Youth Agri Market: a launching platform for entrepreneurs in Lebanon

Amid Lebanon’s multifaceted economic crisis, a joint collaboration between the ILO and UNICEF helped youth in the country achieve their entrepreneurial aspirations

News | 20 November 2022

Tripoli, Beqaa Valley, Beirut - Lebanon (ILO News) – Dozens of young Syrian refugee and Lebanese entrepreneurs presented the products of their newly-launched agri-businesses in Lebanon. This result followed a process that saw them pitching their business plans to experts and going through several rounds of scrutiny to get technical guidance and financial support to start their businesses.

The initiative is a joint effort between the ILO, UNICEF and their implementing partner agencies, under the PROSPECTS programme—a global partnership, supported by the Government of the Netherlands.

The ILO and UNICEF exchanged lessons-learned and technical expertise on entrepreneurship issues throughout the initiative. Such dialogue resulted into referral pathways established between dozens of youths receiving business start-up support from UNICEF’s GIL Innovation Labs and business incubation by the ILO. In many cases, these were youth who were struggling with their start-ups or required additional financial and technical support to expand their fledgling ventures.

“This project highlights the vast potential of PROSPECTS’ collaborative nature and synergy in helping create job opportunities for local and refugee youth amid challenging circumstances,” says Shaza Al Jondi, ILO’s Chief Technical Advisor for PROSPECTS in Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. “We are proud of seeing these results today, which give us a tangible evidence of the talent, creativity and determination of these young entrepreneurs.”

As part of their year-long business journey, entrepreneurs joined the Youth Agri Market, or YAM, a venue for workshops and exhibitions that started in the country’s northern city of Tripoli, passed through the Beqaa Valley and ended in the capital Beirut. Here, they had the chance to showcase their products, share their experiences and lessons learned, and establish potential business-to-business linkages across the country.

“We believe that by unboxing young people’s potential in Lebanon, they will be capable of enhancing the economy in the prominent agriculture and agro-food sector,” says Giorgia Varisco, UNICEF Youth and Adolescent Development Chief of Section. “This was proven by the creative and sustainable businesses that were showcased at the Youth Agri Market.”

The below photo gallery highlights some of the moments from the event and the innovative and bold businesses Syrian refugee and Lebanese entrepreneurs came up with, and which were presented at the different YAM venues this year.

Produce from young entrepreneurs are on display at the Youth Agri Market event in Lebanon’s capital, Beirut. “The impressive results of this long journey have now become concrete,” says Rayann Koudaih, ILO PROSPECTS Small and Medium Enterprises Technical Officer. “The persistence we saw in these young entrepreneurs was remarkable. They went through a series of training modules on business planning, before starting their projects, eventually making their way through the crisis by responding to local socio-economic needs in a sustainable way.”

Syrian entrepreneurs Nour Ktiesh (L) and Hala Mahasin (R) stand by their booth where they showcase their products during the Youth Agri Market event in Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley. Through the project, Tahini-maker Ktiesh succeeded in establishing her Al Rayan Tahina business and selling the condiment to local shops and clients. Mahasin, instead, opened a roastery in her home. She produces coffee under the name “Samra” (Arabic for brown, making a direct reference to the beverage’s colour). “The project encouraged me to go through this adventure. I’m now aiming to launch an additional “Samra” brand with different coffee flavours,” she says.

A participant of the Youth Agri Market event in Lebanon’s northern city of Tripoli sets her produce on a stand ahead of the event. The project was made possible through the collaboration of the UN agencies’ implementing partners. One of them is the Lebanese branch of INJAZ, an organization that aims to prepare youth in the MENA region to become productive members of society and contribute to the advancement of the education and entrepreneurship ecosystems. “We wanted YAM, the first Youth Agri Market in Lebanon, to bring visibility and highlight all the youth working in agriculture in Lebanon,” says Samar Dani, Executive Director of INJAZ Lebanon. “We believe that youth can bring about the change needed in the agriculture and agri-food industries through their innovation, energy, awareness of climate change, and belief in the importance of sustainability.”

Lebanese Reine Medlej and her business partners present their Bio Wayste project during the Youth Agri Market event in Lebanon’s capital Beirut. The machine comes in different sizes to satisfy diverse needs, from home application to industrial ones. “We came up with this specific machine, in which we put food leftovers that are transformed into gas or fertilizers” Medlej says. “This is a very cheap way of producing energy or compost. We are trying to address the problems we face in Lebanon concerning the cost of energy and, at the same time, having a positive impact on the environment.” The project also won a special award at the event, winning 750USD in the “Most Promising Agri Business” category.

Syrian entrepreneur Thaer Al Zo’by shows his products to onlookers while holding his baby girl at the Youth Agri Market event in the Beqaa Valley. The 34-year-old from Damascus and his wife launched their own local mushroom production, specializing in the champignon mushroom—a favorite for gravies, sauces, cream soups, stir-fry recipes, pasta and rice dishes. “It was hard to find the raw material to start the production with, but then we managed to find good providers,” Al Zo’by says. “Now, we don’t need to import any raw material from abroad.” His project has also created work for other six people who are seasonally employed during the harvesting season and the following packaging phase.

Lebanese and Syrian young entrepreneurs display their products during the Youth Agri Market event in the Beqaa Valley. One of the key implementing partners of the project is the MENA-based THE LEE EXPERIENCE, an organization that aims to bring about business transformation through attitude changes for individuals, organizations, and corporates across the region. “YAM events represent a great networking opportunity for the start-ups to get prepared with the knowledge and skills they need to improve their access to new markets,” says THE LEE EXPERIENCE CEO Manal Hassoun. “Here, they can also exchange and acquire new experiences through chats with experts, colleagues and guests, which could lead them toward enhanced sustainability and increased exports.”

Lebanese entrepreneur Aline Barakat presents her Eggplus Farm business in the Youth Agri Market event in Beirut. Through her project, she is producing organic eggs in her newly-established farm where chickens roam freely and eat natural fodder and grass. “I had a problem in finding organic eggs before establishing my farm,” Barakat says. “This was especially hard during the COVID-19 pandemic, so I decided to establish my own production, giving special attention to my animals.” Her project received a prize of 500USD in the “Most Sustainable Practices” category awarded during the event.

Syrian entrepreneur Ayman Abu Shaheen speaks with visitors of the Youth Agri Market in the Beqaa Valley. His project dubbed “Ayman Center for Green Fodder” consists of cultivating green barley, using hydroponics technology and was inspired by his previous employment at the Ministry of Agriculture in Syria. “I faced many challenges,” he says. “At the beginning, I didn’t possess the financial capacities needed for the project. Also, possible clients were shocked when hearing about my product’s characteristics and were afraid of trying it. But this has luckily changed. Through my model, agriculture fields are not required, cultivation is not affected by external factors, as it grows all year long. Through this, I am participating in solving food insecurity-related problems, while ensuring fertile green lands for human development.”

Lebanese Hussein Awdeh presents his Azolla Farm product during the Youth Agri Market event in Beirut. He uses the Azolla plant, which is considered an invasive plant in wetlands, as a substitute for fodder. He came up with this idea after noticing the great demand for fodder in Lebanon and its extremely high price. He thinks that using the Azolla plant could help farmers and poultry breeders lowering their production costs, while also creating job opportunities since its cultivation requires minimal equipment. “It is a new production for Lebanon,” Awdeh says. “All types of animals can eat it, from chickens and goats, to ducks, sheep and rabbits. It is 100 percent organic and rich in proteins.”

Visitors, agricultural experts, and agencies’ representatives interact at the Youth Agri Market event in the Beqaa Valley. Networking was pivotal for the entrepreneurs during the series of events. Entrepreneurs said that meeting other young business owners, sharing with them ideas and discussing about possible cooperation and similar challenges were eye-opening moments that gave them further confidence to move their projects forward.

Young Syrian refugee and Lebanese entrepreneurs pose for a picture at the Youth Agri Market event in Beirut. Prices were awarded to different projects spanning diverse categories during the last leg of the market events, taking into account project sustainability, innovation and future opportunities, among other characteristics. Youth in Lebanon face especially challenging circumstances, with youth unemployment in the 15-24 age bracket reaching up to 30 percent. The agricultural and agri-food sectors could offer a chance for employment and the establishment of sustainable businesses for young generations of entrepreneurs.

The ILO Deputy Regional Director and Director of Decent Work Team for Arab States, Peter Rademaker (L) awards entrepreneur Mhanaa Al Asaad at the final Youth Agri Market event in Beirut. Al Asaad launched his Natural Valley Bounties business a year ago, offering produce resulting from water cultivation using water-based mineral nutrient solutions instead of soil. “All of my products are organic,” he says. “I want to bring the project forward, by using the leftover produce to create compost. The training I received through the project complemented and gave me even more information than the one received in school and university. I am also teaching other people in my area how to use my technique to cultivate vegetables and fruits to further spread this new technique across the country.”

Participants of the Youth Agri Market event in Beirut pose for a group picture at the end of the event. As Lebanon continues to reel under a multifaceted economic crisis, projects like YAM and its initial business incubator phases are key to support and bring opportunities to youth living in the country who are interested to start their own enterprise in Lebanon’s vital agricultural and agri-food sector.