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From architecture to agriculture: The two professionals growing saffron in Lebanon

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Against the backdrop of Lebanon’s multiple ongoing crises, architects Karl Karam and Jihad Farah have chosen to embark upon a new venture; cultivating saffron in the country’s Bekaa Valley, close to the Syrian border.

Many construction projects in the country have stalled due to worsening economic conditions. Rather than seek better prospects abroad - like so many of their compatriots - the pair, who first met during 2019’s anti-government protests, hoped to find better fortunes in agriculture.

“We were very engaged in the October Revolution,” Karam told Al Arabiya English. “It’s a constructive revolution that’s a vision for our country. We don’t always need to be dependent. We don’t need to be resilient. We just need to do [the work].”

“Lebanon could be a country that produces high-end products,” he said, adding, “We are smaller than a province in Syria in terms of size, but still the amount of water and the amount of land that is untapped is unbelievable.”

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Karam and Farah began working on their joint project in December 2020, then leasing seven square kilometers of land in the Bekaa Valley six months later for their farm. The success of their product hinges on quality rather than quantity. Around a quarter of a million flowers are required for a single kilogram of saffron.

“What we’re focusing on now is making sure that [our product] is in the top tier of what saffron can be,” he explained. “We’re trying to get into a very niche market because our production is never going to exceed that of Iran’s production or that of India’s production.”

“We’re fully hands-on,” said Karam. “There was no other way than being on-site because we also need to understand what we’re working with. If you don’t, you don’t know what you’re doing or how to evolve. We come from a background that is maybe more open and more experimental, so we’re less worried about diving into new things.”

With more than 200,000 hectares of arable land, proportionally the highest amount across the entire Arab world, Lebanon’s crop-growing potential is vast. However, infrastructural deficiencies and decades of mismanagement have left the sector underdeveloped and underutilized.

Adding luxury commodities such as the cultivation of saffron into Lebanon’s agricultural industry is a tremendous boon to the country’s ailing economy. Globally, the value of the saffron trade hit nearly $445 million in 2021.

Against the backdrop of Lebanon’s multiple ongoing crises, architects Karl Karam and Jihad Farah have chosen to embark upon a new venture; cultivating saffron in the country’s Bekaa Valley. (Image: Rob McKelvey)
Against the backdrop of Lebanon’s multiple ongoing crises, architects Karl Karam and Jihad Farah have chosen to embark upon a new venture; cultivating saffron in the country’s Bekaa Valley. (Image: Rob McKelvey)

Karam also pointed out saffron’s use in the pharmaceutical, fashion, cosmetics, and food and beverage industries. “You have several pathways if you want to make that business [profitable],” he said.

Historically, the Bekaa valley has been a hotbed for different land cultivation. With proper governance and security largely absent from the region, cannabis farming remains common throughout the area, despite its criminality. It also has comparatively low profits for those producing the crop itself. A kilogram of cannabis typically sells for around $100.

Saffron dwarfs the drug trade with a kilo selling in Lebanon for a retail price of around $2,000. It can rise to $10,000 if exported, according to Karam.

“These farmers who grow marijuana get really a very small piece of the pie,” said Karam. “[Instead, they] could be operating in a business with a crop that actually would give them good income. “If you’re there and you’re a farmer, and you have your time for yourself, then it makes sense for you to invest in that,” he added. “The time that you put into it will give you back something.”

Projects like the one set up by Karam and Farah can create new employment opportunities. At the same time demonstrate the benefit that small-scale investments in underexploited locally produced luxury goods can have.

With a reliable income of fresh dollars, the return on that investment is immense, not limited in terms of profit but also in the potential to revitalize the struggling Lebanese economy.

According to the two entrepreneurs, the Lebanon’s currency sits at around 22,000 Lire to one US dollar. The potential gains far outweigh the risks.

“Now, there are more possibilities, even if it’s not huge capital,” Karam explained. “If you know that you’re going to make mistakes that are going to cost you time and money, it’s the right time to get into it now because, if you manage to export, you’re taking advantage of the fluctuation within the rate of the dollar.”

“You can say it’s opportunistic, but it’s also a way of contributing to bringing work to these communities,” he added. “It’s a win-win.”

As Lebanon continues to face a mass exodus of the middle class and the prospect of a severe ‘brain drain,’ it is difficult to convince many Lebanese to invest in novel ventures.

Saffron is serving to highlight the unrealized potential of the country while presenting a way out of the crises.

“There’s pride in fighting to get to what you want, and in going through all of these circumstances and keep going,” said Karam. “There is pride in that, and why not? It’s not a bad thing to have pride. There are so many things that the Lebanese have done all around the world, and in Lebanon.”

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