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Saudi Greenhouses goes Dutch to elevate sustainable farming

Plantlab CEO Eelco Ockers
Plantlab CEO Eelco Ockers
  • The Netherlands’ Plantlab signs £325m deal
  • Plans to build at least 10 indoor farms in Mena region
  • The Gulf has historically imported up to 90% of its food

Dutch indoor agriculture outfit Plantlab has committed to invest up to €300 million ($325 million) in the Middle East and North Africa to help support the region’s sustainable farming ambitions.

Plantlab aims to build a minimum of 10 indoor farms over the next three to five years in partnership with Saudi Greenhouses.

The first location, a 15,000 sq m farm based outside the Saudi capital Riyadh, will produce various leafy greens and is set to open in the first quarter of 2024.

“What we are always looking at is where are the best opportunities in the market to develop the business, where there’s room for innovation, a lack of water and a focus on sustainability,” Eelco Ockers, CEO of Plantlab, said. “The Gulf region is obviously one that pops up there.

“Saudi Arabia is the biggest market, but we also have the ambition to expand to the other markets.”

This includes moving “pretty rapidly” into Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Qatar, followed by Egypt, he added.

Plantlab currently operates two farms in Amsterdam and Indianapolis and also has a small unit operating in the Bahamas with a local partner.

The company’s farming method involves no fungicides or pesticides. It says its crops grow to their full potential through the use of controlled temperature, moisture and light, while 95 percent less water is required. 

Light comes from specially developed LEDs, which give the specific colour of light that the plant needs for photosynthesis.

“What we are growing at the start is leafy greens, so all kinds of salads, in the first farm” Ockers said. “That’s the focus because that’s where the market lies at the moment.”

He said the initial development in Riyadh will create up to 50 jobs. The completed 10 farms are intended to employ 300 to 500 people, and “over time” produce will be sold to European markets.

“This is why the Middle East is a region with a significant focus on research on how to manage less water in the most productive way.”

Mohammed Al Rasheed, CEO of Saudi Greenhouses, said the collaboration would “greatly increase” food security in the region.

Constrained by arid soils, scarce water resources and searing temperatures, the Gulf has historically imported around 90 percent of its food. 

However, concerns about the impact of climate change on agriculture – coupled with the pandemic-induced supply chain crisis and the war in Ukraine – have forced governments to rethink their food security strategies.

The GCC has embarked upon multi-billion-dollar research and development projects to develop technology to drive increased food production.

Martin Keulertz, adjunct assistant professor at the American University of Beirut and lecturer in environmental management at the University of the West of England, Bristol, said: “Nearly all Arab citizens now feel water scarcity.

Saudi Greenhouses was established in 1987 with eight hectares of glass greenhouses at Al-Kharj. It now oversees more than 75 hectares of greenhouses throughout the kingdom and its products are sold across the world.