Last September, Piet Schotel of the Center for the Promotion of Imports from developing countries (CBI) and Fresh Publishers manager, Pieter Boekhout, took a work trip to Moldova. They visited some 15 fruit growers in this small European country, wedged between Ukraine and Romania. You can read all about it on agf.nl and FreshPlaza.
View from Lebanon mountains with the Mediterranean Sea in the background
The info series aimed to introduce the Moldovan sector to the Middle East and the rest of Europe and aid growers and exporters. That was after Russia slammed shut the doors to its market - Moldova's most important market - to them last summer. This year, the CBI, a Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs service, is helping entrepreneurs in Lebanon access national, regional, and international markets. And Pete invited Pieter back to get a feel for the situation on the ground.
Workers harvest white cucumbers
This is an introduction to the series of reports of the dozen or so Lebanese fruit and vegetable companies that will be collectively represented at a stand at Fruit Attraction in Madrid in early October. It briefly outlines some general information about the country and its fruit and vegetable sector (sources: World Bank, FAO, USDA, and local sources during the trip).
Lebanon has several ski resorts
Small, but densely populated
Lebanon, on the Mediterranean Sea's east coast, borders Israel to the south and Syria to the north and east. At a quarter of the Netherlands' size, it is a small country. Though it only has five million inhabitants, Lebanon is more densely populated than the Netherlands. Nearly 90% of its people live in urban areas, with just over half being Muslim, 35% Christian. Five percent of its population belongs to the Druze religious community, a branch of Islam.
You regularly pass checkpoints
Paris of the Middle East
Not so long ago, Lebanon was a wealthy nation, where people flocked to fashionable Beirut, also called 'the Paris of the Middle East'. The many beautiful buildings still testify to this. The 1950s and 1960s were a time of great economic prosperity. But civil war broke out in 1975. Since then, the country, a cauldron of ethnic-religious groups in a region that is always on edge, has been anything but a model of stability politically, economically, or socially. In particular, the influence of Hezbollah and its hostile relationship with neighboring Israel often proves to be a source of violent outbreaks and an obstacle to progress.
Because the republic is bankrupt, there is no public transport. Sometimes you see some private buses driving, as shown here in the photo.
Arabic is spoken in the Republic of Lebanon, with its highest positions (president, prime minister, speaker of parliament, and armed forces commander-in-chief) divided among the main ethno-religious groups (Christians, Sunni Muslims, and Shiite Muslims). There is enormous ethnic diversity in Lebanon, and Armenians, Arameans, Kurds, and Turkomans, among others, live side by side with Arabs.
Refuge for Syrians and Palestinians
The country is also a haven for almost 500,000 Palestinians who fled the war and, since the civil war broke out in neighboring Syria, about 1.5 million Syrians. Per capita, Lebanon currently hosts the most refugees in the world. Though this massive influx is greatly straining the country's physical and social infrastructure, Syrian refugees contribute very little to the country's available labor. The UN and other organizations’ financial support per person or family is almost as high - and sometimes higher - than a month’s wages in, say, the agricultural or horticultural sectors.
Syrian refugee camp
Lebanon's people are highly educated. Many are proficient in French and/or English. There is little industry, and agriculture plays a relatively minor role in the country, making up about five percent of GDP and eight percent of the labor force. The main sectors are trade, financial services (hence the moniker "the Switzerland of the Middle East"), and tourism. The country has to import many products, resulting in a negative trade balance. GDP per capita is just over $4,000 (Netherlands: $55,000), and the official unemployment rate is 12% (Netherlands: 3.5%).
Syrian refugee camp
Inflation has been climbing since 2019, reaching alarming heights, like more than 250% in June this year. The Lebanese pound has lost 85% in value against the dollar compared to the pre-2019 period. Until a few years ago, civil servants earned the equivalent of $2,000; now, it is a paltry $300. That leads to situations where the police force is understaffed due to lack of money, and battered, smoke-spewing cars fill Beirut's streets. Government employees have to get second jobs, and ten hours of electricity daily costs just about a month's salary. Most people struggle to make ends meet while the elite luxuriate in opulence. Even in the countryside, shabby villages built from shacks alternate with areas filled with beautiful homes and well-kept gardens bordering well-tended orchards.
Large fruit shop on the side of the road. They are often stalls with one product.
No shortage of water yet
Lebanon has the highest proportion of agricultural land per capita in the Arab world, and its horticulture sector holds a strong regional position. That is thanks to Lebanon's temperate climate, rich soil, and abundant water resources. About 60% of people outside Beirut rely on agriculture and related industries for their livelihood. Nevertheless, the country’s horticultural sector is underutilized.
The Bekaa Valley from the Lebanon Mountains: 120 km long and 12 km wide
The coastal climate is mild, and winters never get colder than 7 or 8°C. They even, for instance, cultivate bananas in the south, with varieties originating from the Canary Islands. And inland, across the Lebanon mountain range, with peaks of up to 3,000 m, which supplies the country with abundant water, lies the Bekaa Valley. Nestling against Syria, this highly fertile plateau is 120 km long, 16 km wide, lying at an altitude of 1,000 meters. It is warm in summer and records freezing temperatures in winter, with frosts possible until early April. But the dry air keeps disease pressure in fruit and vegetable cultivation at a minimum.
Again the Bekaa Valley in the distance
Plots are usually small and generally passed from generation to generation. Many small-scale growers are, thus, only self-sufficient. Fruit and vegetable sector investors pay between €35,000 and €100,000 per hectare.
Fruit and vegetable harvest and export
Lebanon has a fairly well-developed fruit sector. In 2021, 260,000 tons of top fruit, 83,000 tons of bananas, 105,000 tons of lemons, and 165,000 tons of oranges were harvested. And 25,000 tons of mandarins, 60,000 tons of grapes, 120,000 tons of stone fruit, 33,000 tons of cherries, and 77,000 tons of melon. These vegetables stand out: potatoes (660,000 tons), tomatoes (270,000 tons), cucumber (120,000 tons), eggplant (27,000 tons), bell pepper (9,000 tons), white cabbage (54,000 tons), lettuce (15,000 tons), and garlic (3,000 tons).
Beautiful plot of potatoes with irrigation
The Middle East and Egypt are the top export destinations for Lebanese horticultural products, accounting for about 80% of total exports ($460 million in 2021). The United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Syria are the main buyers. Lebanon also has an association agreement with the EU and EFTA, but exports of horticultural products to Europe are still underdeveloped ($60 million in 2021). In that year, the country exported about $35 million worth of horticultural products to the rest of the world.
Due to massive inflation, many Lebanese have withdrawn all their savings and invested them in real estate. That is why many houses are half finished.
Saudi Arabia import ban
In April 2021, Saudi Arabia, then the top destination for many Lebanese small-scale fruit and vegetable growers, closed its doors to that country's agricultural products. That was due to dissatisfaction with Hezbollah's rising influence in Lebanon and, according to the Saudi government, drug smuggling via fruit and vegetable cargo, but perhaps also to protect its emerging crop. Lebanon is, thus, increasingly turning its gaze to Europe. Hence, the presence of a representative group of fruit and vegetable growers and exporters at the upcoming Fruit Attraction, aided by the CBI. And there, Lebanon will play to its strengths: a good climate, fertile soil, cheap labor, and a marketing calendar that matches the European season.
With my travel buddies: Piet Schotel, Hania Chahal (Lebanese consultant) Rola Arouni (Lebanese Chamber of Commerce) and Cees van Doorn