Dry and Raw
Dry and Raw is a boutique food idea, inspired by nature and with the hope to provide local and international customers with up-market natural and organic food products from Lebanon. Dry and Raw is not only an idea, but a lifestyle lived by brothers Nabil and Dani Khoury. “Being in the West allowed me to go and learn more about food and alcohol,” Nabil Khoury tells Executive, alluding to the time he lived abroad. “I got all this knowledge and I have been using it for myself and friends at home for more than 30 years.”
After time away, Nabil returned to Lebanon at the start of 2019 with a career change in mind. “I saw that I was really ready to jump into this food and beverage business because I have been practicing for so long, and I have got all the training and trials to master what I do,” he says. The brothers then sought to share their “food experience” with the public.
Dry and Raw – the business name touches upon their style of products – is currently producing more than 600 food items in-house, using organic and naturally grown products from its farm in southern Lebanon. They are considered one of the first food boutiques in Lebanon to produce seeds, nut oils, and foreign-style cheeses. For more than two years, the business has been producing over 36 types of European, British, and American cheese.
Dry and Raw has offered new food trends to Lebanese clientele and provided better quality with affordable prices as a substitute for many costly imported foods. Their products are distributed to more than 25 markets in Beirut, Matn, Jounieh, Batroun, Tripoli, and Chouf, while 30 restaurants and hotels are fond of their European cheese range.
The brothers also organize education sessions and awareness for customers to learn more about the food they are producing. In addition, they hold summer internships for food science students at university, including at the Lebanese University and Saint-Joseph University, to teach how cheese is made and to spotlight the practice of food theory.
Dry and Raw are environmentally conscious. They refrain from using plastic bags and instead use paper bags. They work on recycling all the jars and glass bottles that they use, while their clients also collect the jars and bottles to return them for recycling. “It is in our culture to preserve nature,” Nabil says.
The business was not exempt from the economic turmoil of the past few years in Lebanon. In 2020, their first year of trade, they incurred losses resulting from the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, and now power outages are causing new problems. Long power cuts are impacting refrigeration for food, especially during the summer temperatures, increasing the risk of food deterioration, loss of quality, and a reduction of shelf-life. “In summer, we had to stop some production lines, such as ice cream sorbet and dried vegetables and fruits. And we are no longer storing fresh dairy products at our boutique,” Nabil says.
Despite Lebanon’s declining economy and volatile politics, he is hopeful about their future as entrepreneurs. “The odds are not in our favor, but we’re Lebanese, so we’ll figure it out. The resilience is what makes us special, the positivity almost looks naïve, but it isn’t. It’s hunger, it’s the will to continue and make a difference.”
Umeboshi, pickled or fermented Japanese plums, is a rare and expensive delicacy with macrobiotic health benefits which is now being cultivated, produced, and packaged in Lebanon. Since October 2020, one local company has picked the wild plums that grow 1,400 meters above sea level on Mount Lebanon, to create the Japanese snack.
Hanan Bou Najm, a macrobiotic nutritionist and founder of Balsam Jbalna, the company that makes Lebanese umeboshi, started her business as a response to a gap in the local market for umeboshi. The delicacy is an essential part of the macrobiotic dietary lifestyle. In Japanese, “ume” means plum, while “boshi” means fermented.
“Due to the Lebanese economy’s deterioration, I decided to start the first umeboshi project in Lebanon,” Bou Najm says. “During the Covid-19 pandemic we couldn’t find umeboshi from Japan locally,” so we asked around in villages and among the farming community, and found that Lebanon had a very well-kept secret.”
After conducting research, Bou Najm found that Lebanon naturally has a lot of wild plum trees, with the mountainous regions the best source for this particular type of plum, which is part of the prune family. Farmers used to cook and ferment the fruit over 500 years ago, for a paste similar in style to a tomato paste, Bou Najm explains.
At first, Bou Najm tried cooking the plums and pickling them, but found that fermentation worked better. The intense sour and salty notes make Umeboshi a perfect condiment for Lebanese cuisine, she says, adding that the plums and berries can be added to salads like tabbouleh or fattoush, as well as with cooked beans and vegetables, or rice balls wrapped in seaweed, salad dressings, dips, and spread.
Knowing that pollution is a major problem in Lebanon, particularly among the coastal regions which are hit by traffic and under the smog of power plant fumes, Bou Najm made a point to forage in the highest mountain areas and valleys, in the hope that the produce there would be least impacted by the pollution. “We would park our cars and walk up for two hours. We were ten men and women, and we would collect the plums as well as other wild berries, which we mixed in with our fermented plums.”
In addition to creating a value-added product that is in high demand worldwide, Bou Najm has created a locally affordable alternative of a specialty Japanese product that is within Lebanese consumers’ reach, selling it for a fraction of the price of imported varieties. “This product was imported from Japan through the following companies: Nabat, Clear Spring, and Naturalia [and] were sold for $15-$20, while Balsam Jbalna is sold for $2-$3,” Bou Najm says.
Exports of plums, paste, and vinegar could help bring in much-needed hard currency to the country during the current tough economic situation, although exporting remains a challenge, Bou Najm says. “Balsam Jbalna product is not exported, although there are large quantities of it. This is mainly due to a legal fact; the product is made at home; I don’t have yet a healthy kitchen that has a certificate of origin registered in the Ministry of Economy.”
Like many residents, she is struggling with the high rent prices and Bou Najm says she is not yet financially stable enough to rent a working kitchen space. And like many other Lebanese entrepreneurs, she is looking for investment to develop her business.
Gudtolli started in 2020 when three women Leila Khalife, Reine Khalife, and Najwa Youssef met and decided to start a business, after carrying out a study and discovering a lack of fresh pasta in the local market. So, they decided to produce a new Lebanese product to substitute an imported one.
Gudtolli produces fresh pasta, naturally made and colored from vegetables, like beetroot, basil, spinach, carrot, pumpkin, and turmeric. Their mission is to provide healthy, natural, and great-tasting pasta in a variety of traditional Italian shapes like fusilli, macaroni, and conchiglie.
“What makes our pasta special is the combination of Lebanese culture and Italian cuisine that portrays a small festival on your plate. Gudtolli brings the garden to your table along with its natural colors, nutrients, fibers, and vitamins. It is full of benefits with no additives or preservatives,” Leila Khalife tells Executive Magazine.
In February 2021, the company was legally registered and later in September the products began to be distributed in retail markets in Mount Lebanon, Keserwan, Jbeil, and Beirut. The company and its 20 female employees are located in Safra in the Keserwan district. “We believe that the best way to preserve our culture is to keep it alive. Empowering women and Lebanese farmers and increasing their participation in economic growth are among our utmost goals,” Leila says.
As well as selling pasta, Gudtolli holds monthly pasta making workshops, so participants can learn the art of making pasta and accompanying sauces. The women see it as an opportunity to learn and share knowledge about pasta history and Italian cuisine. The menu includes tagliatelle, spaghetti, ravioli mushroom, tortellini Cheese, pappardelle, farfalle, and farganelli, fully decorated with vegetables and herbs.
Today, Lebanese entrepreneurs and small businesses are operating in a highly volatile environment with almost no state support. “The crisis is affecting our ability to operate and our ability to work,” Leila says. She adds that the ability to transfer money or pay internationally is a big hurdle for startups. In addition, the dollar to Lebanese pound exchange rate is increasing every day, which increases the payment of their goods. At the moment a bag of Gudtolli pasta sells for around 80 cents, while the jar version, with its reusable aspect, is one dollar.
Despite all the country’s circumstances, Leila and her team are taking responsibility seriously. They are aware of their strengths and weaknesses. As a team, they participate in different competitions and exhibitions. Months ago, they won an award from Bloom, a local non-profit which supports entrepreneurs through various programs, among other awards. They also won a place on Berytech’s Basatine Program, a four-year consortium program which supports farmers and related value chain actors in the cereals, legumes, and vegetables in Bekaa and Akkar regions.
As the olive harvesting season gets under way, people across the villages of Lebanon are dusting off their jars and bottles to fill up with this year’s bounty, following an annual tradition which commemorates the richness of Lebanon’s lands. The natural and ancient foods cultivated in Lebanon are important to daily life and the country’s heritage and culture. A Lebanese kitchen would not be complete without olives and its oil.
Even though many young and educated Lebanese have emigrated in search of better opportunities since jobs and business dried up during the crisis, there are still young energies to be found who are working hard to reap the rewards of Lebanon’s fertile land. This is the case for Sarah Joseph, the co-founder of Olive Bio, who in January 2021 returned from France to her family’s land in El Qattine, in the Keserwan district, to become involved in farming and agricultural activities. Since 1515, her family have existed on the land.
“After specializing in food quality, I decided to take an interest in going from farm to fork. My journey started in the hope of giving others a taste of nature,” Joseph tells Executive. “It’s a long road yet a rewarding one.”
Wanting to produce in a traditional way and directly from her farmland, last year, Joseph created a range of products to bring some diversity to Lebanon’s existing olive variety. Here is where Olive Bio was born. Along with her parents and some laborers, Joseph works with top quality Italian olives cultivated on their land.
They produce olive oil, olive soap, and five different flavors of olive tapenade: green tapenade with almond or with basil, black tapenade with walnut, chili, or caper. Their tapenade mixes are adapted for each recipe, so the freshness and natural taste of the ingredients in the recipe remain.
Many entrepreneurs and startups in Lebanon struggle due to their lack of access to finance, lack of human capital and resources, and expertise to help plan growth and expand further. For Joseph, it was integral to her startup journey to learn more about what it takes to run a business; though she holds a degree in food engineering, she felt it was not enough.
Since launching her startup, she has attended training and workshops to improve her skills and capabilities. She says this helped her learn that the following characteristics and skills: confidence, perseverance, patience, communication skills, and risk tolerance, are some of the main tools’ entrepreneurs need in order to succeed.
All ingredients and raw materials are manufactured and produced in their production facility in El Qattine, their olives are a mixture of Lebanese and Italian, and each 300g jar sells in a competitive price range from $6.50 to $7.50. Olive Bio aims to be environmentally friendly; they happily take back empty jars customers return with a discount on their next purchase. “By doing so people will be helping small businesses and our environment,” Joseph says.
In view of Lebanon’s long-term structural challenges and the profound effects that subsequent crises are having on its economy, Olive Bio is facing a lack of access to finance with banks no longer providing loans, and a lack of access to funds and grants. “There is no help from the government and the NGOs have high requirements.”
Kaaju is a family-run enterprise that makes nut snacks, inspired by rich culinary cultures from South East Asia, West Asia, Africa and South America. Their products are 100 percent natural, gluten-free, paleo-friendly, small-batch, and vegan.
The father-daughter duo, Hassan and Alia Fattouh, were inspired to found Kaaju from the rich and varied meals of their home life. Alia’s mother would often cook cuisines ranging from Asian, Middle Eastern, to African or European. Before dinner was served, the family would gather round for drinks and nibbles – always a selection of nuts.
Once, when Alia was on a trip to New York city, she struggled to find nuts which tasted as good as those of her family gatherings. From then on, she set out to begin producing her own roasted nuts, firstly with a mix of cashews and fresh curry leaves – a hark to a previous trip to Sri Lanka. She perfected the recipe and adopted it as a staple in her menus at every brunch, gathering, barbeque, or dinner party she hosted. It was met with success and so the idea was born to launch Kaaju, an environmentally and socially conscious social enterprise.
Kaaju was created in 2016, and it barely had a few years to grow before being hit by a wave of instability as Lebanon’s economy began to teeter in 2019. Then, in 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic caused major economic setbacks for businesses everywhere. “We had to stop our business for a period of time, we couldn’t distribute due to the blockage of the roads,” Hassan says to Executive, referring to the road blocks resulting from anti-government demonstrations, as well as various pandemic lockdowns. “Also, these compounded crises led to an estimated drop in real GDP which made us stop importing for a while because of the high prices.”
At the beginning, the co-founders started to participate in different food events in Lebanon; they presented their business idea and offered people tasters of their cashew mix. While Lebanon grows almonds and walnuts, nuts like pistachios or cashews are not locally grown.
In 2020, they began to develop their mix of flavors. Today they have five to six nut mixes: cashews with fresh curry leaves, wild lime or thyme, and almond or pistachios with rosemary. “Recently we released a new product which is a delicious blend of dry roasted seeds, nuts, and spices. We received great feedback on it,” Hassan adds. “Every six months, we try our best to create a new flavor, but we work carefully because we are always keen to create a very special new delicious flavor.”
Kaaju makes sure their product is healthy and true to its roots. Cashews are rich in copper, magnesium, protein, minerals, and antioxidants, while curry leaves are believed to support diabetes control and reduce bad cholesterol. Rosemary is believed to hold anti-aging properties, boost memory, and help reduce stress. The relationship between Kaaju and nature is strong, especially in mind when they create their recipes. The pair says they draw inspiration from the natural beauty of the country. Kaaju is now available in around 15 stores in Beirut, Matn, Keserouan, and north Lebanon, and online.
We no longer talk in Lebanon about normal life in all its aspects. The economic and financial crisis has radically changed priorities; as people limit their food choices, putting health at risk as quality levels drop and safety specifications are ignored.
Organic agriculture is a production method that aims to achieve better food safety and security, as well as environmental sustainability. Nowadays, many people are choosing organic food in order to avoid chemicals used in farming, and to feel confident about the source of their food. Eating organically also means helping to create a healthier food system for everyone, from farm to table.
Hakba is a homemade basil-based pasta sauce, made by Nisreen Jaafar from her home in southern Lebanon. Under the mantra “Your health is your wealth”, Jaafar created the product in memory of her late mother and touching upon the Arabic meaning of a basil leaf: “habka”. The first half of the word means “love”, and Jaafar says it is with love that the food is made.
Jaafar makes the product with organically grown basil to ensure its 100 percent naturally sourced, and so she can confidently label the product gluten and dairy free, though she admits homemade production is slow and demanding, but worth it. “Next time you’re in the supermarket,” she says,“pick a sauce jar and [look at] its label. You may be surprised by the few ingredients…Habka delivers on its promise of clean eating by skipping the additives, preservatives, and emulsifiers.”
She makes four pasta sauces including a spicy sauce, as well as the classic pesto. In addition to the food lines, the product is eco-friendly, and Jaafar takes care to reduce her plastic usage. As part of the products sustainability promise, Jaafar designed a deal to offer cotton tote bags and basil seed bags, which helps to reduce single-use plastic, while the basil seeds help encourage people to plant at home. The sauces are contained in glass jars, for its recyclable quality. “Using glass reduces emissions and usage of raw materials – it can be turned into a new recycled glass object at any point. From a health standpoint, glass also wins over many other options as it does not absorb smells or flavors, and it does not leak any toxic substances into foods or drinks.”
Like all startups, Habka is facing difficulties in the current economic climate. She says clients are limited on their ability to buy artisanal products, and have a tendency to prioritize commercial items to save money. “Delivery to points of sale or to individual clients has been very expensive and the business is not yet making much profit from having to spend so much on transportation,” Jaafar says.
Pricing was the most challenging aspect for Jaafar when she began. First, when she started the currency rate was incredibly volatile so she could not properly estimate the value of her supply chain against the value of her product in its finished form. She wanted to position Habka as an artisanal product, yet an affordable one. After much deliberation and many consultations, she priced the items in Lebanese pounds, though the prices are revised periodically. “Eventually, I will want Habka to survive [but] without an acceptable profit margin, no business can survive,” she says.
Hydroponic planting is the process of cultivating seeds without using soil, but instead using nutrient rich substances, oxygen, and water to grow herbs, plants, and flowers. It is an increasingly popular way to plant, and in Lebanon, more are turning towards hydroponic systems, as one young company Hydrek, has been discovering.
Hydrek was founded two years ago by Nabil Nehme, and the business provides hydroponic systems for households, farmers, plus customized systems for NGOs, and municipalities. They focus on home-scale hydroponic systems, green fodders, livestock farms, supermarkets, and groceries by providing solutions for individuals, companies, and governments.
“We are the first company leading climate control and hydroponic solution provider for corporates. Our turnkey solutions are unparalleled, from efficient installation to streamlined commissioning processes to superior or input supplies and grower management, [we are] bringing the future of sustainable growth within your reach,” Nehme tells Executive.
It was over ten years ago that Nehme first considered the concept. “I’m from a village and I like planting. When we moved to Beirut, I didn’t have enough space or a big investment so we started searching for options for planting on the balcony. While researching, I found that hydroponics is customized on a large scale (including big investment and space).” The discovery led him to found the start-up to offer home-scale hydroponics.
Nehme’s approach also includes consultancy services, farm design, hydroponic feasibility studies, and agronomy training. The company also hopes that this type of horticulture will help mitigate the impact of climate change, as well as provide better food security, an issue Lebanon is currently battling with.
“The outbreaks we are experiencing recently in Lebanon and the high cost of food has prompted several Lebanese to contact us,” Nehme says. “For example, by buying one unit from Hydrek, anyone can plant hundreds of cups of vegetables with limited water and without the need for electricity. Accordingly, he or she can meet their needs for a longer period at a lower cost.”
Hydrek won a place on the Investmed project, an European Union funded program to support startups in the Mediterranean region, including in Egypt and Tunisia, as well as Lebanon. The businesses targeted should be working on economic and environmental challenges, with sustainability, facilitating access to new markets, and generating increased economic opportunities for men and women.
Nehme says the project will help train and coach Hydrek to become more competitive, and protect intellectual property rights. The team is made up of professionals experienced in working on greenhouse and automation technology projects, with a mixture of women, men and recent graduates, mainly agriculture engineers. Hydrek is located in the village of Kaa, in the Bekaa Valley, with the head office in Mkalles.
In light of soaring black market fuel prices for heating, many Lebanese are no longer hesitating to chop down trees in nearby woods and forests, sometimes including those in nature reserves. With the onset of winter, people in both urban and rural areas are turning to firewood and charcoal to heat their homes. Cutting down logs for firewood is not a new trend in Lebanon, but it has been gaining momentum since the surging price of diesel.
Under the title “It is time to save the earth”, a team of ambitious chemical environmental experts in the Bekaa Valley have created a startup, Jamra Plus, to sustainably innovate through coffee waste. After years of researching, trying and testing, Fatima Kanaan, Safa Ayoub, Houssein Ayoub, and Hosni Abdelghini Ismail, were able to start their business in January 2022 and create Jamra Plus. The company produces briquette charcoal products from coffee waste. Their business is in the Bekaa but they are keen to be present all over Lebanon.
“Thousands of trees are cut yearly in Lebanon for heat and food preparation, so we decided that from people drinking coffee, we could convert it into charcoal in order to protect and save our trees,” says Fatima to Executive. They are currently working on opening a factory and purchasing equipment as well. In addition, they will be manufacturing their own machine in which their product can be used for cooking and preparation. At the moment, however, they are making do with their hands. First, they collect the coffee grounds and sawdust; next, they add some ingredients and mix them all together. Then they melt the briquettes which makes them ready for use. The charcoal can be used for more than one purpose, like to prepare food, to keep warm, for barbecues or for camping.
“Our charcoal is so beneficial to the refugees who live in unfitted tents and suffer from severe cold in winter, especially children,” Safa mentions. Their charcoal also has environmental benefits, as well as humanitarian. It has 30 percent less carbon monoxide than standard types, and it burns fast with a strong flame. Since it is made of used and organic raw materials, it is price competitive too.
Jamra Plus has participated in different competitions, they ranked second place in the Hult Prize competition, which is a global, year-long competition that crowd-sources ideas from university-level students to challenge them to solve pressing social issues around topics such as food security, water access, energy, and education. They also ranked second place during the Lebanese-MED Researcher’s Night event, which is an event to give researchers the opportunity to showcase science’s impact on daily life, for projects focused around the Water, Food and Energy Nexus. Both Fatima and Safa stressed how a healthy environment was a priority for them, so much so they specify a part of their profit to plant trees in Lebanon.