Lebanon would not be the same without the scent of zaatar in the morning air, wafting from manouche bakeries for a quick breakfast or mixed into a paste, perpetually on the dining table for a quick snack. The mix of thyme, sumac, roasted sesame, and salt is in every tourist’s suitcase on their way home and the first thing Lebanese send to relatives living abroad.
The best zaatar mixes are made by small-scale, rural producers who grow the thyme, putting generations of know-how into creating the products.
With Lebanon still mired in financial collapse, these producers are amongst the most at risk, struggling to sell enough to cover the rising cost of fuel needed to run generators. Most only get one to two hours of state electricity a day, meaning no water is pumped, machines cannot run, and there is no cell phone service.
The Mazeej project aims to support these people, securing the livelihoods of zaatar farmers and producers by upgrading their skillset, machinery, packaging, and access to new markets.
Implemented by The United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) in partnership with the Lebanese Agriculture Ministry and funded by the Italian government through the Italian Agency for Development Cooperation (AICS), Mazeej is the latest phase in the longstanding Community Empowerment and Livelihoods Enhancement Project (CELEP).
“The initiative aims to revitalize and upgrade the Lebanese agri-food value chains with high quality and standards by supporting small local enterprises in all the phases of the value chain, with special consideration for women,” AICS Beirut director Alessandra Piermattei told Al Arabiya English. “We think Lebanon has great potential in this field and that zaatar is the perfect candidate due to its widespread presence in the country and the low cost of production.”
No longer displaced
One million euros was used to support 26 zaatar producers - providing 43 processing machines and 106 training sessions, creating 52 food innovations, and facilitating international market access. The project has created 595 new jobs and supports over 1100 individuals engaged in the different project activities, among them 548 women.
By securing the producers’ livelihoods, the Mazeej project indirectly helps avoid the creation of displaced people seeking their fortune abroad because they can’t afford to live in their homeland anymore. This year, Italy has intercepted many illegal sea crossings coming from Lebanon.
“I think this project plays a role in securing the livelihoods for the most vulnerable populations,” Piermattei said. “These interventions contributed to supporting the fragile economy of Lebanon, supporting the agriculture sector with fundamentals for the growth of a country. I think the holistic approach the project adopted alone touches many different industries.
“The beneficiaries came from different backgrounds and financial and social situations and, hopefully, with the project, we gave them a reason to stay in the country,” she added, “and the possibility to develop an economic activity here without leaving.”
The beneficiaries were able to participate in the international hospitality and food trade fair in Horeca. One such producer is Jana Al Day’a, a cooperative of 18 women in Akkar run by Marie Nehme.
With the program’s help, they learned new techniques for growing, harvesting, and drying the zaatar and came up with unique blends to sell.
“They brought us a chef to help create two new mixes, one of which has sesame and sumac in new proportions, and the other has sesame, sumac, walnuts, and raisins,” Nehme said. “People are now buying more of our products, and we have new customers, but of course, the financial situation of the country is difficult. This program has helped us keep going.
“Now, we are applying for exporting permits to be able to sell outside Lebanon and get some fresh currency, which will really help us survive,” she added. “The program helped us showcase our products in Horeca, and the Saudi Embassy approached us to enquire about buying our zaatar.”
A new hub for producers, the Zaatar Mine, was also inaugurated in the Shouf Biosphere as part of Mazeej’s program. The renovated house now acts as an attraction where visitors can learn about growing and preparing zaatar and buy food products made by farmers and producers in the Shouf.
“Now we have a kind of a trail, following the zaatar value chain - visitors can visit the farmer, see the atelier, mix their zaatar, and so on,” Shouf Biosphere manager Nizar Hani told Al Arabiya English. “For us, thyme is an important native species with high economic value. It is one of the species we use in our restoration activities, mainly on the old, abandoned terraces as part of our forest and landscape restoration.
“The most important thing we did with Mazeej - in addition to the capacity building, machinery, renovation of the zaatar house, helping the producers to improve their skills - is that they trained us on this value chain concept,” he added. “We applied this approach to other products in reserve, and we finished the first five products in addition to za'atar. We worked on honey, sumac, pine nuts, and pomegranate molasses.”
Without interventions like Mazeej, it’s possible that these small-scale producers – seen by many as the heart and soul of Lebanon’s food culture – could disappear under the weight of the country’s many crises. By offering training and capacity-building sessions, they provide sustainable aid that the beneficiaries can use long after the end of the program.