With his range of naturally grown fruits, vegetables, and herbs, Azzam Zorba is on a mission to improve our diet and transform the way food is farmed in Jordan.
By Elisa Oddone
German philosopher Ludwig Fuerbach wrote around 200 years ago that “man is what he eats.” Jordanian farmer Azzam Zorba couldn’t agree more.
When he launched his eponymous range of naturally grown produce in 2002, Zorba set out to prove to the rest of Jordan’s farming sector that being environmentally friendly can actually be good for business. “I wanted to show them that one can produce good products and be successful by following different cultivation procedures and not only by focusing on being commercial,” he said.
The use of pesticides and water are kept to an absolute minimum on Zorba’s three farms, where 50 different types of herbs, fruits, and vegetables are grown mostly for sale in select supermarkets around Jordan.
Zorba also contracts cultivators across the Kingdom to grow crops using his techniques and guidelines, and the origin of his products are clearly labeled, which is another important way his business has differentiated itself from the start. “When a person goes to any of the Jordanian markets to buy vegetables or fruits, one product would be simply equal to the other. I took up the responsibility, instead, to create a brand which conveys more information,” he said. “We don’t only sell vegetables, but put our face on them.”
Naturally grown and organic food products worldwide are usually significantly more expensive than their conventionally farmed counterparts. Zorba said his produce roughly sells for double the country’s price, mainly due to the stricter growing process overseen by his 50 employees. “We follow our products from the seeds, which we import from Spain, up to the shelves.”
Located in the Jordan Valley, some of the most fertile land in the Middle East, Zorba’s first farm has never stopped growing the high quality herbs, vegetables, and fruits the brand has become widely known for. Down the years, Zorba has added two additional farms to his business, one in the outskirt of the city of Jerash and the other along Amman’s Airport Road. There, greenhouses sprawl over an area between 35 and 40 dunums, about 10 regulation-sized soccer fields.
To limit water consumption and waste in Jordan, one of the world’s driest countries, Zorba’s farms employ the so-called “spaghetti” irrigation system, which connects small diameter vinyl tubes to multiple-outlet emitters to regulate water output for the plants.
In the future, computerized systems will regulate the process, allowing water to drip slowly to the roots of plants in combination with mist and fog irrigation.
Jordan’s water scarcity and low quality, which often fails to meet international safety standards, have spurred Zorba to start contracting farmers to work under his company’s strict rules. This means the use of chemicals and pesticides on the vegetables in his farms is also minutely monitored—from how much is used to when they are applied.
About 90 percent of Zorba’s products are green leafy vegetables spanning Rocca and Japanese Mizuna, which is a piquant, mild peppery flavor used in stir-fries and soups, to Italian lettuce, parsley, and mint. “We are … about to start introducing niche vegetables impossible to find in Jordan, like leaves from the Far East and other spices which are suitable for the preparation of Mexican food,” he said.
Crops spanning the renowned San Marzano tomato, famed as the only tomatoes that can be used for a true Neapolitan pizza, green onions, peppers, and grapes are produced following Globalgap guidelines—a set of regulations for the certification of agricultural products worldwide that harmonize production standards.
Because of this, Zorba said his is one of the few Jordanian brands able to pass strict European Union controls on chemical residuals on vegetables and fruits and export its products there. “All the materials we use for production are certified according to the European Union legislation,” he said. “Everybody talks about being organic in Jordan but nobody actually is as we lack official standardized controls as well as final regulations to declare a product organic.”
Zorba expects his entire farming process to be completely organic within a year. The final step will involve importing soil from abroad which has been assessed to be 100 percent organic and free of any chemicals.
But Zorba’s mission isn’t complete yet. He wants Jordanians to become farmers themselves and start growing their own gardens. “Regardless if you have a garden or not, we can provide every person with a tailor-made solution,” he said.
With a planned Mazara’ati showroom that will sell everything from greenhouses to seeds, Zorba will give green-fingered Jordanians the chance to grow their own produce. “Each customer will find a design for each space at a reasonable cost,” Zorba said. “Customers will face the same costs, or even less, of buying from markets but the quality and freshness of the vegetables would be much higher.”
In the showroom, would-be farmers will see all the materials and soil used in the company’s production, while Zorba’s wife Inas Ahed, a chef and television personality, will run cooking sessions teaching visitors how to cook delicious food with the products available.
Zorba said he will also provide hotels with crops in order to enable them to create their own gardens and always have fresh vegetables available, thus saving a huge amount of money in imports of items which aren’t available in Jordan.
Zorba said this sort of “education” would take two to three years to become established, but it could eventually help change Jordanians’ habits by making them more aware of what they eat. “Jordanians have already started to care more about the quality of their food also in light of diseases like heart attacks, cancer, and diabetes, prevalent in the country which are partly linked to people’s wrong diets,” he said.
But the farmer still has an ultimate dream: to become well known in the Middle East and Europe as one of the best sources for healthy food products in the region, and set an example for the rest of Jordan’s farming sector.