Arab-Israeli olive oil business promotes peace and cultural understanding

Arab-Israeli olive oil business promotes peace and cultural understanding

The concept of ‘business for peace’ is rapidly gaining traction, as companies seek to redefine their role in society, engage with communities and harness the power of commerce for social good.

Sindyanna of Galilee, a female-led fair trade association, is working to encourage understanding between Arabs and Jews in Israel by selling local producers’ olive oil worldwide and investing 100% of the profits in educating women, healing cultural divides and promoting organic farming.

With tensions running high in Israel, as the peace process falters, the shadow of terror remains and ‘price tag’ hate crimes leave Palestinian property vandalised and farmers’ trees uprooted or torched, business offers a robust platform for change.

“We’re creating real economic opportunities for both Arabs and Jews by uniting producers around a common goal – supporting their families and achieving positive transformation in the community,” says Hadas Ladav, Sindyanna’s CEO. “And in doing so, we’re showing international customers that the situation in the Middle East is not black and white – there is a will to create change.”

Established in 1996, Sindyanna buys olive oil from 200 local producers, largely Arab farmers in Galilee and the Palestinian Occupied Territories, supporting them with practical advice on farming and finance. The group collaborated with multiple stakeholders to transform a derelict firing zone into Israel’s first Arab-Israeli organic olive grove, and now sells more than 30 tonnes of fair trade and organic oil annually to 12 Western countries. In the UK, its customers include social enterprise Zaytoun and cosmetics company Lush.

Building a circle of positive actions

Pulling together gives Sindyanna’s smallholder farmers a voice at an international level and strengthens their collective product offering. The ‘story’ behind the product, its award wins and ecologically sound credentials help to win business in a marketplace increasingly interested in ethics and provenance. And channelling all the profits back into education helps farmers learn how to benefit from sustainable agriculture, and women to gain valuable skills to find work.

At its visitor centre in Galilee, Sindyanna helps Arab women to build confidence, learn Hebrew and English, and develop friendships through educational and craft-making activities, including weaving fair trade baskets. Now, it plans to create a training centre in Nazareth, ten times the size, to equip hundreds more with vital literacy, numeracy and commercial skills.

Creating a blueprint for business action on peace

“We’re creating a different reality, showing that there is an alternative way of being,” says Ladav. “And we look beyond the balance sheet to measure our ability to create a positive social impact, be heard and taken seriously at government level and improve our professional reputation.”

Indeed, Sindyanna’s business model has real potential to help in other fragile and conflict-torn areas, according to Elspeth Donovan, Deputy Director of the Cambridge Institute for Sustainable Leadership’s South Africa office.

“One of the biggest challenges for small-scale producers is access to markets,” explains Donovan. “This model sparks economic activity, allows people to support each other in the process and brings it full circle to support producers’ communities. Importantly, it also empowers women, who often suffer most in conflict situations, to be at the forefront of creating social cohesion.

“Applying this model elsewhere would require being mindful of local tensions and on-the-ground challenges,” she adds. “Communities know what they need and want to be involved in decision-making, so businesses must take a consultative approach.”

Pamela Hartigan, Director of the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship, agrees: “Although bringing disparate groups together can be challenging, people really just want to get along, and business is well placed to help because it comes at things from a very practical angle. It has a clear purpose, whereas politics can breed animosity.”

And in addition to the commercial necessity of developing and selling a good quality product, Ladav sees patience, empathy, transparency and collaboration with like-minded partners as vital to succeeding in this space. Ultimately, she believes, businesses that can demonstrate a sense of humanity will be the most effective in promoting peace.

Similar organisations using trade to support reconciliation include PeaceWorks, a company supporting the Arab-Israeli peace process through health food sales, and BH Crafts, a social enterprise that brings Bosnian and Herzegovinian women together to make clothing for customers including fashion business Agnès B.

Looking to the future

Recently highlighted by Forbes as one of the top trends to look out for in corporate responsibility, ‘business for peace’ is gathering momentum.

“Business action on peace will become more important as conflicts over resource scarcity grow, fuelled by climate change pressures,” says Hartigan. “A vital part of future-proofing businesses will mean companies need to roll up their sleeves and get involved in helping communities to survive peacefully.”

The UN Global Compact’s new ‘Business for Peace’ initiative, its fastest growing platform to date, is already advising 100 companies on how to act responsibly in conflict-affected and high-risk areas. With ‘business as usual’ simply not an option in such environments, the UNGC aims to show that the issues of peace, development and business success are often inextricably linked.

This article was originally published on the Guardian Sustainable Business website.