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Farm workers Fuad Al Riyati and Mahmoud Al Shehab harvesting wild rocket in the shade of solar panels.

Sunlight and seawater: Growing food in the desert

Environmental consultant and photography: Klaus Thymann

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Using the power of the sun to turn salt water to fresh water, this futuristic farm in the desert in Jordan is showing that it’s possible to farm vegetables in the most unlikely of settings.

In one of the world’s driest places, water is flowing, and crops are growing.

Here in Aqaba on Jordan’s Red Sea coast, the desert farmers are at work. This is one of the world’s most water-poor countries – a place that imports 98% of its food – yet cucumbers, peppers and passion fruit are thriving.

food in the sahara desert
There aren’t many farms around here.
growing food in the desert
Growing vegetables from seed.
food in the desert seawater
Fuad Al Riyati and Mahmoud Al Shehab plant seedlings in one of the greenhouses.

It’s called the Sahara Forest Project, and it’s showing how farming can adapt to the challenges of climate change and water scarcity. And this futuristic farm is just getting started.

The whole place runs on sunlight and seawater. Solar panels provide power for a system that evaporates seawater, helping keep air in the greenhouses cool and humid, while also removing salt. Around the greenhouses, plants that can tolerate salt are grown in hedges to provide further cooling.

growing food in the desert only with sea water and sunlight
Pak choi seedlings are placed in rows to grow.
innovative ways to grow foods in the desert
This year’s main crop is snack cucumbers.
this food is grown in the sahara desert
Most of the cucumbers will be exported to Norway.

In the shadows of solar panels, crops grow that wouldn’t thrive in the harsh sunlight, such as herbs and salads. Farm workers pollinate plants by hand, and bring in wasps to provide natural pest control. Processes are being developed to turn waste products from the farm and other nearby businesses into fertiliser, so the farm enriches the soil rather than degrading it.

Kjetil Stake, managing director of the Sahara Forest Project, says that too often, land is destroyed to make food. “Our project is an example of how you can reverse that. Showing that it’s possible to produce food in a way which is good for the planet rather than bad for the planet.”

This year’s main crop is snack cucumbers, in preparation for a large shipment to Norway in the autumn. Past harvests include salads, sweet potatoes, beans and herbs. Sahara Forest vegetables have been served to passengers on Costa cruise ships.

The inside of a greenhouse before planting.

foods are hand pollinated in the desert

Plants at the farm are pollinated by hand.

the sun helps grow plant in the desert
Seawater is used to keep greenhouses cool and humid.
The plants on the left are sweet potatoes, which are well suited to the desert soil.

The story began in 2009 when the team behind the project got the chance to present their idea at the UN climate conference in Copenhagen. That led to an invitation from the King of Jordan, a pilot project in Qatar, and in 2016, construction of the Aqaba farm.

Now the desert farmers have proven that their idea works, the project is scaling up. A pipeline is being dug to replace the trucks that have been bringing the seawater, making it possible for the whole operation to absorb more carbon from the atmosphere than it puts in. The hope is to employ 200 people here in Aqaba, and to bring the system to more desert locations. A project is already underway in Tunisia, and Stake says “the whole of North Africa is an opportunity”. Backers of the project include the Norwegian government, the European Union and the Bellona Foundation, a Norwegian environmental NGO.

“What excites me is to show that it’s possible”

Kjetil Stake, Sahara Forest Project

There’s a social side to the project too, as the farm has helped to create jobs and, together with Al Hussein Technical University, provide training for young female engineers.

Stake says: “Climate scientists say we need a radical change in the way we produce food. And that is why we, over the last four years, have shown on the ground in Aqaba that it’s possible to do something about those challenges: using saltwater, deserts and CO2 to produce what we need more of: sustainable food, water and clean energy. What excites me is to show that it’s possible. I’m so tired of people saying, nothing is happening, it’s just problems, problems, problems. People believe what they hear, so if we can convey the message that it is possible, and it is commercially viable, then I think we can get that change much faster.”

Solar panels need to be regularly cleaned of dust to stay effective.

Passion fruits are among the many crops the farm has trialled.

farming in the desert
Planting moringa trees, which produce seed pods, roots and oil used in foods and dietary supplements.
water desert food
The farm is set to grow.

Photographer Klaus Thymann, who took these photos, said: “Even though the setting looks sci-fi, it’s a very lo-fi method. You don’t have to reinvent anything, you just have to apply it: solar power, desalination, and growing crops where there’s plenty of sunlight. What fascinates me are these kinds of solutions that we already have to hand, and that just need to be scaled. When it comes to the climate crisis, it’s important to focus on what we can do right now, as soon as possible. You hear people saying, ‘We just need to invent some future tech to solve this mess…’ Why not deploy what we have now?”

Learn more

Find out more at Sahara Forest Project’s own website

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