainable profitability.
What is the current size of your growing area?
RedSea is not a grower, we are a technology provider. We have a 1 ha showcase farm CACTUS in Al Ain, UAE and some additional small trial sites. Our client base, which covers many hundreds or thousands of hectares, is present in 12 countries across 5 continents.
Do you use CO2 in your operation today -- if so, how much and what do you pay for it? What are your thoughts on CO2 usage in indoor farms?
Our trial farms, which are controlled environment agriculture facilities, do not use CO2. Use of CO2 is fine when in a hi-tech greenhouse, and returns (per square meter of floor area) on large capex investments need to be made as quickly as possible - however, this is not required for much of the planet, it is often neither necessary nor appropriate.
Energy is a big topic in indoor farming right now. How much do you pay for electricity (kWh)? Is it mainly from the grid or renewables?
At the farms we operate, we pay the commercial rate for electricity. In CACTUS, we have installed a solar array that will supply 30% of the daytime power needs of the farm.
Energy saving is a key metric on which we measure the effectiveness of our technology. Through use of the RedSea solution platform, we have seen farms that save up to 40% on their energy charges. This is created from a number of areas, such as reduced needs for irrigation or use of cooling pads, the absence of reverse osmosis plants (as our SWEC system operates using well water - even if it is salty), and efficiencies that we are able to achieve by understanding the data points across the farm more effectively.
Installation of an Iyris SecondSky roof is the single most important decision a farmer who is worried about energy costs can make. Using this passive cooling technology, farmers benefit from high levels of photosynthetic active radiation without suffering from the near infrared radiation heat that would normally occur. This gives plants a higher daily light index (DLI) as the need for shade screens is reduced without having to compensate through higher cooling costs during the day.
How can people connect with you or learn more about Red Sea Farms?
Take a look at our websites:
Or drop a line to firstname.lastname@example.org
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