A taste for commerce
Illustration: Sarah John
She was six months pregnant with her fifth child and desperate to make ends meet. Her husband, a science teacher at the local village school, simply couldn’t keep up with the family’s expenses. Their two-bedroom flat was crowded.
That’s when Raymonda Habsheh heard of a course that the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) was giving in her small village in the fertile Bekaa valley – ‘How to Start Your Own Business’.
She hesitantly signed up and attended the first session. Looking around her, she noticed that, apart from herself, all the other women had submitted work ideas. On the fourth day, instructors insisted that she too submit a business idea. On impulse, Raymonda said: ‘A winery!’
Today, almost five years later, Raymonda and her family live in their newly constructed spacious house and are running a successful winery.
Balady, Arabic for ‘village-made’, has become a household name in the Bekaa and has made its way to many of Beirut’s supermarkets. The Habsheh family eagerly took me around their small winery located in an old stone house. Raymonda’s husband, Diabes, opened one of the barrels, dipped in a glass and offered it to me.
‘The maturing process hasn’t finished yet,’ he said. ‘It will be by next year though.’
When Raymonda had initially told Diabes of her business idea, he was shocked. Neither of them knew anything about making wine.
‘We made our own household wine like all other villagers here,’ said Raymonda. ‘It simply involved crushing grapes by stepping on them, pouring it in gallon jars until it produced bubbles, then we closed it shut. Five months later we would open it not knowing if it contained vinegar or wine.’
There was only one thing to do: resort to their cousin who is a priest. Lebanese priests and monks are well known for making wine. From his monastery in north Lebanon, Father Bernard agreed to share his secrets.
As Raymonda attended the course and learned the details of finding a market, analyzing its needs, setting up balance sheets and running a small business, Diabes threw himself into learning the art of making wine. Through UNIFEM, the couple were introduced to micro-creditors and granted a loan of $5,000 from a local association.
Praying fervently, Diabes and Raymonda gathered their three teenage sons, and began pressing grapes, collecting the juices and storing barrels.
When it was tasting time, Raymonda was given the honours – a tradition upheld to this day. But only one person could judge the success of the wine. And so Father Bernard was summoned.
‘He tasted it and said: “This isn’t wine yet but you’re on the right track”,’ remembers Diabes.
A year later the wine had matured and the priest was again consulted. ‘He said: “Hey, it’s better than my wine,”’ recalls Diabes, laughing.
Knowing they were on to something, the couple bought glass bottles and had labels printed. It took two years to find the right kind of cork – again thanks to Father Bernard’s guidance.
The family placed their wine in local shops and waited anxiously for a response. Before long, store owners were calling in for more supplies. But a problem cropped up. The couple were too shy to collect their money.
‘It was getting ridiculous and we were losing money, so we finally got someone to distribute our product and he takes a certain percentage,’ says Diabes.
The first year, the family raked in a gross profit of $7,000. This past season they made $13,000.
Listening to their story, Randa Husseini, the UNIFEM project’s co-ordinator smiled proudly. Raymonda was definitely one of their success stories.
UNIFEM had started the project in 1996 to combat the ever-increasing poverty in the Bekaa. Over 70,000 Lebanese had fled from the Gulf War five years earlier and unemployment was high. Unfortunately, men were given priority for the available jobs.
‘Women are not seen as main income earners,’ said Husseini. ‘Yet women have a higher tendency than men to spend any earned income on their families.’
By the time the project ended in October 2001, 3,000 women had participated in the courses, including 700 who went on to start their own businesses.
For Diabes and Raymonda, their next challenge is to convince one of their teenage sons to take over their business. None has so far accepted.
So the couple are now considering their four-year-old daughter, Cindy. She doesn’t know it yet, but there are big plans ahead for her. ‘She is allowed to sip the wine and loves it,’ declares Diabes. ‘She’s a natural for the job.’