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Fighting sectarianism in Lebanon with cheap groceries

November 25, 2023

Two women in Lebanon's capital, Beirut, have founded a nonprofit grocery store that offers goods at affordable prices. But their bigger vision is to break down political and religious segregation.

Products on a shelf in the Lebanese cooperative supermarket Mann wa Salwa
Providing affordable goods and combating sectarianism is the vision of the co-op store Mann wa SalwaImage: D. Hodali/DW

Beirut's Furn el Chebbak district is a bustling residential area with small shops and heavy traffic, located some 3 kilometers (about 1.8 miles) south of the city center.

Lining the main street are statues of saints mounted in glass cases — an indication that the neighborhood was once more strongly influenced by Christianity. Now, people from diverse religious and ethnic backgrounds live here.

Like in most of Lebanon, the standard of living in Furn el Chebbak, a formerly middle-class neighborhood, has fallen dramatically since the economy dove into a steep decline in 2019. The cost-of-living crisis means that people welcomed the opening of Mann wa Salwa, a nonprofit grocery store, last year.

Yousef is a regular shopper at the mini market, even though he doesn't live in the district.

Shopfront of the Lebanese social supermarket Man wa Salwa in Beirut
The two founders hope their grocery store will soon cater to up to 500 families in BeirutImage: D. Hodali/DW

"The prices are really decent, and I am happy that I can save a bit," he told DW. "I have three children and I sometimes bring them chocolate bars when I come home from work. Here, these bars are 40% cheaper," he said.

'Social supermarket'

The supermarket's two founders, Nawal Traboulsi and Mariam Younes, told DW they believe everyone in the Lebanese capital should have access to affordable and quality food.

The name of the shop derives from an Iraqi sweet similar to nougat that is said to "nourish and make happy."

"We wanted to combat this sense of powerlessness, as many people think that Lebanon can't be helped as the same political class still rules the country," said Traboulsi.

In 2019, Lebanese people took to the streets to protest against the corrupt political elite, but four years later, most of the same politicians are still in office.

Lebanese entrepreneur Nawal Traboulsi sits in a chair and smiles.
Lebanese entrepreneur Nawal Traboulsi is the co-founder of Mann wa SalwaImage: Diana Hodali/DW

Since then, the country has experienced an unprecedented economic crisis with the Lebanese pound losing around 90% of its value, in "one of the worst global crises since the mid-19th century," according to the World Bank.

"We founded this social supermarket to combat the difficult economic situation," said Traboulsi. Through a nongovernmental organization that she started many years earlier, the duo managed to attract international funding to enable affordable prices.

Local products preferred

Mann wa Salwa is based on the idea of a cooperative, a store in which everyone is both customer and owner.

But non-members can shop there, too. The mini market sells a range of goods, from everyday staples, fresh fruit and vegetables and washing powder to hygiene products, books and, of course, the chocolate beloved by Yousef's children.

The focus is on products that don't need refrigeration, as Beirut often suffers from power cuts for several hours a day.

Mariam Younes explained that costumers have recently been stockpiling basic goods, as many Lebanese worry the war in Gaza could spill over and spread to Lebanon.

The cooperative tries to buy products grown or produced locally. "We want our cooperative to support not only those buying goods, but also local producers and traders," said Traboulsi. But local isn't always cheaper. 

"The state doesn't impose taxes on goods from China, Turkey or Syria," she explained, "so local goods are often more expensive but that's something we are willing to accept." To keep the price of the local goods low, the team covers a certain percentage of the cost.

Political competition

But the supermarket founders aren't just passionate about providing affordable food.

Younes and Traboulsi also have a sociopolitical vision. "Our biggest competition is not only the supermarkets, it is the political parties!" they said. "People go to parties that represent their religious group and get rice, pasta and sugar.

"But people should not be dependent on their political or religious leaders."

Cotton bag with the logo of the social supermarket Man wa Salwa
Instead of plastic bags, the social supermarket offers reusable cotton bags emblazoned with their logoImage: D. Hodali/DW

In Lebanon, the vast majority of social services are provided by non-state actors, including political organizations and religious charities, which often see themselves as representatives of specific groups.

"However, this sectarian-based welfare has resulted in a highly fragmented and unregulated system, as well as the politicization of the process of accessing social benefits," Haneen Sayed, a senior fellow at the Lebanese think tank Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center, wrote last summer. "This system of informal social protection strengthens clientelism and patronage that are endemic in Lebanon's social structure."

The result is that citizens who are loyal to a certain political or religious leader are more likely to receive social assistance from them than those who are not considered loyal.

'We want to get away from sectarianism!'

Traboulsi would love to see Mann wa Salwa supermarket help bring an end to this political and religious segregation in Lebanon. "Of course, we are a shop that sells affordable food — but the goal is that we want to get away from sectarianism!" she said.

The two founders hope their supermarket will be able to cater for up to 500 families in future, and that even more people will become members of the cooperative. To achieve this, they plan to organize a few promotional events.

"I hope that more and more people will shop here," said customer Yousef, before leaving the shop. "This cooperative is a good idea."

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This article was originally written in German and translated by Jennifer Holleis.