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Grassroots Food Security Initiative Fosters Agricultural Self-Sufficiency

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F
OOD SECURITY‘s article on this new trend is merely a description of the rediscovery of oneself’s subsistence way of living one’s life in the large but empty regions of the MENA. It addresses the particulars of how the Lebanese grassroots food security initiative fosters Agricultural self-sufficiency as if by chance. Here it is anyway.

Lebanese Grassroots Food Security Initiative Fosters Agricultural Self-Sufficiency

A grassroots national food security initiative is working to revive the Lebanese food system through projects that foster agricultural self-sufficiency.

Ardi Ardak—which translates to my land, your land in Arabic—launched in 2019 to rehabilitate abandoned arable lands and decrease Lebanon’s dependence on food imports. The initiative is a collaboration among The Environment and Sustainable Development Unit (ESDU) at the American University of Beirut (AUB), the Lebanese League for Women in Business (LLWB), the Food Heritage Foundation, and Zico House.

“The idea back then was to create a mechanism that would link local production to the markets,” Nicolas Gholam, founding coordinator of Ardi Ardak, tells Food Tank. Working with rural, small-scale producers under an agroecological, climate-smart approach is central to Ardi Ardak’s mission, explains Gholam.

The food security initiative formed as “a response to the deteriorating socioeconomic situation in Lebanon,” says Gholam.

In October 2019, protests ignited against government corruption and austerity measures. Prior to the 17 October Revolution, Lebanon faced a massive economic downturn. By the end of 2019, Lebanon’s public debt ballooned to the world’s third highest, estimated at 171 percent of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP). In 2020, with the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic, the economy worsened. During the first six months of 2021, the inflation rate averaged 131 percent, disproportionately affecting the poor and middle class. 

According to a recent report from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the U.N. Economic and Social Commission For Western Asia (ESCWA), the loss of purchasing power renders 40 percent of Lebanese households unable to satisfy their basic food necessities.

In 2020, the explosion in Beirut’s port—which handled 70 percent of food imports in a country importing about 85 percent of its food—devastated Lebanon’s food supply. The blast destroyed a major grain silo and damaged 120,000 metric tons of staple food stocks stored at the port, including wheat, soy and other beans. Food prices skyrocketed.

Ardi Ardak emerged in response to these events. The initiative links investors and large landowners with small farmers and rural women, and rehabilitates abandoned arable lands. Almost 89 percent of Lebanon’s population lives in urban areas, while agricultural land comprises 64 percent of the country. According to Gholam, “Those people who came from rural areas still have lands they were not looking after.”

According to a 2020 report from the Lebanese Ministry of Agriculture, the agrifood sector remains a low priority from the government. This has resulted in limited public investment in infrastructure and research, and poor organization of the agrifood value chain.

To address these challenges, Ardi Ardak first conducts assessments on the agricultural viability of abandoned lands. The initiative aims to act as a hub connecting large landowners who have left their lands—whether they are “bankers, or restaurateurs, or anything,” says Gholam—with farmers still living in rural areas. Then, the initiative provides technical guidance to promote sustainable agricultural practices for farmers willing to work the land.

“In the first year, we reached 180 assessments, and it’s been steady ever since,” Gholam tells Food Tank.

Ardi Ardak believes it is also important to provide market access and adequate infrastructure for rural small-scale producers. The initiative aims to ease the burden of managing every single aspect of the value chain for smallholder farmers, because, Gholam says, “not all smallholders are entrepreneurs.” Through partnerships with humanitarian organizations and private sector start-ups, the initiative works to create an environment where farmers can focus on production.

Gholam notes that, on average, rural small-scale producers spend two and a half days per week focused on delivery or selling activities. “This time should be spent in the workshop, or on the farm, or testing products,” Gholam says.

The marketing channel Soul aal Souk helps to achieve this goal. A monthly farmers market established in partnership with AUB, it fosters linkages between urban residents and rural producers, offering city residents access to healthy, traditional food. Ardi Ardak supports food trails promoting smallholder Lebanese producers through rural tourism. To further cultivate market access, Ardi Ardak also collaborates with Food and Roots, a company that gathers, packages and sells traditional and innovative products from rural areas.

In the future, the grassroots initiative hopes to complete two projects to transform landscapes, livelihoods, and the Lebanese food system. Ardi Ardak is partnering with a local municipality in the Beqaa Valley to implement an agroforestry model on a large swath of land. They hope to help residents sustain the local forest, work the agricultural land, and enjoy a public park. In Tripoli, Afif Wehbe, an Agricultural Engineer at AUB, says Ardi Ardak is in the early stages of plans to build a small urban garden divided among community members, which would include a section for a farmers market. 

“We have potential, but we need the infrastructure,” Gholam tells Food Tank. “We’ll start by giving people an option they did not know existed beforehand, and that’s a good enough thing to start with.”

Photo courtesy of Ardi Ardak

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The Nile Delta’s Disappearing Farmland

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The Nile Delta’s Disappearing Farmland is a story by Adam Voiland based on NASA Earth Observatory images by Lauren Dauphin, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey.

The above image is for illustration and is of The Nile, Egypt.

During the time of the pharaohs, the fertile soils along the Nile River likely supported a civilization of roughly 3 million people. Now there are 30 times that number of people living in Egypt, with 95 percent of them clustered in towns and cities in the Nile’s floodplain. Much of the growth has come in recent decades, with the Egyptian population soaring from 45 million in the 1980s to more than 100 million now.

July 25, 1984, JPEG
August 16, 2021, JPEG

View Image Comparison

Just 4 percent of Egypt’s land is suitable for agriculture, and that number is shrinking quickly due to a wave of urban and suburban development accompanying the population growth. “It’s not an exaggeration to say that this is a crisis,” said Nasem Badreldin, a digital agronomist at the University of Manitoba. “Satellite data shows us that Egypt is losing about 2 percent of its arable land per decade due to urbanization, and the process is accelerating. If this continues, Egypt will face serious food security problems.”

The pair of Landsat images below shows how much farmland has been lost to development around the city of Alexandria between the 1980s and 2021. Cultivated areas appear green; towns and cities are gray. According to one analysis of Landsat observations, the amount of land near Alexandria devoted to agriculture dropped by 11 percent between 1987 and 2019, while urban areas increased by 11 percent. The images above show urbanization eating into farmland around the cities of Tanta and El Mahalla El Kubra and between the Rosetta and Damietta branches of the Nile.

July 25, 1984 – August 16, 2021

While the conversion of farmland to human settlements here has occurred for decades, multiple researchers observed sharp increases in the practice after the “Arab Spring” roiled the political and economic climate in Egypt starting in 2011. In recent years, Egyptian authorities have vowed to put an end to unlicensed building on farmland, though it remains a difficult practice to stamp out.

Urbanization is not the only process putting pressure on Egypt’s farmland. Sea level rise of 1.6 millimeters per year has contributed to problems with saltwater intrusion and the salinization of farmland in Egypt, particularly in the fringes of the delta southwest of Alexandria. About 15 percent of Egypt’s most fertile farmland has already been damaged by sea level rise and saltwater intrusion, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. While global warming is responsible for about half of the sea level rise affecting the Nile Delta, the sinking of the land (subsidence) is responsible for the other half. Natural compaction, as well as the extraction of groundwater and oil, contribute to subsidence.

One response to the loss of farmland has included efforts to reclaim and green-up parts of the desert. For instance, Farouk El-Baz, Boston University scientist and a member of the Apollo 11 field crew, has long promoted a plan to build an extensive corridor of highways, railways, water pipelines, and power lines to spur development and the establishment of new farmland in deserts west of the delta.

July 25, 1984 – August 16, 2021

While that project has not come to full fruition yet, large swaths of desert have been converted to farmland in recent decades. The pair of images below shows new farmland and the emergence of several new towns along the Cairo Highway. A mixture of center-pivot irrigation and drip irrigation—fed by groundwater pumps—makes farming in this area possible, explained Badreldin. While small-scale sustenance farming is common in the main part of the delta, most of the growers on the desert edge raise grains, fruits, and vegetables for export abroad.

“It is certainly possible to establish new farmland from the desert by tapping groundwater resources, but it’s a difficult, resource-intensive, and expensive process,” said Badreldin. “The poor soils and the intensive resources needed to farm in the western desert are a poor replacement for the richer, more fertile soils in the delta.”

Boston University researchers Curtis Woodcock and Kelsee Bratley have analyzed decades of Landsat observations as part of a Boston University effort to track how the availability of farmland in the delta is changing over time. “We certainly see expansion into the desert, but there’s nuance to this story,” said Woodcock. “After being farmed for a time, we also see a significant amount of that new farmland being decommissioned and reverting to desert.”

NASA Earth Observatory images by Lauren Dauphin, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey. Story by Adam Voiland.

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Latest Trends shaping the region’s Start-up Ecosystem

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The increase in entrepreneurship and start-ups in the region has been happening over the past decade as revealed by Arabian Business in the latest trends shaping the region’s start-up ecosystem

Financial technologies and e-commerce businesses dominated the market in the Web 2.0 wave, while blockchain and cryptocurrencies are slowly growing in the region

In the post-pandemic economy, it feels like start-ups are launching almost daily in unprecedented numbers, but the Middle East entrepreneurial ecosystem has been steadily growing for almost a decade now, explained Walid Hanna, CEO and founder of MEVP, a venture capitalist firm.

Talking exclusively to Arabian Business, Hanna looked back at the evolution of start-ups in the region and the major trends that dominated each phase until today.

He also shared what venture capitalists look for when deciding whether to invest in a business or not and what challenges remain in the ecosystem.https://www.arabianbusiness.com/startup/why-we-are-never-too-old-or-too-young-to-be-an-entrepreneur/embed#?secret=Azh8pDLw27

What can you tell us about the regional landscape for start-ups in the post-pandemic economy?

The increase in entrepreneurship and start-ups in the region has been happening over the past decade.

We [at MEVP] began our journey back in 2010 and, at that time, we used to see one or two start-ups a week, while now we receive three or four business plans a day, so the multiplier has been enormous in terms of the number of start-ups.

This has been the case post-Covid as well. When the whole ecosystem realised how important technology is during the pandemic, it gave a boost to our portfolio of companies and they grew faster and it also gave a boost to potential entrepreneurs who left their jobs to start their own businesses.

Why do you think fuelled this growth in the pre-coronavirus days?

It’s a natural progression that happened across the US, Europe and China over the past two decades and since there’s always a lag with the Middle East, it’s finally happening here now.

If you look at the penetration rates in internet usage or mobile phone usage, the Middle East has typically been lagging, the exception being countries like the UAE. But, now they’re all catching up.

What are some of the trends you’ve seen among regional start-ups, in fintech and tech in general?

Trends have been evolving over the past decade as well.

Originally there was the Web 1.0 wave, which was only content-based such as browsing the internet for cooking recipes, for example.[Start-ups] were making money, but it was based on reading, there were no interactions or transactions involved.

Walid Hanna, CEO and founder of MEVP. Image: ITP Media Group

Then it evolved into Web 2.0, where we saw a lot of financial technologies, e-commerce sites and software-as-a-service for enterprises. We’ve invested in 60-plus companies across those verticals.

We’ve also seen a lot of mobility plays, such as Uber, and we’ve seen that model [replicated] across tuk-tuks, motorcycles, electric scooters and trucks which, in a way, is good for the environment.

Within fintech, we’ve seen a lot of sub-verticals, such as the Buy Now, Pay Later model, which is a big trend at the moment – there are around ten [such start-ups] in the region and we’ve invested in an Egypt-based one. But there are so many other trends within fintech, including micro-lending, SME-lending or treasury solutions; payment solutions in general.

The hype over non-fungible tokens and cryptocurrencies, the whole blockchain business model, has evolved tremendously over the past couple of years and is just starting to pick up in the Middle East. We’ve seen two NFT marketplaces and a couple of blockchain business models. It is still quite limited, although I expect it to grow much faster in the next three years.

How do you identify the companies you will invest in?

Just as they say “location, location, location” for real estate, it is “people, people, people” for start-ups.

If a start-up is at the earlier stages, the best thing you can look at is how investment-ready the business is and how qualified the founders are with relevant experience. We look at how dynamic, hardworking and motivated they are.

Buy Now, Pay Later model is a big trend at the moment.

We look at the total addressable market and try to understand if it’s big enough and if they are really answering a pain point that is large enough to make serious money. This is because we are not interested in a small niche in a tiny country. For example, if a start-up is trying to solve a small issue in a country like Lebanon and the issue is not the same in Saudi Arabia and the GCC, then we are not interested.

We also look at the business model and the unit economics to see if it is viable, meaning we try to find out if the cost of producing, marketing and selling whatever product is worthwhile. If you look at the cost of acquiring a user and realise that the margin you are making out of this one product is inferior to that, then it is not worth it.

We also look at how robust and scalable the technology itself is and the stack they use. We invest in tech start-ups only.

Growth is key to our assessment of technology companies. We don’t do seed capital so when we invest in Series A, we can already witness a traction behind the start-up. If the traction is interesting, we get interested but if it is not already interesting, we don’t invest.

What are the challenges that remain for entrepreneurs in the region?

It depends on the country. In the GCC, there are no currency risks because they are pegged to the dollar, but if you look at currency in Egypt, they got really hit by the devaluation about three years ago.

There is also a political risk because of the region’s instability and relationship with its neighbouring countries.

Enablers are becoming better and better, but we still have some issues with the banks, for example. Opening up a bank account for start-ups is very challenging across the region. It takes ages and a lot of KYCs.

Five years ago, the logistics were very poor. Even the online payment systems were very poor so it was difficult for start-ups to thrive within that environment. This has been enhanced over the past couple of years but, for some reason, many customers here still want to pay cash-on-delivery and not use credit cards online. Penetration is increasing in terms of card usage but it is still lower than the global average.

Other than that, the ecosystem has evolved well and the enablers have followed. I would say the only challenge that remains is for fintech companies in terms of licence and regulations. Government regulations are making it easier by offering sandbox licences, but other than that, the regulatory framework is quite limited. The process is very slow but will happen one day I am sure.

Exits are happening, but still at a low rate where selling the start-up is difficult. There are more investors from outside the region looking at the region, which is positive, and the big regional conglomerates have also started to acquire start-ups so the trend is good but the numbers are still behind.

We have good start-ups and we want to sell them, but buyers are scarce. We should expand our horizon of buyers towards the global market, such as China or the US.

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The oldest air conditioning system in the world could help

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ADVANCED SCIENCE NEWS suggesting that the oldest air conditioning system in the world could help show how much Modern Life became so disconnected from Nature. To the point where it’s hard to comprehend how much good, nature does for our well-being.

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Oldest air conditioning system in the world could help meet sustainable development goals

By Ana Tejero González

8 December 2021

Evaporative cooling systems use a fraction of the energy and could be used together with conventional air conditioners to tackle energy demands.

Evaporative cooling is one of the oldest solutions humankind has used to achieve comfort in hot climates. For thousands of years, different strategies have been developed that take advantage of the cooling effect that occurs when water evaporates into the surrounding air — this can be observed in nature where temperatures are generally cooler near bodies of water, rain cools the atmosphere, and sweat cools our bodies as it evaporates from the skin.

Since evaporative cooling improves with higher air temperatures and lower humidity because air admits more evaporated water, it comes as no surprise that the first traces of its use were found in civilizations located in hot and arid climates, such as Ancient Egypt, the Roman Empire, and the medieval Islamic civilizations. Examples of this “technology” can also be found in traditional architectural designs all over the world.

However, when current, conventional air conditioning devices were invented in the early 1900s, these traditional cooling strategies were set aside. Today, we look back to this natural phenomenon that can achieve efficiency ratios above ten — that is to say, they provide more than ten times the amount of cooling than the energy required to operate them — while conventional air conditioning devices barely reach efficiency ratios of three.

If the world is to remain on track to meet sustainability goals, part of this strategy needs to look at reducing energy demand as we make a transition to renewable energy alternatives. As global temperatures continue to rise, once overlooked technology, evaporative cooling could help minimize the impact of cooling systems.

How is evaporative cooling applied today?

Today, many technologies apply this phenomenon during hot seasons, with direct evaporative cooling systems being the most widely used as they evaporate water directly into the air, they do not only cool the air but also increase humidity. Because humidification may or may not be desirable, other more advanced technologies, called indirect evaporative cooling, avoid it by allowing water evaporation in an auxiliary airstream, which then is used to cool the air that has to be conditioned.

To do this effectively, these systems need to enhance air-water contact: through water spraying, such as fog systems, or from wetted surfaces, called evaporative cooling pads. The former can be applied in outdoor spaces, while, the latter requires air to be forced through the wetted media. The application of either depends on the situation for their use.

An interesting alternative to conventional wetted media is the use of vegetable surfaces or active living walls. Air is cooled and humidified as it passes through plants arranged on vertical surfaces. These are an ecological air conditioning system that also “biofilter” the air.

Evaporative cooling can be more efficient than conventional air conditioning

Evaporative cooling systems are cheap and have very low energy requirements to operate — only requiring a pump that supplies the water and a fan that drives the air. Consequently, they are the most common air conditioning solution in “high volume” spaces such as farms, greenhouses, industrial buildings, and outdoor spaces where conventional air conditioning systems would not be feasible. In hot and dry regions, where outdoor air temperature can exceed 40⁰C and relative humidity falls below 40%, evaporative cooling systems can cool air temperatures to less than 10⁰C of the outdoor air temperature with almost no energy consumption.

If evaporative cooling technologies are so energy efficient, why do not they replace conventional air conditioning?

Their main limitation is its dependence on air conditions; in humid climates, the amount of water that can evaporate within the air decreases, hence limiting its cooling effect. In very hot conditions, evaporative cooling performs well, but may be insufficient to achieve acceptable indoor temperatures, or may result in excessive indoor humidity.

But the alternative, conventional air conditioning systems, perform worse under harsh climate conditions and require excessive energy in humid climates, as it is partially consumed for dehumidification.

The idea here is not to necessarily replace one with the other, but perhaps a combination of the two seems to be a prospective solution. Evaporative cooling, for example, could improve the performance of conventional air conditioning systems if used to precool the outdoor air where the former dissipates heat, improving their efficiency ratios.

In a warming world, innovative solutions such as this are desperately needed.

Written by: Ana Tejero González and Antonio Franco Salas

Reference: Ana Tejero-González and Antonio Franco-Salas Direct evaporative cooling from wetted surface: challenges for a clean air conditioning solution, WIREs Energy and Environment (2021). DOI: 10.1002/wene.423

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Lebanese architect offering an innovative approach to sustainable design

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The Lebanese architect offering an innovative approach to sustainable design is about how Lina Ghotmeh has caught the attention of Dezeen Awards for her building Stone Garden in Beirut. The story is by Lemma Shehadi in The National.

Architect Lina Ghotmeh. Hannah Assouline

For Lebanese architect Lina Ghotmeh, sustainable architecture should come from the ground of the city. “We need architecture that is anchored in its place and climate, not as an object that creates its own environment,” she tells The National. “I’m always relating the building back to traces of the past. I learn about the vernacular architecture and its relationship to the climate, and how to project that into the future”.

Her approach, which she has termed an “archaeology of the future”, has caught the attention of the architectural world, as well as Mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo. Within a month, Ghotmeh, 41, who lives in Paris, won two major architectural prizes. Last week, her Stone Garden building in Beirut was named Architecture Project of the Year at the Dezeen Awards 2021.

The discrete and slender concrete tower with residential flats was designed to fit the urban make-up of the city, while echoing layers of its history. “Stone Garden whispers the memory of Beirut, its history, its ground. It tries to offer an alternative way of constructing at height in a Mediterranean city and in a hot climate,” she says.

A facade of sand-coloured mortar with hand-chiselled lines evokes the eroded surface of Beirut’s prehistoric Pigeon Rocks on the city’s shores. Their immaculate straightness appears at once futuristic and organic. “The facade was combed as we comb the earth before planting, as a body emerging and narrating the city,” says Ghotmeh.

Yet these lines are also a nod to craft and its potential for sustainable construction. “The power of the hand is presented as an act of healing. When we build by hand, we are more aware of the impact that we may have on the environment,” she explains.

Meanwhile, the building’s open terraces and urban gardens mimic the city’s scars from the civil war. “They transform the scars into moments of life,” she says, “Large windows play along the elevation of the envelope, they open to the city and house lush gardens, bringing nature at the heart of residences.”

The Stone Garden is a discrete and slender concrete tower with residential flats and gardens. Photo: Laurian Ghinitoiu / Lina Ghotmeh 

The award’s jury praised the building’s “remarkable freshness and power”. They said: “This project is really poetic − it is talking about memory architecture, which is a hard thing to do in a multi-dwelling project. It is going to give a new platform for a seed of ideas in Lebanon.”

And that’s not all. Since 2016, Ghotmeh has been among the architects involved in Hidalgo’s project Reinventer Paris, which aims to transform the city into the first green capital of its kind. For this, Ghotmeh will be designing a wooden tower that hosts a sustainable feeding programme in the district of Massena.

“Ghotmeh is present in the debate about the future of the city,” says architecture critic Kaye Geipel, who was a jury for the Schelling Architecture Prize 2020, which was awarded to Ghotmeh in November for her contributions to the field of architecture. “[She is] a weighty voice in the large-scale project of Mayor Hidalgo, who wants to make Paris a green capital and exemplary for France and Europe”.

Ghotmeh explains that her design approach stems from her upbringing in Beirut. “The city was like an open archaeology, it was always unveiling itself,” she says, “It made me think about our relationship with our ancestors, and the hidden cities that exist beneath us, but also the question of the ground.”

The unique pointed structure of the Stone Garden. Photo: Iwan Baan / Lina Ghotmeh

“In the past we thought about buildings as independent environments, climatised and full of glass that just sit there and ignore what’s around them,” she explains. “They could consume as much as they want. They don’t wear the traditions of their place. This is not sustainable, or durable or circular”.

When Ghotmeh began designing the Stone Garden in 2010, Beirut was a different place. “There was this beautiful creative community of designers, fashion designers, architects and chefs. It was a fertile and positive moment. The city’s identity had been developing with the works and voices of many artists and activists,” she recalls.

But today, the entire country is plagued by political deadlock and economic crises. Two of Ghotmeh’s projects in Lebanon, which includes a museum in the Bekaa Valley, have been put on hold. “The failed political system has been suppressing the extraordinary spirit of this city,” she says, “I remain hopeful that change will be possible towards a more just society and environment.”

A rendering of Lina Ghotmeh’s Hermes project. Lina Ghotmeh — Architecture

Nonetheless, a string of projects in France can further push her ideas on architecture and sustainability. She is working on a vast workshop building, called Precise Acts, for the luxury brand Hermes. “It is a low carbon, passive building that will be a benchmark in contributing into an ecological transition in France,” she says.

In the same vein, Ghotmeh is developing wooden housing for athletes for the Paris 2024 Olympics. Her designs for the National Dance Centre in the city of Tours will explore the relationship between dance and architecture.READ MORE‘The Anatomy of Sabkhas’ shows the UAE’s salt flats are a cause worth fighting for

Yet her dream building, she says, would be a public space along the Beirut coastline that would serve as a universal playground for all ages.

“It would be a joyful public space. It’s a new typology for a museum in a way, that’s not about the collection, but rather the collection of relationships and community making,” Ghotmeh says. “I’m always excited to develop new typologies. How do you really build a public space that’s not just a piazza or the space between buildings, where people find joy?”

Updated: December 6th 2021

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