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Hydroponics allows family to become first Saudi tomato exporter

Adult, Male, Man tomatoes hydroponics Saudi Arabia Dava agriculture Dava
Middle-class European consumers are prepared to pay a premium for well-packaged, pesticide-free products
  • Water technology is economically viable
  • Saudi family becomes first exporter
  • Europe is lucrative market

A family company has become the first exporter of tomatoes from Saudi Arabia, thanks to drip irrigation, which has made sending fruit and vegetables from the Gulf to lucrative European markets economically viable. 

Dava, a private company set up by the Batal family in 2017, began exporting various types of tomato and “snack peppers” – small sweet peppers – in February, in a partnership with Lehmann & Troost, a Dutch trading enterprise. 

The company intends to broaden its export offering over the coming year to include mushrooms, strawberries, cucumber, lettuce, spinach and herbs.

The company grows its tomatoes in hydroponic greenhouses in the Al-Kharj oasis south of Riyadh which use far less water than soil-based systems. 

Hydroponics is the technique of growing plants using a water-based nutrient solution rather than soil. Drip irrigation is an active hydroponic system which means it uses a pump to feed plants with nutrients and water regularly.

The relatively low water usage means that the government has allowed Dava to export products such as tomatoes that are in surplus in Saudi Arabia during winter because of a plethora of small local producers. Dava has also had help from the government’s export agency. 

“The hydroponic projects save around 80 percent of the water used in open fields,” said Wissam Abdel Samad, Dava’s chief commercial officer. He said the project relies on seeds, fertilisers and bumble bees for pollination, all of which are mainly imported from Europe. 

Hydroponics is expensive. But markets such as the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark are financially viable as export destinations for products such as tomatoes from Saudi Arabia because food there is generally priced higher than elsewhere, especially with global price inflation, agriculture experts said. Middle-class European consumers are prepared to pay a premium for well-packaged, pesticide-free products. 

Abdel Samad said Dava put down an initial investment of SAR1 billion ($270,000) and hopes to recoup it within a decade. But the company could carry out an initial public offering within two to three years, he said.  

We export only in winter, when the market is full

Wissam Abdel Samad, Dava

In 2021 National Agricultural Development, which is listed on the Tadawul, the main Saudi stock exchange, was reported to be in talks to acquire Dava or some of its assets, but no deal resulted. 

“We have self-sufficiency in some products, but for others the gap is just the summer. So what we do is export only in winter, when the market is full,” Abdel Samad said.

Dava plans to have 200 hectares of greenhouses over the next five years, up from around 107 hectares now, growing vegetables including courgettes and aubergines. 

The company’s success in creating the first mass production, high quality agricultural products has attracted the attention of the Public Investment Fund and its lead giga-project, Neom, which has a unit dedicated to food security. Dava is in talks with Neom about projects there.

Dava is an example of food security attained domestically. Some major Saudi businesses that have bought or leased land abroad have run foul of local laws and resentment over foreign use of resources. 

“People always ask me, how can desert Saudi Arabia export to Europe? We say, why not?” Abdel Samad said. 

“We have a major project with high technology from around the world, we have partnerships with some of the biggest companies for seeds and fertilisers and we have a highly trained team from all over the world, not only Saudis.”

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