Beirut, Lebanon – As the deepening economic crisis continues, the soaring prices of basic necessities like bread have pushed many Lebanese below the poverty line.
With Lebanon’s bakers relying on imported wheat to produce their goods, the cost of even the heavily subsidised traditional flatbread – eaten by rich and poor alike with most meals – has tripled since 2019.
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Mavia Bakery, a small outfit tucked away in Beirut’s Gemmayzeh district, is trying to ensure Lebanon has better food security and is less dependent on imported flour for its bakeries with a series of humanitarian projects.
Opened in 2020 by educational NGO Sadalsuud founder and avid baker Brant Stewart, the bakery works out of a cooperative kitchen in Tripoli and only hires women from marginalised communities.
“This space came about because I wanted to do something that is desirable and needed regardless of who makes it, otherwise it’s not sustainable,” Stewart told Al Jazeera. “The number of people willing to buy something because of who made it dries up quickly – there are only so many beaded bags that people can buy, but everyone needs bread.”
Currently, 80 percent of the wheat Lebanon consumes is imported from countries like Ukraine, which has high production on vast tracts of land Lebanon lacks. What little local wheat is grown is used as freekeh or burghul (bulgur).
“Wheat as a commodity crop is not financially viable in Lebanon. There are people who grow their own wheat for personal use but, on an industrial scale, local wheat doesn’t happen,” Stewart said.
“The flour that we buy here from the Bakalian mill, which is made from imported wheat, costs 1,500 lira per kilo [$1], which is much cheaper than the local Bekaa wheat that we buy, which is for 5,000 lira [$3.30] a kilo because there is not enough being grown to cover demand.
“There hasn’t been a mill focused on milling locally grown wheat either – these massive mills working imported wheat can’t just take a small amount of local stuff and mill it,” he added. “These machines are huge and it really is the milling that is the missing link in the chain. Milling is an art and the milling that’s happening on a smaller scale is not milled well and is low quality.”
Flour price rises
With the depreciation of the Lebanese lira, purchasing imported flour has driven the price of bread higher. With subsidies said to end in May, the cost is expected to skyrocket.
Stewart’s new projects centre on growing local wheat and installing a new stone mill for farmers to use freely, funded by a grant from the Middle East Children’s Alliance, which he hopes will encourage growing more wheat locally and, in turn, make it the cheaper option.
The mill, which will be ready in June in agriculturally rich Zahle, will allow small-scale batches of local wheat to be milled into high-quality flour.
“I know that one small mill and the amount of wheat we’re growing isn’t going to make a dent countrywide, but it needs to start somewhere,” Stewart said.
“We need to start changing people’s minds about why it’s important to grow and consume local wheat, and not just on a local scale of growing and baking for yourself, but getting it into the general system, so this is our small start.”
He is currently growing 50 varieties of wheat in a biodiversity field of donated land in Rachaya, which will allow him to experiment with different types and fully source Mavia Bakery’s flour from the July harvest. Many of the varieties he is experimenting with are no longer available in the country.
“It’s going to be a bit of a transitional period, as local wheat has not been bred over the years to be used for leavened bread, unlike the imported ones. But I’ve found some really good local varieties to work with,” Stewart said. “I got most of these samples from gene banks and I want to see what grows well, what’s tasty.
“There are environmental benefits to growing local varieties because a ‘landrace’ wheat – the equivalent to an heirloom vegetable – is adapted to the local climate,” he added. “They’re naturally more drought-tolerant, more pest- and disease-resistant, so you don’t need as many pesticides.”
The dependency of foreign wheat on chemicals to make them grow efficiently is part of why farmers cannot afford to produce it in Lebanon.
In another plot of land in Terbol, near Zahle, Stewart is growing 10 tonnes of local wheat, half of which will go towards a bakery he is opening in the Marj refugee camp in the Bekaa Valley that will provide free flatbread.
Yousra Abdel Khatabiyeh, a Syrian refugee who has been working with Mavia Bakery for several years, will head the new bakery in place of a previous one, run by another NGO, which had to shut down because of the failing economy.
“I learned how to make to make sourdough bread at Mavia Bakery and I’m really enjoying it,” Khatabiyeh told Al Jazeera. “I really needed the work and when the bakery in Marj shut down, Brant took me on here and it’s been wonderful.
“I’m happy to be going back to a bakery there,” she added. “It’s really needed by the people there and that kind of bread is my speciality.”
The remaining five tonnes of flour will go into a programme Stewart is still finalising, aiming to get local flour into the hands of bakers to try out and consider making the change themselves.
If Lebanon can one day source most of its wheat locally, the cost of bread would be less linked to economic instability.
“Maybe we’ll subsidise the flour ourselves to make it feasible, as right now no one has extra money to spend on anything,” Stewart said.
“The purpose is to make lasting changes in food security. The mill is obviously a part of that but I think this idea of changing people’s habits of where they’re getting their flour from is important.”