Lebanon approves plan to reform ailing electricity sector

The Turkish floating power station Karadeniz Powership Orhan Bey, which generates electricity to help ease the strain on the country's woefully under maintained power sector, is docked near the Jiyeh power plant, south of Beirut, Lebanon, Monday, April 8, 2019. (AP)
Updated 08 April 2019

Lebanon approves plan to reform ailing electricity sector

  • The decision is the most significant by the cabinet since it was formed in late January
  • Hariri on Monday said the cabinet unanimously approved the plan which would improve power supply, raise electricity tariffs

BEIRUT: The Lebanese government on Monday approved a plan to reform its electricity sector, vowing to provide power 24 hours a day from a grid notorious for blackouts.
The decision is the most significant by the cabinet since it was formed in late January and is a step toward unlocking billions in aid pledged to Lebanon in exchange for slashing public spending and overhauling the electricity sector.
Prime Minister Saad Hariri on Monday said the cabinet unanimously approved the plan which would improve power supply, raise electricity tariffs and reduce fiscal deficit resulting from government transfers to state-run Electricite du Liban (EDL).
“This plan satisfies the Lebanese people because it will bring them electricity 24/7,” he told reporters after the session.
“It will also reduce the budget deficit,” he said.
Hariri said implementation of the plan was “urgent” and “could not be delayed” because it was critical to Lebanon’s economy.
Energy Minister Nada Boustani, who first presented the plan last month, described the cabinet’s approval as a “positive step.”
The plan still needs to be approved by parliament.
A dated electricity grid, rampant corruption and lack of reform has left power supply lagging way behind rising demand since Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war.
According to the McKinsey & Company consulting firm, the quality of Lebanon’s electricity supply in 2017-2018 was the fourth worst in the world after Haiti, Nigeria and Yemen.
Government subsidies to state-run EDL have also worsened the cash-strapped government’s budget.
EDL receives one of the largest slices of the government’s budget after debt servicing and salaries.
According to the World Bank, government transfers to EDL averaged 3.8 percent of gross domestic product from 2008 to 2017, amounting to about half of Lebanon’s fiscal deficit.
Lebanon is one of the world’s most indebted countries, with public debt estimated at 141 percent of GDP in 2018, according to credit ratings agency Moody’s.
A conference dubbed CEDRE in the French capital in April pledged aid worth $11 billion (9.5 billion euros), promising to stave off an economic crisis.
At the Paris conference, Lebanon committed to reforms including slashing public spending and overhauling the electricity sector.
In exchange, the international community has pledged major aid and loans, mostly for infrastructure projects that need to be signed off by the new government.


Spice is right as Indonesian startups eye value in vanilla

Updated 35 min 53 sec ago

Spice is right as Indonesian startups eye value in vanilla

  • Interest in growing valuable crop has sparked a small movement back to the land

JAKARTA: Indonesian Sofa Arbiyanto had a manufacturing job in South Korea two years ago when he learned about the high price of vanilla on the global market, and decided to try his luck at growing it.

Now he has 2,000 vanilla vines on a 1,200-sq-meter (0.3-acre) farm in Blora, Central Java, started after he did some Internet research and joined online groups of vanilla farmers.

“My initial view that farmers live in hardship and poverty has changed,” said the 30-year-old. “With a touch of innovation and technology, it is a promising opportunity.”

Arbiyanto is one of a growing number of millennial start-up vanilla farmers in the southeast Asian nation, which is eager to revive spice shipments to diversify its farm exports, now dominated by palm oil.

The interest in cultivating one of the world’s most valuable spices has sparked a small movement back to the land at a time when farmers have been leaving for jobs in congested cities.

The Indonesian Vanilla Farmers’ Association (PPVI) says 43 percent of the nearly 600 farmers it has trained are aged between 25 and 35, a demographic that is typically tech-savvy.

Many have learned farming methods from YouTube, and get tips and guidance from experienced farmers through group chats on messaging platforms such as WhatsApp, said Mahdalena Lubis, the association’s spokeswoman. PPVI’s YouTube channel has more than 13,000 subscribers and combined views of its videos exceed a million, she added.

The demand is no surprise, as vanilla beans from top exporter Madagascar were more expensive than silver last year, although prices have since fallen from highs of about $600 a kg.

After typhoons in 2017 and 2018 in the Indian Ocean island sent prices skyrocketing, buyers are looking for more sources of the spice, used in anything from cakes and cookies to sauces and perfume.

Start-up Indonesian farmers are betting on the labor-intensive beans, aware that high-quality crops can fetch them better prices, owing to the painstaking process of pollination by hand.

Indonesia is a distant second to top producer Madagascar, which provides 80 percent of world supply. McCormick & Co, the world’s largest spice company, is partnering with farmers in the islands of Papua and Sulawesi to secure its supply of Indonesian vanilla.

“Although Madagascar remains the gold standard as far as vanilla quality is concerned, Indonesia has strong potential to become an alternative origin, in terms of quantity and quality,” McCormick said in an email.

The coronavirus pandemic has boosted consumer demand for vanilla, as well as that from packaged food companies, it added.

Aust & Hachmann, the world’s oldest vanilla trader, estimated that Indonesia would produce about 200 tons of beans this year, double last year’s estimate.

In a bi-annual report, the trader said stay-at-home orders around the world had benefitted vanilla, with jumps in grocery shopping and home cooking.

Despite strong demand, shipments faced delays because of virus-related disruptions in trade, causing an annual drop of 18 percent for the January to May period, Indonesian trade data showed.

But that trend is unlikely to last.

“When the new normal begins and trade activities are gradually increased . . . vanilla exports will become one of the mainstays of trade that will be expanded,” said Kasan, a director-general in Indonesia’s trade ministry.

But vanilla prices can be volatile, making farming a risky enterprise, Kasan, who uses one name, cautioned.

Lubis, of the vanilla farmers’ group, said ensuring quality was vital to avoid mistakes of the kind that had led big buyers in the past to reject prematurely picked beans, forcing many farmers to switch crops.

“In the global market, we have to be able to compete in maintaining quality to be able to significantly increase our exports,” Lubis added.

But Mohamad Akbar Budiman, 30, is undeterred as he combines work as a civil servant in the province of Banten with an effort to revive once-abandoned cultivation of beans in his backyard.

“Growing vanilla doesn’t take much space, and it’s not difficult.”