BEIRUT — For many Lebanese, zaatar is an emblematic and essential element of their country’s cuisine. An herby mixture of thyme, sumac, sesame and salt, it is typically used as seasoning or mixed with olive oil to produce a tasty condiment for the equally Lebanese manouche.
Unfortunately, those who produce this widely consumed food face dire challenges. With Lebanon’s economy collapsing, exporting goods overseas is the only viable way to make a living in the agricultural businesses. Still, many struggle to meet the demands of international trade.
“Only the big producers are able to access [foreign] markets,” Mazeej project coordinator Nada Barakat told Al-Monitor. “The smaller ones cannot because they don't have enough quantity [or] the quality isn't very high. Most of [them] are not even registered at the Ministry of Industry.”
“The agri-food sector is oversaturated,” she explained. “[You cannot] go to the market with similar recipes or similar products. You need an identity, and so we created ‘mazeej’ – in Arabic, a ‘blend.’”
The Mazeej Initiative is funded by the Italian Agency for Development Cooperation and implemented by UNIDO, as part of their wider outreach program — the Community Empowerment and Livelihoods Enhancement Project (CELEP) — which provides assistance to small-scale agricultural enterprises and cooperatives throughout Lebanon, safeguarding the livelihoods of those living in vulnerable communities.
Mazeej is designed to provide multilayered support for Lebanese zaatar producers, helping them to increase their size and operations, improve product quality, raise productivity and lower production costs.
“What really attracted us to work on zaatar [is that] it's really a commodity that reflects the culture of Lebanon, cultivated in Lebanon,” said Barakat. “Hummus was one of the [products] that was pre-selected, but we don't cultivate chickpeas; we import [them and] do the processing, so it doesn't have a high impact at the farm level.”
Lebanon possessed the greatest proportion of arable land in the entire Arab world — around 132,000 hectares, nearly 13% of the country’s total landmass. Thyme, along with other herbs and spices like saffron, turmeric and ginger, are some of Lebanon’s fastest growing exports, going from just under $3 million to over $11 million between 2008 and 2018.
However, the agricultural sector has historically remained underdeveloped. This is due to a lack of management, regulation and investment on the part of the state, hampering Lebanon’s ability to properly harness the economic potential of its produce.
The country’s economic crisis has only exacerbated the situation. Rapidly rising fuel prices and a failing national power network have forced many smaller-scale producers out of business entirely, and even those who remain are hanging on by a thread.
“We have a little family business,” Walid Nassredine, Mazeej beneficiary and founder of Coara, a traditional Lebanese restaurant that first opened in 1976, told Al-Monitor. “The small producers in Lebanon have many problems. We need help.
“We have electricity maybe 20% of the time,” he explained. “We’re having difficulties with maintaining the food in the freezers and the fridges, which is causing us a loss. Even in manufacturing, we cannot operate the machines.”
For newer zaatar producers, like former graphic designer turned cultivator Fady Aziz, the last few years have been especially challenging.
“I started The Good Thymes in late 2017 as a hobby project,” Aziz told Al-Monitor. “I was learning about agriculture, the cultural aspect of the plant, and how to grow and process it. In May 2019, I decided to quit my job and transition [into] a real business. I took an abandoned school in my hometown [and] transformed it into a workshop. Then, in October, the thawra [revolution] started.
“We had the pandemic, the economic crisis [and] the explosion,” he continued. “I could have shut down my business [and gone back to] what I used to do, but I have a team. I have farmers who deal with me. We're part of a family, passing through the ups and downs.”
While there is no shortage of nongovernmental organizations offering assistance to Lebanon’s struggling producers, simply providing new machinery or cash infusions is not an effective solution on its own. Instead, Mazeej has opted for a different method, improving the salability of zaatar by working with producers to create unique mixes and new, innovative zaatar products that stand out from the crowd.
“When we started this project, we chose a different approach,” said Barakat. “If you don't have a good product on the shelves, your operation will not be successful, even if you have equipment. We convince them [to start] working on the products first. Then, after that, came the equipment.”
New technologies are then introduced based on the specific requirement of each beneficiary. Additional operations and maintenance training is also provided to ensure that the new recipients can function independently going forward.
“There's also a lot of work that is done with the Ministry of Industry,” Barakat continued. “Registration is not expensive, [but it] requires papers from different government entities. It requires time. We guide them [through the process] and advise them on the kind of documents they need. If they ask an attorney, they [spend] a lot of money [on] something that they can do themselves.”
The Mazeej Initiative also facilitates networking between different enterprises, allowing them to pool their resources for mutual benefit. Producers unable to sell in the local market can still sell their product to large-scale factories, allowing even the smallest of growers to benefit from the project and hopefully turn a profit.
“They are helping to push small businesses,” said Nassredine. “It's a very good idea, and it means I can find more customers. It's not that big, but it is helping us.”
“Alone, I couldn't do it myself,” echoed Aziz. “They're helping us to shape our businesses, to be more ready for export and — especially for later on — to be able to produce bigger quantities. Since 2020, we have doubled our export.”