On the fringes of Northern Lebanon in the Akkar district, on the border with Syria, lies the small village of West Tal-Abbas, drowned in a sea of greenery. Early this morning, Georges al-Jammal, accompanied by fifty workers, was in the fields picking strawberries. In a festival of colour and good spirit, children, elderly people, men and women dive deep into the endless furrows planted with strawberries, to select the ripe blood red fruit. As the hours go by, the baskets and crates fill up little by little. Next door, in another field surrounded by olive trees, other agricultural workers pick potatoes, under Georges’s watchful eye.
Georges al-Jammal, who is single and in his forties, is now a fulfilled man; he has proved his worth. His work has developed rapidly thanks to a US$ 50,000 loan (41,345 euros) from the “European Social Fund” (ESF) under the supervision of the “Economic and Social Fund for Development" (ESDF).
Just two years ago, Georges grew fruit and vegetables under only four greenhouses built on the 80,000 m2 of land he inherited from his father. He made a living. Not more.
The project funded by the ESDF has thus enabled him to expand his business. He has built twenty other greenhouses, under which he has also planted potatoes, onions, zucchinis, beans and melons.
However, Georges al-Jammal is primarily known for his strawberries. At the fruit and vegetable market in Tripoli, he is nicknamed the “King of strawberries", mostly due to the quality of his organic strawberries. He does not use chemical fertilisers or hormones.
“Traders demand to buy al-Jammal products. They are looking for high value. And despite competition, especially concerning the prices of those who do not plant organic products, we have been able to establish an unrivalled reputation”, says Georges.
His honesty, sincerity, serious and hard work, and above all his ambition to progress, to do his best to develop, has earned him a reputation on the market and a reputation on behalf of the ESDF.
Abdallah Ishac is responsible for ESDF projects in Akkar. “The EU funds small and medium-sized economic, commercial or agricultural projects to launch or develop them. Our role is not just about granting loans with low interest rates to those who need them. In addition, we provide these investors with our expertise and advice to carry out a market and project feasibility study, to organise their business and ensure money is coming in and that it is used appropriately for commercial and non-personal purposes”, he explains.
The aim of the ESDF is to support young and serious investors to develop and sustain their business. A successful project will not only benefit its owner, but also those who work with them, creating job opportunities in the area where it is located. “Georges has enabled his village to benefit from his success, as well as dozens of Syrian refugee families who work for him”, says Ishac.
“I started with two agricultural workers. Now, during harvesting, I have more than 60 workers on a daily basis”, says Georges al-Jammal. The farmer from Akkar normally has between 15 and 20 workers, who are mostly Syrian. A godsend for these refugees who fled their country to come to Lebanon due to the war.
Around noon, the picking is completed. Placed in packaging. Surrounded by a hundred crates full of strawberries, Abou Mohammad, his wife and some of his children sit around a table. They sort the strawberries according to their quality and size. They then fill the strawberries into small plastic boxes, ready to be delivered. The smaller strawberries are sold to make juice.
Abou Mohammad is a Syrian refugee. He was welcomed by Georges al-Jammal several years ago. He lives with his wife and ten children and has efficiently helped Georges, especially when he decided to develop his business.
The work is continuous throughout the year: preparing the land, planting, taking care of plantations, setting up greenhouses, watering, picking and lastly, letting the land rest. “Picking takes 7 months. And with strawberries, they must be picked every day”, explains Abou Mohammad.
Georges al-Jammal oversees all of his work. Nothing happens without his consent. Everything must be perfect.
“For me, this help was like that of a father. With low interest rates, easy staggered payments and relevant tips on how to spend, I consider myself fortunate to have benefited from this EU project”, says Georges al-Jammal proudly, with his strong Akkar accent.
He hopes to end his loan quickly to take out another and continue to build on his success. His enthusiasm is closely monitored by Abdallah Ishac who visits him regularly. He should not make any mistakes.
“I love my job. I work day and night. I sometimes wake up late at night to make sure the plants are well watered. Not to mention that agricultural tasks in winter are very difficult in Akkar’s climate where the winds are very strong.
This European support has enabled me to start my life with confidence. At the end of the day, it is my ambition to live as a free and independent man”, concludes Georges al-Jammal, who is now thinking of marrying and starting a family.