When arriving in Ghazze, Bekaa, on a hot Sunday afternoon, you would not necessarily expect to find a large crowd of villagers gathered in a square under an improvised roof. However, on Sunday, 16 September 2018, the villagers, as well as representatives of the different ministries, unions, municipalities and cooperatives, were all present and excited to witness the launch event of a newly- acquired potato washing, sorting and packaging machine that would serve the farmers and farmworkers residing in Ghazze and the surrounding villages. And even the media were there.
Making use of the fertile land in the Bekaa valley
But ultimately, it is not surprising that so many people were eager to learn about the potato sorting machine, because the farmers and farmworkers in Bekaa face many challenges. Bekaa, one of Lebanon’s most vulnerable and underserved areas, is currently hosting more than one third of the total number of Syrian refugees, which increases the strain on already impoverished agricultural communities struggling to survive. The fertile soils and the two rivers crossing the Bekaa plain (Litani to the south and the Orontes ‘Al Aassi’ to the north), make it the most important agricultural region in Lebanon and a favourable location for agricultural development projects, particularly in the potato industry. However, agricultural inputs such as seeds, plants or fertilizer are cost-intensive, and both the infrastructure for preparing the soil, planting and watering, as well as the infrastructure for the collection and processing of the crops, are weak. There is no regulatory framework, and technical knowledge and skills are low. These challenges are exacerbated by difficult access to local markets, low quality of production, and the dominance of middlemen in the sector.
Job opportunities for Syrian refugees and vulnerable Lebanese farmworkers
Building on the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) donation of the potato cleaning, sorting and grading machine, Caritas Switzerland joined efforts with the Union of Agricultural Workers in Lebanon in order to improve the farmers’ productivity and skills, and the products’ market value. They support the livelihoods of vulnerable Syrian refugees by providing short-term income-generating opportunities in the newly established facility, requiring permanent and seasonal labourers to operate the machine and maintain an orderly work flow during the potato season. It will also contribute to creating job opportunities for vulnerable Lebanese, as national staff will be recruited to implement the different activities.
More broadly, the project also aims to increase land productivity and quality of cultivation of potato farmers by raising awareness and providing technical knowledge in areas such fertilization, use of pesticides, irrigation, farm management, and pre- and post-harvest operations.
The ceremony on September 16th included a demonstration of the operation of the machine, speeches from the Representative of the Minister of Agriculture, the Head of the Union on Municipalities of the West Bekaa Valley, Caritas Switzerland’s Programme Manager and the President of the Union of Agricultural Workers.
All speakers at the launch event agreed on the importance of similar initiatives targeting the most vulnerable communities in Lebanon, and the importance of supporting the agriculture sector in general and the farmers and farmworkers in particular. In the words of Markus Koth, Programme Manager of Caritas Switzerland: «We are looking forward to what we hope will be a long-lasting, fruitful cooperation.»
Text and photos: Sarah Omrane, Programme Officer for Lebanon and Syria, Beirut
Picture at the top left: Residents of Ghazze, members of the Union and their families are gathered to participate in the opening ceremony of the project «Improving Income of Farmers and Farmworkers in Lebanon».
Picture at the top right: Markus Koth (Caritas Switzerland, Programme Manager for Lebanon and Syria), Representative of the Minister of Agriculture Mr. Akl, and Head of the Union of Municipalities of West Bekaa Valley Mr. Majzoub are cutting the ribbon in celebration of the launching of the potato sorting machine.
Picture above left: Farmers, Union members and Media representatives are taking pictures during a demonstration of the machine’s work. Happy and excited faces are seen while watching the potatoes proceed to sorting after being washed!