March 28, 2018
How Social Enterprises are Boosting the Agriculture Sector in Lebanon
SoUK.LB enterprises have identified key challenges faced by Lebanese rural farmers. Their collaborative efforts have brought about new products and diversified new sales channels. Farmers can now expand their reach in Lebanon and beyond, and be more efficient in production. –Dana Abou Shackra, SoUK.LB Program Developer
Lebanon is home to fertile land, a moderate climate, and abundant fresh and saltwater. This gives Lebanon a competitive advantage over regional neighbors, putting it at the forefront when it comes to proportion of agricultural land. Agriculture in Lebanon represents 3.5 percent of GDP and employs nearly 6 percent of the workforce. Key agricultural products include fruits (mainly apples, oranges, bananas and grapes, and olives) which account for 31 percent of total agricultural production, and vegetables (primarily potatoes, tomatoes and maize) which account for 63% of total production. Around 20 to 25 percent of the active population has some activity in agriculture on a full time or part time basis. In the poorest regions of the country such as in Akkar, Dinnyeh, the Northern Bekaa and the South, agriculture-related activities account for up to 80 percent of the local GDP. The livelihood of farmers in Lebanon is low. Farmers frequently face pest issues, weather changes, and limitations in access to markets abroad. The 2015 Food Security and Livelihoods Assessment revealed that more than 10 percent of the Lebanese households were vulnerable to food insecurity, mostly in the Akkar governorate.
The Syrian crisis has exacerbated conditions for agricultural workers, increasing the vulnerability of agriculture-based livelihoods in communities hosting Syrian refugees and weakening sustainability of natural resources. The crisis has also disrupted the agricultural market, due to the fact that farmers relied heavily on subsidized agricultural inputs from Syria, which are no longer available. The closed borders with Syria have also posed a significant challenge for Lebanese agricultural products to reach destinations in the Gulf, a major importer of Lebanese apples. This has resulted in sharp increase in the costs of agricultural production, hurting agricultural workers. The Government of Lebanon and its UN partners launched in 2014 the Lebanon Crisis Response Plan (LCRP) 2015–2016, which was revised and updated at the end of 2015. Under the LCRP, priority interventions were identified for the nine different sectors including the food security sector.
Very few startups, and even fewer social enterprises, are tapping into the agricultural potential of Lebanon, although momentum in this sector is increasing. Three of SoUK.LB startups are doing their part to help farmers in Lebanon and bring attention to the issues facing agricultural workers. I had the opportunity to sit down with the founders of all three, to talk about how their enterprises are doing their part to expand opportunities for farmers in Lebanon.
Caesar Cider is a cider-production enterprise that makes cider using apple juice and apple waste, helping farmers who produce apples but can no longer afford to export them. As a result of the high costs of picking and storage and the rise in prices, many farmers simply left apples on the ground to rot. This led to the Lebanese “apple crisis” that spanned from 2012-2015, which culminated in widespread protests in 2016, when farmers took to the streets to demand government action. Founder of Caesar Cider, Nassim Njeim, started the enterprise after discovering cider abroad and being a witness to the ongoing challenges faced by apple farmers in Lebanon. Today, Caesar Cider has brewed over 2,000 liters of cider in collaboration with over 170 farmers in two agriculture cooperatives in the north of the country, providing farmers with the opportunity to sell their waste and juice that does not go to market. Caeser Cider is sold in six venues in Lebanon that profile artisanal and local products, including the Badaro Farmers Market.
“180,000 farmers are engaged in the apple sector in Lebanon, so there are a lot of farmers to work with. We want to reach these farmers to give them a higher economic return from apple waste.”—Nassim Njeim
Social Enterprise FreeKey is also working with farmers to try and profile and expand the market for freekeh (pronounced free kee). The enterprise makes and sells snacks made with freekeh sourced from local farmers in Lebanon. freekeh is a wheat harvested while young and green and then roasted over an open fire. The grain on the inside is too young and moist to burn, so what you're left with a chewy and flavorful grain. freekeh has known health benefits; freekeh is a high-fiber grain rich in micronutrients, and it is versatile so can be combined with other foods, added to meals, or eaten on its own. FreeKey estimates that in the coming years, freekeh products have the potential to hit the same level of demand as quinoa or other healthy grains.
The founder of FreeKey, Maria Achkar, chose to start the enterprise because freekeh is native to the Levant and locally grown in Lebanon. In fact, freekeh reportedly was discovered after attackers set fire to a green wheat field in Syria in 2300 B.C. A Lebanon industry value chain project by USAID in 2017 supported the freekeh value chain through technical assistance, and helped freekeh farmers reach international safety standards. This provided an opportune moment for Achkar to start Freekey, going directly to Lebanese farmers to buy the grains and make and sell FreeKey snacks that can be consumed easily. FreeKey currently works with two cooperatives in Lebanon, one that is a female cooperative in the south and another in Dar el Ahmar. Achkar has been working with farmers to better understand the benefits of and economic potential for planting freekeh (Lebanese soil is suitable for hard wheat, like freekeh, to grow). FreeKey currently sells products in local stores and gas stations. Over the next year, the enterprise will expand its cooperative partnerships and hopes to market other types of snacks that use locally sourced honey and molasses.
“We need to be the leaders for freekeh. This is our grain.”—Maria Achkar
Souk El-Tayeb is among the more established social enterprises in Lebanon and the first farmers market in Beirut. Souk el-Tayeb was created in 2004 to coordinate a space for farmers to sell their products directly to customers and preserve the food traditions and sustainable agriculture in Lebanon. Since then, it has grown into an established social enterprise that coordinates a weekly farmers market (Souk El-Tayeb), a restaurant with farmer chefs that rotate (Tawlet), a private label food product (Dekenet), regional food festivals, and educational activities. Tawlet is the first farmer’s kitchen in Lebanon that hosts female chefs from different villages through the country. Tawlet covers the cost of transportation for the women and only stays open from 1-4pm in the day, so that women can return safely home by nighttime. A newly launched Beit is a bed and breakfast and will help promote local eco tourism in Lebanon. Through all of these projects, Souk el-Tayeb has been able to help over 600 individuals, including women, farmers, and those who sell their products at Souk El-Tayeb venues.
Manager and founder of Tawlet, Christine Codsi noted that projects like Souk el-Tayeb help organic famers overcome key challenges in accessing markets. Souk el-Tayeb branches connect customers who have purchasing power to the artisans or chefs from villages that would have been unable to sell their products otherwise. By providing venues for artisans and farmers to sell products directly to customers, Souk El-Tayeb is also enabling women and underprivileged persons, including refugees, in Lebanon to find work and become financially empowered.
“We have a huge treasure in Lebanon; the land is so fertile and it’s a pity for big industrialists to benefit and not those in small-scale markets.”—Christine Codsi
With regard to support for social enterprises or even startups focusing on agriculture, few other programs in Lebanon support enterprises with a product-based agricultural enterprise. SoUK.LB has emerged as a pioneer for social enterprises who wish to enter this sector.
“SoUK.LB helped us speed up the process for Dekenet and launch these products in our venues.”—Christine Codsi
“SoUK.LB helped us with our branding. We want to be able to compete with other snack brands. If we want to launch and be the leaders in this field, we really have to focus on our brand.”—Maria Achkar
“The SoUK.LB grant and program was a great push for me, given the challenging startup environment in Lebanon that was hindering me from growth.”—Nassim Njeim