The start-ups brewing change for Lebanon’s workers

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Farah Ballout’s big, infectious smile is the first thing that greets you at her workplace, a cafe in Lebanon with a mission to do more than just brew coffee.

Before she was hired the 29-year-old, who suffers from Angelman Syndrome, a genetic disorder that means she has developmental disabilities, had struggled to find work in a country with high unemployment.

“I feel like it is a dream that I started here,” Ballout said as tears rolled down her face.

“It feels like you are walking into your home - it doesn’t feel like you are going to work.”

Almost all the 14 staff at the Agonist coffee shop near Beirut where Ballout has worked for the past five months have special needs, from autism to Down’s syndrome.

Wassim El Hage set up the business in December to help people with disabilities, who are typically excluded from the workforce in Lebanon.

As a social enterprise - a business that aims to do good as well as make profit - it faces even more of a challenge than most start-ups in a country whose economy has been badly hit by years of political instability and a mass influx of refugees.

The country is grappling with an unemployment rate of 30 percent and last year, nearly 2,200 businesses closed, according to Lebanon’s chamber of commerce.

For El Hage, that was part of the motivation - Lebanon, he said, desperately needs organizations prepared to hire people who would otherwise struggle to find jobs.

“It is not my target to make money or to make profit for my own self. My target is to give them back this money [for them] to be integrated, to be independent, to have a real life,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“We need it in Lebanon.”

The tiny country is home to more than a million refugees, mostly from its war-ravaged neighbor Syria.

Since its own civil war ended in 1990, Lebanon has faced a raft of challenges, from electricity shortages to garbage mountains due to a lack of landfill sites - and now social enterprises are stepping in to help.

These include Compost Baladi, which manages waste and compost and SunRay Energy, which helps rural communities in Lebanon adopt solar energy with a lease program and flexible payments.

But social entrepreneurs say a lack of funding and government support are making it difficult for such ventures to thrive.

Compost Baladi Lebanon - courtesy of: Twitter
Compost Baladi Lebanon - courtesy of: Twitter
Downtown Beirut, Lebanon - AFP
Downtown Beirut, Lebanon - AFP

‘Snowball of change’

Unlike many countries including Britain and Thailand, Lebanon offers no tax breaks or other incentives to help the sector.

“There is no single governmental policy or strategy to manage the social enterprises field,” said George Ghafary, head of a social enterprise that employs former substance abusers, prisoners and disadvantaged women to work on environmental projects.

“Social enterprises can create a snowball of change, especially if the government offers incentives to existing companies ... thus creating even bigger impact.”

No one at the Labour Ministry was available for comment on the government’s policy.

Samer Sfeir co-founded ProAbled, which trains people in Lebanon with special needs to work and companies to hire them.

He bemoaned a lack of funding for social enterprises and contrasted the government’s approach with that of Britain, where the government actively seeks out such businesses to supply publicly funded goods and services.

“It is not difficult to start a social enterprise, but to scale it is hard ... everybody is focused on starting something new, not working on helping what already exists,” he said.

A view of Beirut's ABC main commercial mall. (File photo: AFP)
A view of Beirut's ABC main commercial mall. (File photo: AFP)

“Regular business already struggle in Lebanon’s economy, but social enterprises have even a more difficult time, because it is more costly to run, and eventually your profit margin is less because you are giving back.”

It is a problem El Hage, 32, is familiar with. He started Agonist with his own money after failing to raise private investment due to skepticism the cafe would be a success.

In fact, he said, Lebanese people have come from all over the country to get their caffeine fix with a side of banter from people they would not usually get to meet.

As coffee and pastries are handed out, staff often sit and chat with customers. Before leaving, each customer is asked to put their hand in a basket and pick a positive proverb.

“This big-time changes the way Lebanese see people with disabilities - to accept them exactly as they are,” said one return customer, Vincent El Khoury.

“Many people look at them as less than, and I hate this.”

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