KAMAL MOUZAWAK

Lebanon,

Because of Kamal Mouzawak’s success in creating communities around organic, locally grown food, he has become the father of a movement in Lebanon that supports local farmers, educates urban communities, and gathers around the dinner table citizens of a country ravaged by decades of war.

This profile below was prepared when Kamal Mouzawak was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2010.

INTRODUCTION

Because of Kamal Mouzawak’s success in creating communities around organic, locally grown food, he has become the father of a movement in Lebanon that supports local farmers, educates urban communities, and gathers around the dinner table citizens of a country ravaged by decades of war.




THE NEW IDEA

Souk el-Tayeb in Arabic means the “Market of Good,” and for founder Kamal, even more than affordable organic produce, or locally grown poultry, “good” is at the heart of his initiative. In the midst of divisive political tensions still prevalent after the Lebanese civil war (1975 to 1990) and continuing conflict between Lebanon and Israel, Kamal began Souk el-Tayeb. Souk el-Tayeb is the first inexpensive organic food market in Beirut, but more importantly, it serves as a platform for the people of Lebanon to forge a unified Lebanese heritage and identity based on their shared cuisine. A place where regardless of the religion or ethnic heritage—Druze, Shiite, Sunni, Maronite, Greek Orthodox, Jew—the diverse peoples of Lebanon are united around a food experience.

Lebanon’s tumultuous history of diversity and conflict has resulted in low agricultural production, massive internal migration, inadequate agriculture policies, and ethnic divisions. For each of these problems, Kamal’s approach is part of a solution. Branching from Souk el-Tayeb, Kamal has begun a farmer visit and exchange program, a cultural tourism program, a producer restaurant, educational programming for youth, and inclusive national festivals to promote reconciliation in Lebanon. While Souk el-Tayeb is based in Beirut, due to Lebanon’s compact size, farmers from the Niha Mountains to costal Saida can join together at weekly farmer’s markets. Additional programs branching from the market, such as the farmer’s exchange program, also connect farmers from across Lebanon in their own homes, and transnationally with investor networks in London, Galway, Amsterdam, New York, and Latakia. Based on the marked success of Souk el-Tayeb in Beirut, and the impact of its related initiatives in other parts of Lebanon, Kamal is working to introduce producers’ restaurants in Dubai and farmers’ platforms in Saudi Arabia. Using cuisine traditions and customs as a unifying social and cultural catalyst while also empowering and generating income to small-scale farmers and local communities—through food, Kamal is scaling peace in the Middle East.




THE PROBLEM

Lebanon boasts the highest percentage of cultivable arable land in the Arab World. Because of its geographic diversity and fertile valleys, it has natural water resources that are the envy of neighboring countries. However due to decades of war, conflict, and violence this land is underutilized, with agricultural production at only 5.4 percent of the GDP and with nearly 80 percent of food products imported into Lebanon. The Lebanese civil war dissolved relative regional stability, and Lebanon’s system of Confessionalism (the balance of political power sharing between Lebanon’s religious populations) led to a battle between political interests and religious groups. Between the presence of Syrian militia, Israeli troops, insurgent forces, and a massive influx of refugees, Lebanese soil became fertile with land mines, rockets, and gun fire instead of locally grown produce or grazing livestock. Massive population movement ensued, with farmers leaving their lands, hoping to maintain their landholdings once the violence ceased. However different religious and political groups repossessed the land and permanently displaced internal migrants. In contrast to pre-1975 when villages were diverse microcosms of Lebanon with people of different religious groups living side by side, following the war, internal displacement now reflects Lebanon’s internal divide with different settlements based around religion and ethnicity.

With prevalent social tensions and political instability, the Lebanese government has neglected creating supportive policies for farmers to help them re-establish their farms and redirect land use toward agriculture. According to Agriculture Minister Hussein Hajj Hassan, farmers in Lebanon are particularly under-represented as they do not join unions or cooperatives and therefore do not have a bargaining platform. Antoine Hwayek, President of the Lebanese Farmers Syndicate contends that agriculture is currently generating US$2B less than if the government created better policies regarding agriculture. Unable to compete with subsidized foreign exports, and faced with non-existent agriculture reform, moving to an urban environment is more attractive than attempting to resume farming activities. As a result of discouraged and disconnected farmers, fresh local produce is expensive and inaccessible to most of the population. Due to the high expenses associated with organic food and a lack of more accessible options, fast food meals are increasingly replacing their nutritious home-cooked counterparts. As a result, obesity, malnutrition, and an alienation of Lebanon’s gastronomic heritage are growing threats.




THE STRATEGY

While many groups and individuals are working on easing socio-political tensions in Lebanon, Kamal’s strategy is innovative because he addresses the symptoms of this problem—farmer under-representation, eroded market for local produce, migration, social disunity, and loss of cultural heritage—all at once. Kamal begins with the hub of Souk el-Tayeb and uses different programmatic branches to address a variety of issues. Although diverse in scope, each program shares the same underlying theme: They work closely with local people to connect them with one another and the land to facilitate a shared platform for celebrating and preserving Lebanon’s cultural heritage and history of diversity.

Souk el-Tayeb begins by repairing farmer’s fragmentation through gathering local farmers together under one umbrella organization so they are in a position to transform government policy and provide for their own livelihoods. In order to create market demand for farmers’ products to sustainably provide revenue beyond the market, Kamal has established Tawlet el-Tayeb, a restaurant where producers from Souk el-Tayeb rotate through preparing traditional dishes made from their produce, and educating visitors about the heritage of Lebanese cuisine. Kamal also makes Souk el-Tayeb an inclusive community by providing uncertified “organic” produce alongside certified organic produce so as to appeal to different socioeconomic classes. As a result of these activities, participating farmers have created a cohesive group for their representation, and revenue to support their livelihoods. In 2004, the weekly market was the only source of revenue for most participating producers. By 2010, the farmers of Souk el-Tayeb observed about a 50 percent income increase due to new employment through the market growth, higher production, and stronger consumer demand. Farmers that started with a small plot of land and a single crop are now able to produce more crop varieties and acquire more land or communally cultivate crops.

In an effort to educate, inform, and promote nutrition and local heritage, as part of Souk el-Tayeb, Kamal has also begun the Food and Feast Festivals Program, the Farmers Exchange Program, Souk@Schools, and in partnership with the International Labor Organization the Beit Lubnon communal cultural home program. The Souk@Schools program rallies together teachers and students to choose a theme involving food, such as organic agriculture, and then Kamal helps them build a curriculum including site visits, or hands on collaborations, such as preparing a meal from “garden to table.” In an effort to curb migration and provide local revenue generation for villages as a whole, Kamal’s communal homes program coordinates with traditional village homes that represent regional culture, crafts, music, and cooking, and opens them to host visitors from urban areas. This model is increasing villages’ income-generation potential and their ability to attract sustainable local tourism, both adding a steady revenue stream and reducing internal migration.

Additional initiatives range from shifting behavior patterns, such as Bala Nylon, a campaign launched by the farmers of Souk el-Tayeb to ban plastic bags in their communities. Or increasing sociocultural acceptance through rallying together restaurants in Beirut to join Kamal’s Semsomiyat, a network of restaurants where each chef commits to featuring a traditional dish from each region, thus celebrating Lebanon’s cultural diversity. Each of these programs use a different approach to address Kamal’s specific focus: Forming strong cultural, economic, and educational ties through food. From using food to engage with youth, to opening up personal homes, to uniting diverse communities in national celebrations, Kamal is transforming food into a social glue that will hold Lebanon together in future civil strife.

Kamal has engineered “a food not war” model that is replicable throughout the region. Kamal’s approach to transform the market place into a safe space rising above sectarian politics and violence can be scaled and adopted in Egypt and Jordan where regional conflict is also the cause of local tensions. Kamal illustrated his technique on the anniversary of Lebanon’s 30-year civil war, when Kamal hosted Souk el-Tayeb at Martyr’s Square in Beirut, and displayed a large map of Lebanon featuring the dish that each region is famous for instead of the names of its cities or villages. The UNDP commended this activity as part of its peace-building initiative and the New York Times called Souk el-Tayeb a “gastro-political awakening.”




THE PERSON

Kamal fondly recalls how as a child, his grandmother’s legendary cooking brought together his large family, making them forget any differences they may have had. Kamal saw how a mutual love of food could bring a family together, and he is applying this same basic principal to his communities in Lebanon.

As a student, Kamal studied graphic design and applied his artistic skills to his first startup business at age 16, selling handmade lamps to art galleries around Beirut. He later worked with Leonel Ghara, a man who opened a house called Art et Culture in order to support and share about arts and culture. With Art et Culture, Kamal gained experience leading trips in Lebanon and in Allepo, Syria, following the civil war, when travel was once again permitted. From this work, he was commissioned to write a guidebook about Lebanon, allowing him to tour the country between 1993 and 1994 in a gigantic Oldsmobile coupe.

During his travels, families from small villages invited him into their homes where he discovered the heart of Lebanon, and he fell in love with it. Kamal became a full-time travel and food writer. In 2003 he began weekly appearances on the cooking show Sohtak bil Sahenn (Your Health in Your Plate), a program hosted by Mariam Nour, a Lebanese macrobiotics and spirituality guru known throughout the Arab World. Kamal frequently traveled to Arab cities to host cooking workshops and promote his message of peace through food. In his presentation, he introduced people to the history behind each dish and talked about the importance of sharing food among the community. 




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