Cezar Mahmoud knew that he needed to create opportunities for him to thrive. His business, simply dubbed ‘Cezar Projects’ did not only change his life but continues to impact the lives and livelihoods of his family, community, and the Shouf Area in general.
The project was accepted into Berytech’s Impact Rise Social Entrepreneurship Program to help scale it and multiply its social and environmental impact. It consists of guesthouses and farmhouses promoting sustainable and responsible tourism in the Shouf area by offering a series of authentic experiences and ecotourism services.
We talked to Cezar about how he launched his venture and how he has encouraged the active participation of the local community while building effective partnerships with schools, universities, and NGOs through awareness workshops and activities to ensure the involvement of youth and locals in rural development.
Starting at Home
Born and raised in Shouf, one of the most luscious green areas of Lebanon, Cezar graduated from Notre Dame University Shouf in Advertising and Marketing and went on to work with the Shouf Biosphere Reserve in communication. His work introduced him to tour operators, NGOs, visitors from around the world, hikers, and guest houses in the area. While he worked on finishing his Master’s in NGO management, Cezar decided that he would like to pave his way and build his career.
“My parents have a beautiful house in Barouk inside the biosphere of the reserve, surrounded by greenery. They had built it with the sole purpose of increasing the real-estate value of the land. I convinced them to turn it into a guest house and we started receiving people. It became the first guest house in Shouf on Airbnb three years ago.
Although the idea was new to them at first, they were already accustomed to the lifestyle of receiving people. With my work in the reserve I used to invite people over all the time: tired visitors, lost backpackers, etc., and my family enjoyed hosting them for no return.
They enjoyed the idea of running a guest house and meeting new people. Our first experience was receiving a group of tourists from China who intended to stay for one day and ended up staying for their entire vacation. From that experience, we started designing packages with different durations and different activities in the area. Since then, we have hosted around 70 nationalities.”
One Step Forward
A year after launching his first guest house Cezar was ready to grow his project. He announced ‘Farmville Barouk’ to his family, a new agri-tourism project that combines both agriculture and tourism.
“I had a clear plan and took on 2 loans to make it happen. With the new guesthouse, we launched agritourism activities which brought visitors closer to earth. We grew our team and recruited experts who took charge of a variety of activities for grownups and kids. We also invested in chicken, goats, and sheep to complete the experience.”
Impacting the Community and Beyond
With the success of the first project, the team grew to 12 full-timers all from the local community. The guest house and Farmville have the capacity of 25 persons which by mid-summer 2020 will become 45 as the construction of three new wooden houses is underway.
The project has hosted 14,500 guests so far with the diverse local activities being its core offering. In a typical stay, the team would welcome their guests in the afternoon, throw them a fire party at night, let them make their breakfast with Cezar’s mother with fresh eggs that they gathered themselves and organic vegetables from the gardens. The guests then usually hike in the reserve, visit local sculptors, have a home-made lunch in a nearby village, experience traditional matte drinking in another village, have an evening walk next to the riverbanks discovering the local ecosystem, or walk the narrow streets of touristic Deir el Kamar. The day usually ends with sunset drinks at Shouf Highlands, a project developed in partnership with Cezar Projects in Ain Zhalta.
With time, Cezar realized the impact of his work. With his growing network and experience, he can support similar projects and complete this sustainable chain and vision.
“We helped create a guest house in Brih, Shouf. ‘Strih Bi Brih’ [relax in Brih in Arabic] is also connected to our agritourism activities. We were able to provide for the owner of the house a decent monthly income in a very typical village that is far from local tourism. Our most recent project is called Shouf Highland in Ain Zhalta, it’s a sunset bar appealing to young people who want to enjoy nature with activities that could include yoga and meditation. We’ve recently included in our offering fresh and packed local produce from Farmville Barouk. We’ve been able to involve ten more families in the production of jams, essential water, and zaatar. This project is in cooperation with NutrEat clinic, under the approval of the certified dietitian Ms. Heba Btaddini.”
Cezar feels the need to give back to the community he belongs to. “This community gave me strength and support through school, university, and work. Today it is giving me the freedom to grow and enjoy a good living. With my project, I am connected to the entire ecosystem including local authorities, the local municipality, experts, and NGOs. In 3 years, the project will become fully sustainable from food to water to generating electricity. We have full agritourism programs and the possibility to expand our activities in the region. We have a minimal negative impact on the local environment and a positive social impact.”
Earlier this year, Cezar joined Berytech’s Impact Rise program, dedicated to social entrepreneurs. The program aims to grow impact-driven startups propelling people like Cezar and connecting them with a network of mentors and coaches that guide their growth. “The program is helping us with the business management aspect of our work. We’re benefiting from the knowledge and experience of the dedicated experts in law and business and ecotourism.”
“We strongly encouraged the Cezar Projects team to apply to the Impact Rise program as we believe they combine a very important experience in managing guest houses and developing rural tourism activities and passion for Lebanese villages. It would be a great value to scale that impact to other services providers and regions in Lebanon,” describes Krystel Khalil, Programs Director at Berytech.
Alain Daou, their mentor in the program explains that the impact of Cezar Projects in terms of rural tourism in the Shouf region is undeniable. “This project will not only directly benefit the team but will have a positive impact on both the community and other tourism projects in the region. You can immediately sense the passion of the team for their region and their eagerness to share its beauty with everyone.”
“The project is providing employment opportunities in rural areas,” agrees Nadine Zeinoun, their mentor in the program. “Through Cezar Projects many people are able to use their talents and strengths and make a living out of them. This not only supports people financially but gives them a sense of achievement and meaning in life.”
“It is a very successful concept that is not only scalable on the regional but also on the national level. It is a typical model that other rural ventures should follow as it serves the local community and promotes the internal tourism in the country,” says Rania Gholam, their coach in the Impact Rise program.”
Cezar Projects is not only delivering in terms of financial performance, but it is also showing how it makes a positive contribution to the Shouf society. In other words, this startup’s long-term social benefit is important to the Shouf area and has already started impacting positively the community income, increased the rural tourism in the area, created a collaboration with other projects and individuals leading to increased marketing exposure and market potential.”
Advice to Entrepreneurs
Cezar’s advice to anyone looking to take the entrepreneurial road is to follow their passion and believe in themselves and the power of their community. “You can be positive that you can find treasures in your village, at your doorstep that you might not be aware of.”
“Working in sustainable and rural tourism is the easiest and hardest sector. It is easy when you believe in it, knowing that you are not there to only make a profit, but for the social impact to benefit your community. If a tour operator or agency, or any business project thinks only about profit it means it’s a doomed project. Working in ecotourism for quick cash is not sustainable. The whole game is shifting towards creating integrated experiences from hosting to any other kind of activity provided. Any type of project needs to work to empower its community and work towards achieving long-term sustainability. Cezar Projects already worked on this to be one step ahead of the change that is happening.”
Impact Rise Program
The Cezar Projects team is currently enrolled in Berytech’s Impact Rise Social Innovation Program, funded by the U.S.-Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI). They are among 16 chosen teams who joined the startup scaling track.
They were chosen based on the startup’s business and innovation potential, business model, scalability, team compatibility and expertise, as well as their ultimate social and environmental impact. They are being coached by Rania Gholam and mentored by Hicham El Rawwas, Alain Daou and Nadine Zeinoun.