Holy gua­camole

The grow­ing cul­ti­va­tion of av­o­ca­dos in Le­banon

Executive Magazine - - Front Page -

In sum­mer 2018, McKin­sey & Com­pany, a United States-based man­age­ment con­sult­ing firm hired by the Le­banese gov­ern­ment to de­sign an eco­nomic plan for the coun­try, pre­sented their re­port to gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials. Though the fi­nal re­port has yet to be made pub­lic, some de­tails have made their way from gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials into the pub­lic sphere. From what was dis­closed, the re­port sounds like a hip­ster’s dream: boost­ing the econ­omy through the le­gal­iza­tion of mar­i­juana— al­beit for medic­i­nal ex­port (for more on this, see Ex­ec­u­tive’s Au­gust 2018 is­sue)—and through the in­creased pro­duc­tion of av­o­ca­dos, the diet sta­ple of mil­len­ni­als.

While it was the le­gal­iza­tion of mar­i­juana in par­tic­u­lar that grabbed in­ter­na­tional and lo­cal head­lines, the in­clu­sion of avo­cado cul­ti­va­tion in the plan trig­gered our cu­rios­ity at Ex­ec­u­tive, prompt­ing us to re­search the po­ten­tial for grow­ing this lush green fruit on Le­banese soil. Le­banon, as it turns out, has an ex­pand­ing avo­cado farm­ing sec­tor, sup­ported by in­ter­na­tional or­ga­ni­za­tions and lo­cal agri­cul­tural ex­perts.

SEEDS OF CHANGE

Avo­cado is a sub­trop­i­cal fruit, and so needs a mild climate to thrive, ex­plains Kanj Ha­made, an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of agri­cul­tural eco­nom­ics at the Le­banese Univer­sity. This is ex­actly the climate char­ac­ter­is­tic of Le­banon’s coastal ar­eas, which were first ded­i­cated al­most en­tirely to cit­rus fruits be­fore bananas crops be­gan to be planted.

Le­banese cit­rus, how­ever, is fac­ing chal­lenges. Ha­made ex­plains that Le­banon’s sub­trop­i­cal crops used to pri­mar­ily con­sist of cit­rus fruits, which were—and to some ex­tent still are—ex­ported to the Gulf. How­ever, Le­banese cit­rus fruits are los­ing mar­ket share in the re­gion due to com­pe­ti­tion and age­ing trees. The cul­ti­va­tion of bananas, an­other sub­trop­i­cal crop, for a while matched or over­took cit­rus fruits and pro­duc­tion was thriv­ing, he says. This new crop briefly made this sec­tor more prof­itable, with bananas pri­mar­ily ex­ported to Jor­dan and Syria. The boom-time for fruit farm­ers came to an end in 2012, how­ever, as the Syr­ian war halted agri­cul­tural land ex­ports, cre­at­ing a sat­u­rated lo­cal sub­trop­i­cal fruits mar­ket, with an over­sup­ply of both bananas and cit­rus fruits.

WHY AV­O­CA­DOS?

It was this over­sat­u­ra­tion that led the Le­banon In­dus­try Value Chain De­vel­op­ment (LIVCD)—a USAID­funded project that has among its aims the goal to im­prove the com­pet­i­tive­ness and value of Le­banese prod­ucts and ser­vices in both lo­cal and ex­port mar­kets—to be­gin re­search­ing the pos­si­bil­ity of avo­cado pro­duc­tion, back in 2012.

San­dra Fahd, se­nior con­sul­tant for LIVCD and as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of agri­cul­ture at the Le­banese Univer­sity, says the project ini­tially thought of utiliz­ing Le­banon’s mild climate for avo­cado cul­ti­va­tion due to the high global de­mand for av­o­ca­dos, en­sur­ing that it would prove a con­sis­tent and var­ied mar­ket. “Avo­cado is a crop that is highly de­manded in a sta­ble mar­ket. We do not need to rely on the Gulf for ex­ports only—it can go to the Gulf, but it can also go to Europe, and Europe has a high de­mand for av­o­ca­dos. So it solves our de­pen­dency on the Gulf as a main mar­ket,” says Ha­made.

Avo­cado also has a grow­ing lo­cal fan base, en­sur­ing a steady mar­ket at home as well. Fahd ex­plains that while av­o­ca­dos in Le­banon have been tra­di­tion­ally used as a base for fruit cock­tails, the past cou­ple of years have seen the creamy fruit pop up as an in­gre­di­ent on many restau­rant menus, in­clud­ing the new avo­cado bar, L’Avo. She adds that over the past five years, the num­ber of sushi restau­rants in Le­banon has in­creased, which re­sulted in a higher de­mand for avo­cado, as it is used as a main in­gre­di­ent for many rolls

Fahd says that to en­sure an even wider reach and mar­ket, LIVCD also worked on pro­mo­tional ac­tiv­i­ties, such as a pro­mo­tional day, or par­tic­i­pa­tion in the cook­ing fes­ti­val in 2014 and Horeca in 2015 to in­crease aware­ness about av­o­ca­dos among women from ru­ral ar­eas, ex­tolling the health ben­e­fits of the crop and work­ing with them to de­velop vari­a­tions on well­known recipes, such as hum­mus or tiramisu, us­ing avo­cado.

A CHAOTIC MAR­KET

Fahd says that when LIVCD first be­gan its as­sess­ment of the avo­cado sec­tor in Le­banon, they found it largely dis­or­ga­nized and small-scale. “At that time—ac­cord­ing to FAO [the United Na­tions’ Food and Agricul- tu­ral Or­ga­ni­za­tion] and the Min­istry of Agri­cul­ture—there were 3,700 grow­ers, but we dis­cov­ered that close to 50 per­cent of those were hob­by­ists or had very few trees. Also, when we started work­ing on the ground in 2015, we found that there were very few lands ded­i­cated to av­o­ca­dos alone, as they were mainly planted along­side cit­rus trees,” she notes, adding that in 2012, the FAO re­ported the num­ber of hectares ded­i­cated solely to av­o­ca­dos as just 660.

“Farm­ers did not know the technical de­tails and were grow­ing them in a tra­di­tional way or through trial and er­ror, so a lot of money and pro­duce was go­ing to waste be­cause what they grew was wild, the mar­ket value of such fruits is lit­tle, and some are not ed­i­ble.”

LIVCD also quickly dis­cov­ered that there were no ex­perts or aca­demic ref­er­ences when it came to avo­cado cul­ti­va­tion in Le­banon. This was be­cause the fruit was rel­a­tively new to the coun­try, Fahd ex­plains. “Farm­ers did.not know the technical de­tails and were grow­ing them in a tra­di­tional way or through trial and er­ror, so a lot of money and pro­duce was go­ing to waste be­cause what they grew was wild, the mar­ket value of such fruits is lit­tle, and some are not ed­i­ble,” Fahd says.

AVO­CADO FARM­ERS

Com­pared to the costs of cit­rus fruits and ap­ples—pro­duce tra­di­tion­ally grown in Le­banon—the costs of avo­cado pro­duc­tion are high, Fahd says. One avo­cado tree costs $16, com­pared to just $2 for an ap­ple tree, mak­ing it a hefty ini­tial in­vest­ment for a large area of land. Re­turn on in­vest­ment, how­ever, is con­sid­er­able, with av­o­ca­dos gen­er­at­ing an av­er­age of $8,000 per hectare, com­pared to

$2,000 for cit­rus fruits.

The money in­volved in av­o­ca­dos means that avo­cado grow­ers are not your av­er­age farm­ers. “The profile of avo­cado farm­ers is so dif­fer­ent from all the other agri­cul­tural farm­ers in Le­banon be­cause there is more money in it, and so peo­ple see it as an in­vest­ment,” Fahd ex­plains. “This is a world­wide oc­cur­rence, it is the same even in Florida and Mex­ico. It’s also un­like other sec­tors in that farm­ers are ed­u­cated.” She men­tions that those in­volved in avo­cado plan­ta­tions are wealthy coastal land own­ers.

Ha­made also be­lieves that av­o­ca­dos are not a fea­si­ble in­vest­ment for small­time farm­ers and sees in the crop an op­por­tu­nity to en­cour­age young en­trepreneurs to get in­volved in agri­cul­ture. “It’s rel­a­tively knowl­edge in­ten­sive, so it could sup­port in­vest­ments from young peo­ple who typ­i­cally don’t per­ceive agri­cul­ture as an op­tion for them, as its high re­turns [could] en­cour­age them,” he says.

GROW­ING AV­O­CA­DOS

With the as­sess­ment of the sec­tor com­pleted in 2015, the ground­work was set for LIVCD to or­ga­nize the sec­tor and help it grow. Fahd ex­plains that LIVCD usu­ally ini­ti­ates a value chain project by in­creas­ing the mar­ket de­mand, but with avo­cado they chose to start by in­creas­ing pro­duc­tiv­ity, as they re­al­ized there was al­ready a high de­mand and an in­suf­fi­cient sup­ply.

As such, the project be­gan by train­ing ex­ist­ing farm­ers and teach­ing them tech­niques to im­prove their grow­ing skills and help make the most of their land. LIVCD taught them how to in­ten­sify plant­ing so that the same piece of land could fit more trees and also in­tro­duced the drip ir­ri­ga­tion sys­tem.

LIVCD, to­gether with the farm­ers—and with the goal of in­creas­ing pro­duc­tion—de­vel­oped a cal­en­dar that would al­low nine to 10 months of pro­duc­tion per year by di­ver­sify- ing the va­ri­eties of av­o­ca­dos grown at dif­fer­ent times.

Fahd says they also went into ru­ral coastal ar­eas where av­o­ca­dos were not grown and en­cour­aged new grow­ers to en­ter the sec­tor by pro­vid­ing them with an ir­ri­ga­tion sys­tem, while the grow­ers pro­vided the land and crops. To fur­ther mo­ti­vate these new grow­ers, the project worked with lo­cal nurs­eries to establish a uni­fied and fair price for avo­cado trees, re­gard­less of the quan­tity bought.

FRUITS OF SUC­CESS

In to­tal, LIVCD has trained 964 avo­cado grow­ers. The num­ber of hectares ded­i­cated to av­o­ca­dos has also in­creased from 660 in 2012 to 720 at last count, at the end of 2016. Fahd says the project worked more on im­prov­ing the yield per hectare of ex­ist­ing farm­ers than on in­tro­duc­ing new farm­ers to the mar­ket. “Our goal was to im­prove the pro­duc­tiv­ity per dunam of land (1,000 square me­ters), be­cause ac­cord­ing to our cal­cu­la­tions, one dunam was used to pro­duce less than 500 kilo­grams while now the same area is pro­duc­ing dou­ble [that], or 1 ton.” She ex­plains that while the ini­tia­tive has in­deed in­creased pro­duc­tion, avo­cado prices have not gone down be­cause they si­mul­ta­ne­ously worked on open­ing new chan­nels for dis­tri­bu­tion.

Through LIVCD, Le­banon be­gan ex­port­ing con­tain­ers of avo­cado to Europe in 2017. Fahd ex­plains that Euro­pean coun­tries chose to im­port av­o­ca­dos from Le­banon be­cause the Mediter­ranean avo­cado pro­duc­tion cal­en­dar is the op­po­site of Latin Amer­ica’s—when Mex­ico or Peru are short on av­o­ca­dos, Le­banon is in high pro­duc­tion, mak­ing it a vi­able al­ter­na­tive for avo­cado-starved coun­tries. Le­banon has also been ex- port­ing con­tain­ers of av­o­ca­dos to the Gulf since 2016 and has opened new ex­port chan­nels to Jor­dan.

Al­though the de­mand for the avo­cado fruit it­self is high at the moment, Fahd hopes to en­sure a mar­ket-sus­tain­able crop and says LIVCD is also sup­port­ing lo­cal avo­cado grow­ers in ex­per­i­ment­ing with avo­cado oil pro­duc­tion, for use in beauty prod­ucts and in some nat­u­ral reme­dies.

LAND OF PLENTY

The chal­lenge for the con­ti­nu­ity of Le­banese avo­cado cul­ti­va­tion lies in the land it is grown on. Coastal land is highly de­sir­able from a real es­tate per­spec­tive, which in turn threat­ens the fu­ture of lo­cal av­o­ca­dos. “The gov­ern­ment should des­ig­nate cer­tain lands on the coast for avo­cado, since agri­cul­ture serves and em­ploys more peo­ple than real es­tate,” Fahd says, adding that LIVCD

The Mediter­ranean avo­cado pro­duc­tion cal­en­dar is the op­po­site of Latin Amer­ica’s—when Mex­ico or Peru are short on av­o­ca­dos, Le­banon is in high pro­duc­tion, mak­ing it a vi­able al­ter­na­tive for avo­cado-starved coun­tries.

can­not in­flu­ence the gov­ern­ment and must in­stead work with the re­al­ity on the ground.

Ha­made be­lieves that in or­der to truly ben­e­fit from avo­cado cul­ti­va­tion at a na­tional level—and for this crop to not only be a means for the rich to get richer—the agri­cul­tural sec­tor needs to be re­struc­tured in a way that would see small- and medium-scale farm­ers in­te­grated into avo­cado plant­ing. For the time be­ing, lo­cal con­sumers, and those in the coun­tries we ex­port to, can con­tinue to en­joy Le­banese av­o­ca­dos, re­gard­less of who planted them.

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