New programme fosters innovation in Lebanon’s agri-food sector

The Agrytech Programme has been providing entrepreneurs with incubation facilities, business support, networking, mentoring, funding, access to markets and acceleration.
Sunday 10/03/2019
Greens are grown at a vertical farm. (AFP)
New solutions. Greens are grown at a vertical farm. (AFP)

BEIRUT - Young innovators have been addressing the challenges facing agriculture in Lebanon using modern technology to scale up their ideas into services and products and establish sustainable businesses to revive the receding sector.

The Agrytech Programme, an agriculture and food innovation hub begun in 2016 in cooperation between the Dutch government and Lebanese start-up developers Berytech, has been providing entrepreneurs with incubation facilities, business support, networking, mentoring, funding, access to markets and acceleration.

“The programme was designed in response to the need of the market and the food industry, which is an old industry in Lebanon but lacks innovation,” said Fadi Naffah, Agrytech manager.

“With current technology and development, it is very easy to use innovation to push the industry forward and to find solutions that can be used not only in Lebanon but also in the region and the world.”

Naffah said the programme’s aim was to source the best new businesses with creative developments in agriculture and the food industry and supply them with specialised and business assets and network support to transform their ideas into concrete creations and organisations with regional and worldwide effect.

Every year, 30 start-ups are given the chance to assemble a base practical product. After two months of intensive boot camp and market validation of their agri-food innovations, 15 start-ups advance to a 4-month phase to develop a viable product.

“Selection is made on the basis of the market needs and the feasibility of the idea,” Naffah said. “During the second phase, innovative entrepreneurs receive training on how to operate a business, including finance, marketing, sales, human resources management and pricing. At the same time, they work on the actual creation of the product or service they want to sell.”

Eight finalists are shortlisted for a final 6-month incubation period. “These are thoroughly coached by experts in the industry as they work on the scale model, pitch it to the public and get investors on board,” Naffah said.

During the three years since it started, the Agrytech Programme helped establish several start-ups, including one by engineers who developed a quality-control apple-sorting machine.

“Apples being a main agricultural produce of Lebanon, there is a big need for such device in the market,” Naffah said. “It can serve small farmers as well as big producers.

“You can add other functionalities on the software, so it can sort oranges, mangoes and avocadoes, et cetera. These types of solutions can serve the Lebanese farmer and can expand to the Middle East and other regions.”

Another start-up — Iotree — is an early warning system that uses smart electronic traps based on artificial intelligence to detect pests in agriculture fields.

“It alerts the farmer that this type of pest started in this part of his field and advises on possible solutions. The early detection of pests reduces the use of pesticides and allows spraying only what’s needed and where it is needed; as such we have better quality products suitable for export,” Naffah said.

The start-up Smart Gourmet developed a cooking technique and a machine that can prepare meals sous vide (“under vacuum”), extending the food’s shelf life to up to 6 months. The products do not contain preservatives and don’t need to be frozen, just chilled, facilitating transportation and export.

Smart Gourmet products are available in 400 supermarkets across Lebanon. They have been exported to the United Arab Emirates and will soon be found in Qatar and Oman.

An online resources platform was established under the Agrytech Programme to help farmers resolve problems. “It is a mini-Google specialised in agriculture and food innovation happenings around the world. The data are updated continuously enabling direct access to the information needed,” Naffah said.

“We are trying to connect the various players in the market including farmers, exporters, the private sector as well as the universities which do research in their agriculture faculties.”

The programme, co-funded for four years by the Netherlands, which provides 90% of the financing, and Berytech, expires in July.

“We are planning to ask for an extension of two years to allow the programme to become self-sustainable. It is a successful venture that might be replicated in other developing countries,” Naffah said.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation, a UN agency, said agriculture contributes about 5% of GDP and 8% of the effective labour force in Lebanon. In addition to primary agriculture production, the sector is a key contributor to Lebanon’s agri-food industry, which contributes an additional 5% of GDP and constitutes a major employer in the economy.