After the War, the Mattas Press On

Lebanon, September 7, 2006

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Jeremy Barnicle/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Assad and Rima Matta run the olive press for 1,000 families in the area. Mercy Corps is making investments to help them produce better quality olive oil, store it better, and market it more effectively around Lebanon. Photo: Jeremy Barnicle/Mercy Corps

Kawkaba, Lebanon - Ask Assad Matta what the recent fighting did to the olive oil business and he just groans.

"The pickers fled and haven't come back, so labor is going to be more expensive," says the 47-year-old owner of this village's only olive oil press. "The buyers from Beirut are afraid to come down, so there will be less demand. The war means higher costs but a lower selling price."

But the Assad and his wife Rima know they have to press on: olive oil production provides 90 percent of the income for the approximately 1000 families living in this hilly patch of southern Lebanon.

"People around here cannot survive without olives and olive oil," he says. "So we need to do this and we are always trying to make improvements in the process."

Assad says olive farmers are especially vulnerable to market disruptions like the war because their olive trees only bear fruit every other year, as opposed to every year. The Kawkaba farmers can't afford high-quality storage tanks, so they have to sell the oil when they have it, regardless of market conditions.

"On low production years, if this community could sell last year's oil, preserved in a better tank, we could get twice the price for it," Assad says.

And that's where Mercy Corps comes in.

Since 1997, Mercy Corps has been working with small farmers in chronically poor southern Lebanon to improve both the quality and the marketing of their olive oil. The $1 million project is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Just before the war, Assad and his customers asked Mercy Corps to make several investments in their olive pressing operation. The first priority is a stainless steel storage reservoir. Then, they need an air compressor that allows him to better clean his filters and reduce the oil's aftertaste. Finally, he wants help marketing Kawkawa's olive oil elsewhere Lebanon.

"If we could get into the Beirut markets, that would be great," he says.

Giving people the tools to expand their livelihoods is especially important after the war, says Chris Politis, who runs the olive oil program for Mercy Corps.

"People here in the south are going to struggle economically, after this war," he says. "For those enterprises that survived, like this one, it is more important than ever that we invest in their ability to expand."

Assad and Rima say Mercy Corps promised the new equipment just before the war broke out and that they expect the agency to deliver in short order now that the war is over.

"We know Mercy Corps and we know they'll keep their promise," says Rima. "We need to get ready to start pressing!"