Shaping The Saudi Arabian Diet With Greenhouses

Image sourced from Mishkat

Image sourced from Mishkat


Editor’s note: The following information is derived from an interview Agritecture conducted with Tarik Bushnak, VP of Mishkat

Over the past few decades the Middle East has been holding its ground as a symbol of innovation and design for the modern world. Being at the forefront of technological innovation, the Middle Eastern landscape has been rapidly changing, transitioning from being sleepy gulf ports to world-famous tourist destinations and business crossroads. 

Innovation and technological development have been integral to Saudi Arabia's long-term vision since the very beginning. According to Tarik Bushnak, VP of Mishkat, “part of Saudi Arabia’s vision for 2030 is reshaping and upgrading various sectors of the local economy. Agriculture is one of these sectors. This is a challenging sector to transform” given the climatic restrictions in the region. 

Image sourced from Mishkat

Image sourced from Mishkat

With Jeddah’s population growing exponentially, food is critical to the Saudi economy, and as a result, so is agriculture. But, how are Jeddah and Saudi Arabia supposed to support their growing populations with numerous problems limiting them? Tarik adds that “agriculture consumes more of our fresh groundwater every year, and that water doesn’t get replenished. We live in an arid, humid climate with little to no rainfall and have traditionally relied on fishing and trade to get our food. We import 90% of our food here, with vegetables and fruit coming from places as far away as Latin America.”

Partnering For A Food Revolution

Seeing this unique market opportunity, Tarik thought to himself, “if we can grow imported vegetables locally and if we can do it more sustainably, using less water and less pesticides, we can provide a fresher, healthier and more transparent food experience to local food consumers.” 

With a little research, he discovered that this was actually possible. Now, the challenge was to turn this possibility into a viable business opportunity. Urban agriculture “is a really big field, and so, even though we had heard about companies like Gotham Greens and AeroFarms, we didn’t know what would work best in Saudi Arabia.” 

With most agricultural companies in the region either farming traditionally, or kickstarting industrial scale vertical farming projects, the founding members of Mishkat wanted to “do agriculture differently.” Meat and fish being a huge part of the Saudi Arabian diet, Tarik comments that the team wanted to shift focus from “growing food for cows and sheep, to focusing on growing for humans.” He adds that “here in Saudi Arabia, we have consumed hundreds of years worth of precious groundwater reserves in under 60 years” due to unregulated water consumption for alfalfa, wheat, and animal feed products. 

Image sourced from Mishkat

Image sourced from Mishkat

In order to tackle these challenges and help the Mishkat team figure out their next steps, KPMG recommended Agritecture. The founding members met with Agritecture’s Founder & CEO, Henry Gordon-Smith, and organized a workshop in Jeddah. Tarik shares that this workshop acted like a “giant brainstorming session for Mishkat,” since “Agritecture brought together people from different fields, working towards the same goal.”

Eventually, Sukna Ventures, a small venture capital firm based in Jeddah, decided to partner with Agritecture, the leading urban agricultural consultancy, to establish Mishkat, Saudi Arabia’s self-sustaining market for local and modern agriculture. Tarik comments that “Agritecture was open to tailoring the solution for us, rather than imposing specific technologies or crops on us.” 

This partnership allowed the Sukna team to learn the means through which to empower young entrepreneurs and next-gen farmers in the region. Agritecture’s expertise in balancing agriculture within the urban context aided the Mishkat team in finessing their technical training, strategic networks, and business planning skills. Tarik adds that Agritecture helped Mishkat realize that large-scale vertical farming was not the best suited option for them, and additionally helped “figure out the right metrics for the project - energy footprint, logistics, labor concerns, LED needs, water needs, and farm management.” The end-result was a farm that took advantage of the plentiful sunlight in the region, and adapted hydroponics to produce “organic and pesticide-free produce an hour out of the city rather than 16 hours away.”

Image sourced from Mishkat

Image sourced from Mishkat

Bringing The Agricultural Education To Life

Taking this education and agricultural expertise forward, the Mishkat team decided to try their hand at reducing the distance between farm and fork in Jeddah. Tarik comments that “we understood that many people were weary of local products. They wanted more variety, more nutritious options, and possibly more transparency in the local supply chain.” 

Seeing this conflict between local produce and fresh nutritious produce, Mishkat decided to start establishing small scale smart farms near large urban areas. They established their market by sourcing some of the produce from their own farms, and sourcing the rest from reliable farms in the region. This creation of a local food label not only supports local farmers working to thrive in such a difficult climate, it also conveys the strength of local produce, convincing residents to value local produce over imported produce. 

Mishkat established in-person sales outlets and an online portal from which customers could buy their fresh produce. They worked to “develop and market food products that are more nutritious, authentic and trusted at the lowest possible footprint while being sustainable, safe, healthy and wonderful to eat.” 

The Present & Future of Mishkat

At present, Mishkat is still in its early stages. Tarik comments that “with the help of Sukna, we were able to secure seed funding in 2019. Since then, we’ve been busy building our first tech-friendly greenhouse on our first pilot farm.”

The team has set up a unique greenhouse, aiming to set a benchmark for what agriculture can look like in Saudi Arabia. “It’s nearly 5000 square meters or a little more than an acre. The design and cooling system was supplied by our friends at Red Sea Farms. The greenhouse is divided into three sections, each one showcasing a different type of hydroponic system including one small vertical farm.”

In setting up this revolutionary idea, the Mishkat team came across several challenges, especially aggravated by the global pandemic. “Now we are in the final stages of commissioning the greenhouse and we aim to start full production in the second half of 2021. We plan to grow more than 20 varieties of leafy greens, microgreens, and tomatoes that are usually imported from abroad.” Through this means, Mishkat is redefining what food and food production means to locals in Jeddah, providing them with fresher and healthier food options.

As for the future of Mishkat, the next steps involve focusing on developing a food brand. They aim to do this by “building our staff, launching our first sales outlet, developing our online platform, and gaining traction through sales,” says Tarik. The team hopes to launch their first fully-operational premium vegetable and fruit store in the summer of 2021. Keep a lookout for Mishkat’s store and follow them for more updates.


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