Posted on September 16, 2020
La Brocante is a project that upcycles donated furniture to resell it or give it back to those who need it the most. This unique initiative that combines social and environmental impact was launched in 2007 by arcenciel, an NGO that supports Lebanon’s underprivileged and marginalized communities through diversified programs.
In the few years after its launch, La Brocante grew to occupy around 4000 sqm of space in Damour, South of Beirut, while impacting the lives and livelihoods of many. Jihad Jilwan, project manager since 2019, decided to apply with the project to Berytech’s Impact Rise program to structure the project and scale it to multiply its impact.
We talked to Jihad about the most challenging year in the history of La Brocante (and the country!), of how, with his team, they stood strong with the project’s mission to continue to impact lives in desperate times.
La Brocante started in 2007 as a response to the 2006 war, where thousands lost their homes to Israeli missiles. arcenciel already had several recycling initiatives in place. With a lot of solid waste generated in the form of broken furniture, the organization set a plan to gather and restore furniture and then donate it to the people who were rebuilding their homes. Eventually, as the operation grew in size, restored and upcycled items were also put up for sale benefiting the cause of arcenciel (AEC).
The 4000 sqm center in Damour merged the show area with the carpentry, upholstery and paint workshops and visitors could watch the work being done as they shopped.
Craftsmen employed in the workshops include people with disabilities who are integrated into the AEC renovation teams and empowered to learn new skills and contribute to their community. The sales of the furniture helped in covering their financial needs. It also helped in keeping tons of solid waste away from the dumps.
In October 2019 a huge fire ravaged through the center burning more than 80% of it. The team acted fast to relocate the remaining furniture to the AEC center in Beirut and to consolidate the workshops with the wheelchair production atelier that the organization runs in the city. La Brocante kept running but on a much smaller scale.
The fire was followed by a revolution, an economic collapse, a pandemic and the world’s third-largest explosion. And yet, La Brocante has emerged as one of the most active initiatives working to help people settle back in their homes after the blast.
“After the explosion, we wanted to mobilize fast, so we decided to create a system of immediate donations. We created a structure with volunteers who helped us assess the destroyed houses and report back on what is needed,” explains Jihad. “They send us the assessment and we directly send back the needed furniture that we have in stock or that we receive as donations. Even after the fire, we had not stopped receiving donations and with the blast, donations came pouring in from around the world.”
“We have a transportation system that picks up donated furniture for free. We ask donors to send the picture of what they have, and we pick it up. We sort the furniture donations into three categories: vintage items that are in a good condition are destined for immediate resale, used items that need some work are upcycled and then resold to people as low-cost furnishing, and the third category are items that are immediately donated.”
Following the blast and to date, La Brocante has donated to around 250 homes while aiming to reach another 300. The team is also working on refurbishing furniture from afflicted homes that could reach as many as 200.
Jihad joined La Brocante in 2019 right after he came back from France. An architect, he received his master’s in renovation and restoration in France and joined AEC as a volunteer when he came back hoping to help. He initially started working on the inventory and fixing the warehouses and eventually joined the team to become Project Manager.
“We decided to rethink the model from zero and restructure the business to maximize our impact, thinking of La Brocante as an entity within AEC, but independent from it.
The project, up to that point, had grown organically. Moving out of Damour and into Beirut made it easier for people to pass by and shop and much easier for us to pick up donations. With a more accessible location, we wanted to improve our visibility and increase our exposure.
“We joined Berytech’s Impact Rise Social Entrepreneurship Program to receive help in adjusting our business model, growth plan, media strategy, etc. Through the program, Berytech helped us rethink our strategy. By receiving help in structuring our business plan, the direction in which we need to think became clearer to us. We worked on developing our sales strategy to increase our visibility.
We decided to create an e-commerce platform for La Brocante to reach more people and improve our sales. Through the program, Berytech helped us structure our plan and simplified its execution. They connected us with NGOs that we are capable of collaborating with on the field. We had access to Berytech’s network of professionals and experts that were ready to support.
Our coach in the program, Joumana Aoun, was excellent in helping us develop our business plan and pushing to us follow through. Our mentors, Marianne Bitar, Ronnie Richa, and Edmond Chidiak, especially helped us in accessing valuable resources and working on the legal format of the entity.”
In the words of coach Joumana Aoun, the impact of La Brocante is two folds: “It keeps waste out of the waste stream and extends the usable life of discarded and abandoned materials and furniture. It also has a positive impact on the community by providing quality jobs to disadvantaged workers, providing job training, paying a livable wage to all employees and a contribution to artists with a percentage of profits returning to the community to help incubate other sustainable and socially responsible businesses.”
Marianne Bitar, their mentor in the program, confirms that now is a pivotal time for La Brocante: “It is now that they need to shine! There is a golden opportunity for them to grow and make use of the challenges the country is facing in restricted imports, lack of local production and hyperinflation limiting purchasing power.”
Their mentor, Edmond Chidiak points out to potential challenges that might face the team: “While building the complete strategic plan that includes the financial expectations, the staff organizational chart and the marketing plan, the team has become aware of many challenges especially in terms of pricing the items. It is particularly true for antiques where high expertise is required to evaluate the worth of the piece. Knowledge is also important in terms of restoration. I am confident that La Brocante will rise up to these challenges and fulfill the high hopes it started with.”
Following the trail of destruction left by the blast and with the economic hardships and currency devaluation weighing down on people, the mission of La Brocante has never been more relevant than now. “The team is fully committed and is working hard tackling this business at all levels of the chains. They will certainly succeed, given the timely importance of their initiative,” confirms Ronnie Richa, their mentor in the Impact Rise Program.
Jihad points out that the blast has brought a lot of visibility to the work of La Brocante, “People continue to trust us and continue to donate. We have received calls from as far as Canada asking to contribute.
As our work gains more traction, more people will have access to affordable furniture, more donations will be made through us, more talented workers will be trained in our workshops to be able to run their own businesses one day, more waste will be saved from the dumps and the impact of our mission will multiply by the tenfold.”
According to Krystel Khalil, Director of Programs at Berytech, “La Brocante is an excellent example of a social project that was created under the umbrella of a non-profit organization (arcenciel), but proved to have its own sustainable impact model. This is to say that many valuable projects are being managed in organizations, and if they prove to be sustainable and scalable, it is a valuable opportunity to turn them into social enterprises.”
About the Impact Rise Program
La Brocante 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 Joumana Aoun, and mentored by Marianne Bitar, Ronnie Richa, and Edmond Chidiak, all four experts are also enrolled in the Impact Rise Program.