How does his garden grow? Sustainably, in the desert

Updated 04 June 2018

How does his garden grow? Sustainably, in the desert

  • Saudi farmer Omar Al-Jundi has built the region’s first vertical farm in Dubai with plans for Jeddah in 2020
  • The team of Badia Farms, which he founded in Al Quoz in December last year, consists of 12 people, all of whom have experience in farming.

DUBAI: Omar Al-Jundi is not your average Saudi Arabian farmer. In fact, he is not even related to farming by degree. But that is exactly where the industrial engineer found his calling, when he built the region’s first vertical farm in the heart of Dubai.
Born in Egypt to Saudi parents, Al-Jundi spent his early years in Alkhobar due to his father’s engineering firm.
The family moved to Jeddah when he was 12 years old. His last two years of schooling were spent at Bahrain School in Manama. “I wanted to graduate with an American high school diploma,” Al-Jundi said. “At the time, as a Saudi, you couldn’t attend private foreign schools.”
Upon graduation, he left the region to study industrial engineering, followed by an MBA at the University of Miami in Florida. Although his father is an engineer and his mother an architect, Al Jundi delved into the world of banking for two and a half years when he moved back to Jeddah upon graduating.
“I then shifted to the hospitality industry, opened the first lounge in Jeddah along with other restaurants with my friends, and ended up selling my share and joining my father’s company,” he said. “You learn that you’re better off doing something on your own than having partners because you end up changing directions.”
After 10 years of “paying his dues” in the family business, he felt compelled to change directions. “As an Arab, you’re always closely tied to the family,” he said. “We’re blessed my father started a business and there’s a place for us in that business, but luckily, my younger brother was a lot more interested in it — I always felt my calling was somewhere else.”
In search of his true passion, he started his journey as an entrepreneur. The field he specialized in had yet to be determined. “I felt that there was a meaning for something else,” Al-Jundi said. “I was free and my family was very supportive.”
Countless research and books later, he became intrigued by the tech space, admitting he believed he would start the next Amazon. “That didn’t follow through,” he said. “Then I thought it would be in mining, but I always looked for something that was away from my comfort zone such as engineering, contracting, real estate and consulting. Just something different. It was a process.”
The young Saudi had reached a point in his life where he felt the need to do something impactful, something which added true value to the region. Eventually, two of his friends introduced him to the concept of modern farming. “I visited some orange farms in Egypt and I was in exploration research mode,” he said. “I enjoyed seeing nature — you’re a lot more relaxed. Here, when you go in and see the plants growing every day, there’s definitely a connection, because you’re seeing the end product, you’re feeling it, and I connect to them.”
The more research he immersed himself in, the more driven his interest became. At the time, the Saudi Government was focused on addressing food security and self-sufficiency. “It’s always been a big topic,” he said. “When you fly out of Riyadh, you find these big circular green spots as they’re trying to green and farm the desert, which was successful, but on the other hand, it depleted our water resources.”
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, agriculture represents around 70 per cent of water consumption in most of the GCC countries. But Al-Jundi did not give up on the thought.
After moving to Dubai in 2014, he learned about King Abdullah’s Initiative for Saudi Agricultural Investment Abroad. Half the capital needed for agricultural projects was offered to Saudis who invested in a list of 31 countries abroad to purchase land, set up a project and export the food back to the Kingdom. It gave him an idea to start his own vertical farm. “I knew it was a big topic,” he said. “I’d never heard we could grow food with no soil. I thought it was intriguing and fascinating. It was enough for me to know there was something there to explore it further.”
With more than 90 per cent of the region’s land unsuitable for agriculture, Al-Jundi set out to find a solution. He spent the following 12 weeks taking courses in aquaponics, aquaculture, hydroponics and horticulture in California and the Netherlands. He even spent time working in a cucumber greenhouse at the Delphy facility in Holland, where he acquired valuable experience in the field. “It was really professional and a great learning experience,” he said. “That’s when I knew what I wanted to do. And I knew I had to completely immerse myself in it.”
The team of Badia Farms, which he founded in Al Quoz in December last year, consists of 12 people, all of whom have experience in farming. “It took 18 months to get it up and running because we didn’t work with any technical partner,” Al-Jundi said. “I knew I was in it for the long haul, so I worked with different growers and learned.”
The 850-square-meter facility includes a “fertigation” room, which fertilizes and irrigates the 18 varieties of crops he currently grows. Gourmet seeds, some of them hybrids, such as lemon basil, cinnamon kale, wasabi, green radish, mustard, micro kale, edible flowers and cinnamon basil, are flown in from the United Kingdom and the United States every three months — from 50 to 300 kilograms at a time. The farm plans on introducing as many as 26 varieties, including sunflowers.
The seeds are placed on a type of mat made of recycled carpet that is food-certified. LED lights flood the room in a pink atmosphere, with each UV light containing a certain spectrum that is beneficial for the plants.
In the tank room, feed and water is scheduled through a computer based on the crop, with a unique nutrient recipe for each type, including potassium, calcium, magnesium and ammonium. UV and concentrated oxygen are also able to kill any potential bacteria or pathogens in the recycled water.
Once the seeds sprout, they are moved to the five stacks in the vertical farm. Four dehumidifiers regulate the humidity in the air, providing each on average with 70 litres of water a day. The eco-system created by Badia Farms uses 90 per cent less water than open field farming and recycles its water up to nine times.
“We’re using hydroponics,” Al- Jundi said. “The biggest advantage is that we do not spray pesticides, which are messing up our health. In fact, we extensively use stickers to attract insects away from the crops.”
Different levels of lighting are provided for each stage of the plants, before they are sent out as they were grown. “They’re intense in flavor and it’s the freshest you can get that way,” he said. “My personal favourite is chocolate mint.”
With 60 clients so far, serving hotels, restaurants and cafes, the model is a first for the region, which made it challenging to set up. “All the ones abroad are designed for different climatic conditions so none of them are applicable here, where there is extreme humidity and high temperatures,” he said. “And to convince a chef to give you his time, when you don’t have the track record, was a big challenge. I wasn’t a known farmer yet.”
The system’s structure was manufactured in Riyadh, with a plan to set up the next facility by 2020 in Jeddah. Until then, the plan is to cater to Saudi as well as the UAE. “Dubai is a good testing ground and Saudi’s vision now is to support our type of sustainable growing and ecological farms, so it’s perfectly in line with what we want to do,” Al-Jundi said. “The government is now delegated to move into sustainable growing and find viable solutions to address self-sufficiency, so it’s not a slogan anymore: it’s the real deal.”
He hopes to develop similar projects across the Kingdom in the future. “My aim is to make sure we truly become self-sufficient,” he said. “Vertical farming is one solution but it’s not the full one — the ideal solution lies in all models of modern farming. What’s close to my heart is giving people healthy food while preserving our resources, and I believe the new generations of Saudis are ambitious and want to evolve our country. We were just waiting for the opportunity and it has finally come.”

Photo exhibition recalls 90 years of Saudi-Lebanon ties

Updated 42 min 4 sec ago

Photo exhibition recalls 90 years of Saudi-Lebanon ties

  • Thousands of photos on display
  • Ties ‘rooted’ in history, says Kingdom’s ambassador

BEIRUT: Saudi Arabia’s Ambassador to Lebanon Walid Bukhari and Lebanon’s Minister of Information Minister of Information Jamal Jarrah on Monday inaugurated a photography exhibition celebrating 90 years of bilateral relations.

The King Abdul Aziz Foundation for Research and Archives and the Abdulaziz Saud Al-Babtain Cultural Foundation provided the embassy in Lebanon with historical documents and photos for the exhibition, which was launched on World Photography Day. Some of the material dates back more than 90 years.

Bukhari said the exhibition’s content proved that the countries’ relations were rooted in history and recalled the words of King Abdul Aziz bin Abdulrahman, who said: “Lebanon is part of us. I protect its independence myself and will not allow anything to harm it.”

Jarrah, who was representing Prime Minister Saad Hariri, said: “We need this Arab embrace in light of the attacks targeting the Arab region and we still need the Kingdom’s support for Lebanon’s stability, because Lebanon is truly the center from which Arabism originated.”

The exhibition starts with a document appointing Mohammed Eid Al-Rawaf as the Kingdom’s consul in Syria and Lebanon. It was signed by King Abdul Aziz bin Abdulrahman Al-Faisal Al-Saud in 1930 and states that the consul’s residence is in Damascus and that his mission is to “promote Saudi merchants, care for their affairs and assist them with their legal and commercial interests.”

Black and white pictures summarize milestones in the development of bilateral relations, while others depict key visits and meetings between leaders and dignitaries.

“The exhibition demanded great efforts because the pieces were not found at one single location,” former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora told Arab News. “Circulating this activity in the Kingdom’s embassies in numerous countries is a great step and has pushed the Lebanese Ministry of Information to benefit from this archive. The Lebanese people remember the important positions the Kingdom has taken over the year to support their independence and sovereignty and in hard times.”

Lebanon, particularly Beirut, is a hit with Saudi travelers although the Kingdom had been advising citizens since 2011 to avoid the country, citing Hezbollah’s influence and instability from the war in neighboring Syria. 

But the easing of restrictions since February has led to a surge in Saudis heading to Lebanon.

Riyadh earlier this year released $1 billion in funding and pledged to boost Lebanon’s struggling economy. Another sign of warming ties was an anniversary event marking the 2005 assassination of Hariri’s father that featured Saudi Royal Court adviser Nizar Al-Aloula as a keynote speaker.

“The exhibition highlights the unique model of Lebanese-Arab relations that should be taught in diplomatic institutes, starting with the Lebanese Foreign Ministry,” former minister Marwan Hamadeh told Arab News. “Over the course of 90 years, we have had brotherly ties and political support for independence, freedom, growth, economy and culture and then the Taif Accord (which ended the Lebanese Civil War). Even after that, when Lebanon engaged in military adventures, the Kingdom was there to help with reconstruction and we are proud of these relations.”

Highlights include a recording of King Faisal telling President Charles Helou about the need to strengthen “brotherhood in the face of the aggression targeting our countries without respecting the sanctity of holy sites and international, human and moral norms to extend its influence not only in the region but across the world.”

There are also photos from a recent meeting that brought together King Salman, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Lebanese officials. 

An old broadcast recording can be heard saying that the “tragedy of the Lebanese civil war can only be ended by affirming the Lebanese legitimacy and preserving its independence and territorial integrity.”

The exhibition is on at Beit Beirut, which is located on what used to be the frontline that divided the city during the civil war.