Beirut, Lebanon – Rising prices for basic necessities such as bread have pushed many Lebanese below the poverty line as the economic crisis continues.
Lebanese bakers rely on imported wheat to produce their products, and even the cost of heavily subsidized traditional tihbah flatbread – since most people, rich and poor, eat most of the food – has tripled since 2012.
Mabia Bakery, a small garment shop in Beirut’s Jemayejah district, is trying to ensure Lebanon’s better security and is less dependent on imported flour for bakeries with multiple humanitarian projects.
Opened in 2020 by Brent Stewart, founder of the educational NGO Sadalsud and interested baker, the bakery operates from a cooperative kitchen in Tripoli and employs only women from marginalized communities.
Stuart told Al Jazeera, “This place happened because I wanted to do something that is desirable and needs to be considered, otherwise it would not be sustainable.” “The number of people willing to buy something because it dries up quickly – there are only so many bed bags that people can buy, but everyone needs bread.”
Currently, 80 percent of the wheat that is eaten in Lebanon is imported from countries like Ukraine, which has high yields on a large part of Lebanon’s scarce land. Local wheat that grows in small quantities is used as frekeh or burgul (bulgur).
“Wheat as a commodity is not financially sustainable in Lebanon. There are people who grow their own wheat for personal use but not local wheat on an industry basis, ”Stuart said.
“The flour we buy from the Buckleen Mill, made from imported wheat, costs 1,500 lira per kg. [$1]Which is much cheaper than the local beca wheat we bought, which is for 5000 lira [$3.30] One kilo is not being grown enough to meet the demand.
“No matching has been noticed in calling locally grown wheat – these huge mills of imported wheat can only take a small amount locally and it can’t even match,” he added. “These machines are huge and the match in this cycle is that milling is really an industry and the murmur that is happening on a small scale is not well run and is of low quality.”
The price of flour has gone up
With the devaluation of the Lebanese lira, the price of bread bought from imported flour has risen further. With subsidies ending in May, spending is expected to skyrocket.
Stuart’s new project center is to raise local wheat with the help of a grant from the Middle East Children’s Alliance and set up a new stone for farmers to use freely, which he hopes will encourage more wheat cultivation locally and instead turn it into a cheaper alternative.
The mill, which is ready in June in the rich Jahle of agriculture, will allow small batches of local wheat to be mixed into high-quality flour.
“I know that a small mill and the amount of wheat we are growing is not going to create a nationwide waste, but it needs to start somewhere,” Stuart said.
“We need to start changing the minds of our people about why it is important for us to grow and consume local wheat, and not just grow and bake locally for ourselves, to make it a common system. So this is our small start.”
The ‘heir’ is wheat
He is currently cultivating 50 varieties of wheat in the biodiversity field of the donated land in Rachhaya, which will allow him to test a variety of crops and fully produce Mavia Baker flour from the July crop. Many of the varieties he is experimenting with are no longer available in the country.
“It’s going to be a critical time, because local wheat can’t be used for leavened bread instead of imported. But I’ve got some good local varieties to work with,” Stuart said. “I got most of these samples from the gene bank and I want to see what grows well, what tastes good.
“Growing local varieties has environmental benefits because a‘ Landras ’wheat – the equivalent of a legacy vegetable – is adapted to the local climate,” he added. “These are naturally drought-tolerant, more pest and disease resistant, so you don’t need that much pesticide.”
The dependence of foreign wheat on chemicals to increase their efficiency is part of why farmers in Lebanon cannot produce it.
Stuart is growing 10 tons of local wheat on another plot of land in Terbal near Jahle, half of which will provide free flatbread to the bakery he is opening in the Merge refugee camp in Baker Valley.
Yusra Abdel Khatabiyeh, a Syrian refugee who has worked with Mavia Bakery for several years, will lead the new bakery in place of the previous one, run by another NGO that had to close due to a failed economy.
“I learned to make sourdough bread at Mavia Bakery and I really enjoy it,” Khatbiyah told Al Jazeera. “I really needed this job and when Marge’s bakery closed, Brent took me here and it was great.
“I’m happy to be back at a bakery there,” he added. “People there really need it and this kind of bread is my specialty.”
The remaining five tons of flour will go to a program Stuart is still finalizing, trying local flour in the hands of the unemployed and will consider making a change on his own.
If Lebanon could one day source most of its wheat locally, the price of bread would be less linked to economic instability.
“Maybe we’ll subsidize the flour to make it possible, because right now no one has the extra money for anything,” Stewart said.
“The goal is to make lasting changes in food security. The match is obviously a part of it but I think the idea of changing the habits of the people where people are bringing their flour from is important.