The Agri-Food Innovation Cluster, the first in Lebanon and the region, is being setup by professionals in the sector through the Agrytech Program.
Launched in 2017 and funded jointly by Berytech and the Kingdom of the Netherlands, the Agrytech Program aims to source the top startups with disruptive innovations in the Agri-Food sector and provide them with the adequate technical and business resources as well as community support to scale their ideas into successful businesses with global impact.
A platform for startups and companies
One of the main pillars of the Agrytech Program – Lebanon’s Agri-Food Innovation Hub, is to create a platform where both startups and existing companies in the Lebanese agri-food sector can come together and work on increasing the competitiveness of the sector and placing Lebanon back on the innovation map, both at regional and international levels. “This kind of interaction and collaboration are referred to as a cluster, with the main objective of building synergies and promoting for a smarter agri-food sector, both nationally and internationally,” explains Ramy Boujawdeh, Berytech Deputy GM.
The main advantages that companies gain from being part of a cluster are ease of access to expertise, skilled workers, input suppliers, information channels, and linkages to new markets. “Ultimately, this results in improved competitiveness, as seen with different clusters around the world”, continues Boujawdeh.
The Agri-Food Innovation Cluster, championed by Berytech, is being setup up with founding members representing leading enterprises in the sector, including Nabil Shuman – Agriplus, Hassan Beydoun – Balkis, Rami Boujawdeh – Berytech, Rima Memari – Biolicious, Jan-Willem Roossink – Brasserie Almaza S.A.L., Rani Azzi and Edouard Kosremelli – Chateau Kefraya, Anis AbuJaoudeh – Crown Flour Mills, Andre Hajjar – Go Baladi, Jihad Daher – Gout Blanc, Hadi Kehaleh – Ixsir Winery, and Nadine Khoury – Robinson Agri.
Berytech has also solicited the expertise of Roger Van Hoesel, head of Food Valley NL – one of the first professional food clusters in the world, and a member of the Agrytech Program Advisory Board, to help in developing the cluster. “This cluster is the first of its kind in the region and will help Lebanon to be leader in that aspect. It can also gradually help the agri-food sector to be competitive and enable enterprises to innovate,” comments Van Hoesel.
Establishing a need
“We knew that what worked abroad may not work in Lebanon,” comments Boujawdeh, “so there was a need to first test the ground, to see whether such a cluster would be beneficial and demanded by the different stakeholders, namely the agri-food enterprises.” An assessment was carried out to analyze the local ecosystem, and test the idea of setting up a cluster, identifying its potential benefits and modus operandi, as well as the synergies it would create with other existing associations representing the sector.
The assessment revealed interesting insights into the industry. Different syndicates and associations have worked for several years to represent the interest of their members and help create a better business-enabling environment for the sectors they represent, including the agri-food sector. However, the limited financial and human resources negatively influenced their performance, limiting their role to advocacy and participation in international trade shows.
The challenges and gaps enlarged with the years, as the country witnessed different economic slowdowns, and thus the needs of the enterprises grew beyond the services provided.
“The agri-food sector in Lebanon has enormous potential, and in order to regain our rightful place as major players on the world map, we need to push innovation,” explains Boujawdeh. “Be it through process or product innovation, enterprises need to innovate, and this process requires long-term support for integration, and hence the need for an Agri-Food Innovation Cluster.”
Finding the right people
Having established the need and will for setting-up the cluster, the next step was to find enterprises who were willing to join and work closely with Berytech through the Agrytech Program to setup the groundwork including setting the vision and mission, the operational model, strategy, as well as attracting new members.
“Our quest for members started, and we contacted those who had expressed interest in the cluster and asked them to join,” says Boujawdeh. A first meeting was setup in November 2017 with 11 enterprises, both startups and established ones, who have now become the founding members.
According to Boujawdeh, the next steps are crucial. “We need to build trust among the members and help them think beyond their personal interests, think for the interest of the sub-sectors they represent.”
Regular meetings are now scheduled every 3 weeks at different locations, rotating between the headquarters of each founding member’s company. The members also participated in a workshop given by Food Valley NL in January 2018, where tasks were divided, and committees were formed.
The next meeting is set for mid-February 2018 and the agenda will include defining the vision and mission as well as setting the governance and business model of the Cluster.
“The Agri-Food Innovation Cluster is envisioned to become the driving force of the Agri-Food innovators, industry leaders and expert community by stimulating innovation, reinforcing mutual exchanges, and setting international legitimacy. We are very excited!” concludes Boujawdeh.