BEIRUT: Lebanon’s agricultural sector has been experiencing a crisis in superfluous production, leading the small Mediterranean country to waste a large chunk of its apples since 2015.
A number of factors led to this crisis, with the main one being the closure of the Syrian border through which the Lebanese apples would be exported in-land to the GCC and other countries. Another important factor was the economic inflation that Egypt has undergone, the region’s main importer of Lebanese apples, which resulted in a decrease in the consumption of these apples.
All of this has led to the waste of 100,000 to 120,000 tons of apples per year, which, according to agricultural engineer Nassim Njeim, roughly equals 400 million apples.
“We tend to waste 35 to 40 percent of our total apple production,” he told Annahar.
Unlike the apple farmers, who stand helpless in front of this waste, Njeim has found a way to make use of the wasted apples. He launched Caesar Cider, the first locally produced apple cider in Lebanon.
Apple cider is a sparkling alcoholic beverage made from the fermented juice of apples, with each bottle produced from five apples.
“I came up with the idea by accident while I was doing an internship in South Africa,” Njeim recalled. “My friends made me taste apple cider for the first time and I really liked it. That was in February 2015.”
After reading about the apple crisis in Lebanon, and realizing there’s a market for apple cider in Lebanon, Njeim made the link between these two factors and decided he would use the surplus of wasted apples to manufacture the first locally produced apple cider at home.
“I don’t remember ever seeing apple cider in Lebanon before [except in really niche places], so I saw this as an opportunity for market penetration,” Njeim said.
After completing his Master's Degree in Germany and conducting his research on apple cider, Njeim decided to return to Lebanon and launch his initiative in November 2016.
By identifying several agricultural cooperatives, groups of farmers that work together, he started buying apple juice from them and brewing it slowly into apple cider. He experimented with several blends, apple grades and batch volumes ranging from 1 Liter to 30 Liters.
Fast forward to 2018, Njeim, who quit his job in the NGO sector, started brewing 100 Liter batches and distributing them to the market. He named his product Caesar Cider and began marketing it to pubs in Beirut.
“Our go-to-market strategy was to identify bars that have expats and foreigners coming in because cider is not well known in Lebanon,” Njeim told Annahar. “We are now primarily based in Mar Mikhael.”
Njeim also started attending the local farmers’ market in Souk el Tayyib and in Badaro, where he introduced the concept of apple cider to his Lebanese customers.
“In 2019 we expanded our points of sale to Achrafieh, Hamra and Badaro,” Njeim said. “For 2020, we plan to expand to greater Beirut area and to sell 30,000 bottles. We’re also hoping to start exporting our products abroad.”
The challenges that Njeim faced in his journey are plenty, including the lack of locally produced glass bottles and caps (which meant he had to import his glass bottle), as well as the high legal registration fees. Access to finance was also another challenge.
“When I started this company, I knew the path wasn’t going to be easy, and thankfully, my team and I were able to overcome our challenges and grow,” Njeim said.
His most important achievement, however, lies in helping the apple farmers gain some economic return from their mechanically damaged apples, apples that are deemed unfit by the consumer but which regain their nutritional properties.
“We buy the juice that comes from non-marketable apples, thus benefiting the farmer who would have otherwise thrown these apples,” Njeim told Annahar.
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