The four elements, earth, water, air, and fire, have been considered essential through the ages. Lebanon, however, cheekily adds a fifth: agriculture. Hence the company's name, 'Quinta.' In its feminine form, it means "fifth" in Latin. Why the feminine form? Could it have something to do with the fact that this top Lebanese horticultural inputs suppliers' management team consists entirely of women?
Ever since people stopped being nomads, agriculture and horticulture have been growers' domains. These days, in Lebanon and, by extension, the Middle East and North Africa, the Quinta Group assists these growers in every possible way. From supplying seeds, seedlings, irrigation solutions, fertilizers, biostimulants, substrate cultivation accessories, and greenhouse projects to advice and training. In other words, it is a one-stop shop for those who want to grow tomatoes, watermelons, or herbs. In recent years, the group started its own cultivation, not shying away from exports.
From greenhouse builder to nursery
Founded in 1971, the business boasts over 50 years of extensive horticultural experience. The company, renamed Robinson Agri in 2001 and then the Quinta Group in 2022, has made great strides, especially since the turn of the century. Some of the group's growth stages and achievements: in the first decade of the 21st century, they focused on expanding their nursery activities to specialize in grafted vegetable seedlings, including in the organic segment.
Grafting tomato stock for aubergines
The second decade saw the start of PE irrigation pipe production and substrate growing solutions (grow bags and NFT system). The group also committed to pursuing the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and was a founding member of the first Lebanese agrifood cluster (QOOT). Last year, the group shipped its first greenhouses to East and West Africa.
And its progress continues unabated. This year sees greening projects for its own energy supply, implementing ESG criteria, cooperation with research institutions, and plans for a new Horticulture Innovation Center in the north of the country.
After grafting, the plants are kept in a growth cell with high humidity
Seeds for the Mediterranean
But, back to the company's initial and core activity: propagating plant material, mainly vegetables, but also some flowers and herbs. "Almost all seeds come from the Netherlands. We always test to see if those plants will thrive in the Lebanese climate. We distinguish between greenhouse and open field cultivation and whether they'll be grown on the coast, in the Bekaa Valley, or another growing region, all with their climate and soil characteristics. Only after three years of extensive testing do we market the new varieties that meet those growing conditions. Even after that, we keep monitoring their performance with the growers," begins Katy El Sitt, Hydroponic & Seed Trials Manager.
The grafted plants are continuously monitored
She says the Bekaa Valley has few greenhouses, and most fruit and vegetables are grown in the open. "Its drier climate means fewer insects, bacteria, and fungi than on the coast. So, there's less need for climate-controlled cultivation." According to Katy, Lebanon's plant diseases are generally not that different from other Mediterranean countries. "Seed companies are, thus, not breeding specifically for Lebanon, but for the broader region," she says.
Cultivation of various lettuce varieties
Recently, the Quinta Group partnered with a Dutch seed company as part of the Salanova project. "The export market has hardly any interest in Lebanese-grown lettuce. As service providers, we offer seeds and seedlings but also put thought into which varieties will yield the most for our growers, either in the local or overseas markets. The easy-to-cut Salanova varieties are ideal as export products to the Middle East and North Africa," says Katy.
The foreign breeders with whom the Quinta Group collaborates not only supply seeds, they also share their know-how, which the Lebanese company then passes on to its growers. "It was they who introduced us to the SDGs. We're thus not merely seed distributors but partners, too, because our relationship is a strong win-win one."
Own greenhouses where new varieties are tested
Hybrid seeds and grafted plant material
Most of Lebanon's growers are small-scale, with no greenhouses, even for fruiting vegetables. "Nevertheless, more and more are opting for the more expensive hybrid seeds. They realize that with their higher average yields and better performance regarding resistances, those seeds are ultimately more profitable despite the higher initial cost. If a variety is more resistant, you don't have to spend as much on plant protection products. There are seeds for the different technological greenhouse cultivation levels, high and mid-tech greenhouses, and low-tech tunnels. Most protected cultivation in Lebanon is mid or low-tech," adds Nadine Khoury Kadi, CEO and owner of the family business.
Cucumber varieties are being trialled
"A few years ago, cucumber growers in the country's north had a viral outbreak," Katy continues. "We introduced a resistant variety whose seedlings were 30% more expensive, but all the growers switched. The alternative was a complete crop loss. When we introduced grafted vegetable plants to the Lebanese market, it took three to four years to convince growers of the benefits because the seedlings were ten times pricier. But now look, northern Lebanon's entire eggplant cultivation uses grafted material. It's a matter of changing attitudes. We also see this as one of our company's tasks. We want to modernize Lebanese cultivation, making it more sustainable and profitable."
Greenhouses in Africa
Regarding modernization, the Quinta Group relies on greenhouse cultivation efficiency. "We build those, too. You'll find our greenhouses in Lebanon, Senegal, Ghana, Benin, Ivory Coast, Rwanda, Uganda, Tanzania and Zambia. We developed a special design for the African market. Its configuration results from our agricultural and mechanical engineers' mix of knowledge. Those greenhouses are 14 m x 30 m, well-ventilated, sleek, and, given the destination market, not too expensive. In our African markets, return on investment takes two to four years, depending on the crop."
"Greenhouses are becoming a must in Lebanon too, for food safety and security," claims Nadine, "especially in light of climate change. We need smarter greenhouses where you can control the environment and reduce water usage, including through hydroponics. Water availability could also become an issue in Lebanon. Also, greenhouse cultivation can save on labor since it allows more automation. And this type of horticulture's modern image could appeal to young entrepreneurs. Lebanese growers' average age is nearing 60, after all."
The team from the Quinta group
Smart greenhouses have another advantage: increased average yield per hectare, which is at most 20 kg/m2 for many Lebanese tomato growers. In the Netherlands, that is 80 kg. "Here, there's often only one harvest, whereas, in modern greenhouses, you can spread cultivation over several months. If we succeed in increasing our volumes, we can begin considering export market needs more confidently. What product is needed and in which months?" states Nadine.
Herbs gaining popularity
Lebanese greenhouses currently house primarily tomatoes, bell peppers, eggplants, and cucumbers. Tomato acreage has been increasing recently, with a shift from beef to vine and plum tomatoes and from low to mid-tech greenhouses in the south and north of the country. "Herbs have also been on the rise in recent years. That started even before the 2019 economic crisis, but that segment then stagnated. Now, we are again delivering more and more herb seeds and plant material, not only parsley and mint, but dill, microgreens, oregano, and lavender, among others, for essential oil extraction. All these products could also do well in the export market," Katy reveals.
Sn!bs snack tomatoes
"And recently, we've teamed up with our Dutch partners for the introduction of SNI!BS concept, to bring healthier snacks that meet global demands for better food choices. Our goal is simple: to make snacking healthier without sacrificing taste," continues Nadine.
"Our journey began with tomato snacks, created by our dedicated Quinta Group farmers. We chose the best seeds, took great care of the plants for maximum nutrition, and packaged them carefully. These healthy tomato snacks are already a hit in our local market, and we're planning to share them with the world through exports. This collaboration with SNI!BS is a big deal. Together with our partners, we're changing the snacking game, one healthy bite at a time. Our mission is clear: offer innovative, tasty, and nutritious snacks that align with your health-conscious lifestyle."
The Quinta Group is headquartered in Byblos, and its various branches, with nurseries, trial fields, farms, and production facilities, employ 100 people. The group serves more than 2,000 customers, with exports to 15 countries. too. "We want to transform Lebanese and regional horticulture via modernization in all areas. We're brimming with ideas, one of the most recent being introducing seedless and mini watermelons and the before mentioned SN!BS healthy tomato snacks into Lebanese cultivation and marketing," the CEO concludes.
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