The exponential increase of the world population through time is heaping more pressure on the agricultural sector to produce food amounts enough to feed the world. There is a significant need for better water management and irrigation practices to increase agricultural production using the same amount of water, and even less. On the other hand, land resources are of equal importance and their use in a sustainable manner is a key factor moving forward.
How can the agribusiness sector contribute towards a sustainable future? More importantly, what kind of steps is Debbane Saikali Group taking in the right direction?
Hydroponics is defined as not using soil as substrate for crop production (FAO, 2020). The major advantage with such a system is the absence of weeds and other soil- borne pests, no toxic pesticide residues, better use of water, better control over nutrients and oxygen, and increased crop quality and yields.
Exotica has been using the hydroponics system in its nurseries since 1998. Back then, Exotica engineers learned the advanced technologies of the new growing systems in Europe, imported them to Lebanon, and through continuous support from European experts till this day, they have been successful in maintaining and optimizing these systems.
Roses are grown in perlite, which allows growers to plant double the roses per square meter, providing a better economic return. Irrigation and fertilizers are supplied through automated systems, and water demand is determined through soil sensors in the growing media. This automated fertigation process, along with the controlled environment of the greenhouse, enables the growers to produce high quality roses that are uniform across the greenhouse.
Other than ornamentals, Debbane Freres has adopted hydroponics in the agricultural industry since the early 2000’s. Our trial station in Aadloun encompasses 12,000 square meters of hydroponically grown tomatoes, cucumbers and eggplants. The greenhouses have a controlled environment with respect to temperature, humidity, and irrigation. The main advantages of this system include, but are not limited to the following:
Another advanced form of hydroponics, the Nutrient Film Technique (NFT), has been adopted in the
Bouar trial station where we are growing lettuce. Similarly, advantages of NFT include, but are not limited to the following
Bouar station also hosts strawberries planted hydroponically in Rockwool, another inert mineral substrate. Achieving high yields and high quality fruits.
Other than hydroponics, Debbane is adopting new planting and cultivation methods in the grapes sector. With the idea originating from Italy, vineyards are grown under plastic film covers, in an effort to protect the vines during critical periods of adverse weather conditions, mainly hail storms, spring frost and hot wind storms in summer. Furthermore, the plastic film cover provides a better microclimate for the vineyard, allowing harvest time to be achieved earlier for early varieties, and later for late varieties. In order for this cultivation method to be fully effective, Debbane secured the exclusivity of the best protected grape varieties from California to fit every segment of the market. We can now produce grapes from early June till end December.
Debbane Freres has already adopted the new vineyard structure in Bekaa, North, and most recently in the South of Lebanon where a 15 hectares vineyard has been installed at Wazzani. The project at Wazzani is finalized, with all the structures installed and covered, and all the grapes planted. Production is expected to start in 2021.
The idea of hydroponics has surely disrupted the traditional ornamental and agricultural markets, being able to provide higher quality produce, with greater amounts, at faster rates and most importantly while using less land and resources. So, why hasn’t Debbane been able to properly commercialize it on the national and regional scale?
Hydroponics projects have a significantly higher initial investment due to the multi-span structure, climate control, automated irrigation system, cost of substrate that needs to be changed yearly and others. Many farmers/investors refrain from venturing into an investment of such magnitude, especially that the Lebanese produce markets’ prices are continuously fluctuating. Moreover, the government does not subsidize such sustainable solutions to help and encourage the Lebanese farmer to invest.
The same applies for the grape’s projects, whereby the initial cost of investment is almost 5 times more than that of a traditional vineyard. With the current financial crisis and the uncertainty of the Lebanese economy going forward, the likelihood of selling such projects continues to be limited.
Like any innovation, the main challenge is the mentality of the target customer, which in our case is the farmer; very tough. Without solid facts and studies proving the efficiency and feasibility of our projects, it is very hard to market and sell projects.
On the other hand, we have not been successful enough on our demonstration sites to present clear-cut data, proving that Hydroponically grown vegetables and strawberries yield consistently a better and more abundant crop than soil-planted ones. More focus and intensified work will be provided from our side, as we believe this is certainly going to be a technique to spread in the near future. We also need to build and train the teams who will be in charge of supporting the customers who will follow these techniques.
In order to tackle these challenges, we are taking several steps moving forward. Firstly, through trials, we are optimizing our structures in an effort to lower cost per square meter, therefore lowering the amount of initial investment required. Secondly, we are forming a committee that will be dedicated to sharing ideas and expertise in the aforementioned innovative solutions, which also serves the purpose of lowering and optimizing the operational expenses of these projects. Finally, we continue to expose ourselves to innovations and developments through seminars, fairs and exhibitions, whereby we can learn from outside knowledge, adapt what we learned to our resources and capabilities, and provide the market with tailor made solutions.
Through innovation and technologies, Debbane continues to strive in the face of the agricultural challenges in the region, while aiming to optimize land and water use and provide farmers with holistic agricultural solutions towards a sustainable future.
In solidarity with the families affected by the Beirut Port Explosion on August 4th, 2020, Offre Joie Association offered its support by restoring residential buildings in Mar Mikhael and Gemayzeh areas, to allow families a safe return to their homes before Christmas. In this context, and in support of this initiative, Debbane Agri Holding company and Exotica joined efforts to decorate building balconies with poinsettia (Christmas flowers) and other plants in order to instill true Christmas spirit, hope and belief in a better tomorrow. All our support and love go to Offre Joie Association and the affected families.
Dear Partners, 2020 has been an exceptionally difficult year; a year that can be simply described as the “Survival Year”. This is a time like no other in our lives. We have faced demonstrations, streets unrest, devastating Covid-19 pandemic and of course hyper-inflation, eating our wealth away. Yes, we faced all these catastrophic events, what if we top them up with the Beirut blast that turned our beloved city into ashes, sadly with lots of deaths and casualties. By no means I am trying to draw a dramatic image here; but I am rather showing how resilient we are as a team. These challenges brought out the best in each and every one of us; and hence, we have emerged even stronger. Our teams and head of departments have shown high level of commitment, and an exemplary perseverance that helped us stay afloat throughout the storms. For all of these I am grateful. Our 2020 results were not up to what we aimed for; but I can, with all confidence, say that we fought hard and we did our level best. Our “Agility” strategy, we started adapting back in 2019 has been properly followed by everyone, and hence today Debbane Agri is geared up and better prepared, to face another challenging year 2021. The way we decided to face 2021 is to continue with our “Agility” strategy; however, and in-line with the Board of Directors’ directions, we will be launching several tactical development projects at some operations, and we will also start exploring new markets for expansion. We always aim higher, and for brighter days. Nothing of course can happen unless we continue as always working in harmony as one team: BOD, Management & Operations; while adhering to our Group values. Finally, I would seize this opportunity to thank each and everyone of you for an amazing job and outstanding contribution. I would also like to thanks Messrs. Etienne & Fady Debbane for being always there for me, and of course the Board of Directors for their guidance and the overwhelming faith they put in me. Wish you all Merry Christmas & Happy New Year With respect and gratitude, John Fawaz
On 05/12/2020, Debbane for Modern Agriculture organized a field day for the observation of desert tomato varieties at Najaf station, in the presence of a large number of desert tomato farmers and more than 100 of our agents in Najaf and Karbala. The cultivated varieties and the most important characteristics of our commercial varieties "Jida" and "Umniah" were explained in detail, in addition to the most important features required for the successful growth of these varieties in a desert environment. Debbane representatives also covered the protection and fertilization programs of tomatoes and the importance of using good fertilizers and effective pesticides to ensure a successful agricultural process and to protect plants from pests. Tomato fertilization materials and programs from our company were also discussed.
For the second year Debbane Freres supports Berytech Lebanon to launch the fourth edition of Agrytech Hackathon. However, this year, the Hackathon is a bit different. It’s an E-Hackathon that was conducted online from 3 to 18 December 2020. What is Agrytech E-Hackathon? The Agrytech Hackathon is organized online by Berytech in partnership and with the full and unwavering support of the Embassy of the Kingdom of The Netherlands in Lebanon. This e-hackathon is an exciting opportunity to develop innovative solutions to real-life challenges using technologies such as Internet of Things, Big Data and Artificial Intelligence in the agri-food sector. Throughout the e-hackathon, participants will receive the assistance of technical, industry and business experts, and will have access to the tools and hardware prototyping facilities at the Berytech Fab Lab. The winners of the e-Hackathon will win valuable prizes and get the chance to be enrolled in Berytech’s Agrytech Accelerator Program. Who Can Apply? You are encouraged to apply if you are an engineer, scientist, maker, creative, innovator, entrepreneur or a young professional who has an innovative solution or runs an early-stage agri-food startup that falls under the pre-set agri-food challenges (see below). Your solution – an idea or within an early-stage startup, needs to fall under the agri-food sector, solve one of the pre-set challenges and should include a tech component (Software, hardware, IOT). You can apply with your own idea as long as it falls under one of the pre-set challenges. Your solution should include an innovative process, product or service with the capacity to increase economical value and create job opportunities in Lebanon, solving one of the pre-set challenges below. To participate you need to be a team of at least 3 people, preferably including one technical person. If you don’t have a team, no worries, you can still register, join the first phase of the hackathon, and find a team. The online hackathon is open for teams residing in Lebanon only. Anyone is encouraged to participate in next year’s challenge 2021 from today! The Winners The Final phase of winners’ selection was held online on Friday December 18th 2020 with the participation of many jury members including Debbane Freres General Manager Mr. Zaher Ballout as well as members from Berytech and others… This edition, 4 winners were announced: Agrocedrus in the first place (prize is USD 4,500 and access to the Agrytech Accelerator Program), the second place went to Beekeepers and Collarvet (prize is USD 3,500 and access to the Agrytech Accelerator Program) while Pinemed received the third place (prize is USD 1,000. Agrocedrus, Beekeepers, and Collarvet received a golden pass to join the #AgrytechAccelerator.