Early 2020 I was invited to give a lecture at the American University of Beirut. This time it was not about innovations in agri-food, but about the question of what cluster organizations can contribute in times of economic crisis. In itself a very understandable subject. After all, the situation in Lebanon was not very flourishing at the time: sky-high inflation, gigantic unemployment and, not surprisingly, fierce protests against the incumbent authorities in the country. The unprecedented refugee problem had been considered a given for many years.
I must confess that the subject of the lecture made me quite insecure: who was I, coming from the stable, prosperous Netherlands, to share wisdom about crisis management in front of this audience?
At that time, it was not yet clear that shortly afterwards Covid-19 would bring an important part of the global economy to a standstill and since then has been holding us in its grip in all sorts of ways. In Lebanon, as we know, another blow has been dealt since then: the huge explosion in Beirut on August 4, which caused major damage to the port and destroyed a large part of the city center. In the preceding months, the Lebanese pound had already fallen into free fall, which further exacerbated the economic situation in the heavily import-dependent country. For many Lebanese, who are trained like no other in dealing with setbacks (‘we always adapt’), the explosion seemed like a kind of knockout: one blow too many.
Still, I think the country will rise again from its ashes. About three years ago the Netherlands decided to support a very special program in Lebanon, called Agrytech. The aim of the initiative was to stimulate activity in the agri-food sector by supporting start-ups and by uniting the existing innovative business community. Both components proved to be a great success.
Although Lebanon has well-trained engineers at its disposal, there was no culture to use this knowledge to set up new companies in the agri-food sector. In a very short period of time, the organization Berytech (https://berytech.org/programs/agrytech/) developed a flourishing startup ecosystem in this very important domain. Very targeted actions towards young talent, formulating the most important challenges together with the business community and universities, organizing countless hackathons and other meetings, combined with professional guidance within the Agrytech programme have ensured that Lebanese agri-food startups have now won international awards.
The same has happened with the creation of a platform for the existing business community. In 2019 Berytech set up one of the first food clusters in the Middle East, called Qoot (https://qoot.org). Qoot now has about 50 members who, each in their own way, are innovative and underline the importance of collaboration. New collaborations are being forged and attempts are being made in all kinds of ways to strengthen the export of the countless beautiful products. Despite the many challenges in the country, I have seldomly seen such a bundling of entrepreneurship, social commitment, determination, talent and energy. This applies both to the entrepreneurs themselves and to the cluster organization running the program. Even in this seemingly hopeless situation, new initiatives are rapidly being launched to keep the economy running somewhat and to build a better future for the country. We in Western Europe can hope that we will be able to show the same resilience in the face of so much headwind. Hence my ode to Qoot and Berytech, inspiring examples in times of crisis.