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Hemp blocks: How two Israelis and two Palestinians created a successful business in Portugal

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This is a story that contradicts the news that reaches us daily about the war scenario currently taking place in the Middle East and which is important to remember here. Two Israelis living in the south of Alentejo, in Portugal, joined two Palestinians to found an innovative hemp block business for sustainable construction. Their goal is to encourage the local economy with as little ecological footprint as possible and, of course, lots of love. From this unlikely relationship of Israeli-Palestinian friendship, was born Cânhamor. 

Elad Kaspin, 36, and Omer Ben Zvi, 38, both Israelis, bought land in the south of Alentejo around 10 years ago. Fascinated by the hemp plant, they wanted to establish a factory to explore one of its countless applications, natural construction. It was at the end of 2020 that their dream came true, when Khalid Mansour, aged 47, and Azmi Afifi, 52, both Palestinians, also came to Portugal and bought land. Together they invested the necessary capital to start the venture and, with the experience and initiative of the four, the adventure they called Cânhamor began. “The four partners are good friends and we are very happy to work together in synergy as Palestinians and Israelis,” they say.

In 2021, we went to see Cânhamor and discovered the story that brought these four entrepreneurs together in Portugal. Two interviews with Elad Kaspin, conducted in 2021 and 2022 respectively, were originally published in Cannadouro Magazine and since then Cânhamor has only been growing — some data provided below may, therefore, not be 100% up to date, as the demand for hemp blocks in Portugal and Europe has grown and so has Cânhamor.

Therefore, in the current context of an unfortunate war between Israel and Palestine and in an increasingly polarized society, we share this beautiful story again, so that it can inspire other people. We believe that, as human beings, our mission is cooperation between all and the continuous search for peace. The ability to make a difference is in each of us, to leave a better world for future generations. Cânhamor is already doing this, and with enormous success.

Elad, what is, in your opinion, “Building with nature instead of exploiting it”?
The entire industrial production chain, from start to finish, exploits mother nature, carelessly extracting resources and producing endless waste. We have lost connection with where we came from and therefore we do not take into account the high price our planet pays when we try to make money as quickly as possible. At Canhamôr we think about the planet we are going to leave for our children and their children. In other words, we think about what we can do today so that nature is included in the process and benefits from it, instead of being treated as an infinite resource and a deposit of toxic waste and gases. That's why we chose to work as locally as possible and with the hemp plant, which has a negative carbon footprint, to create a truly waste-free product.

Cânhamor blocks do not contain any type of cement or unnatural hardening additives.

What materials and methods do you use to manufacture the blocks?
We use the inner part of the stem of the hemp plant. Normally, this part is treated as waste and is discarded. We take this wonderful “waste” and turn it into something usable, with incredible properties. We mix with two types of local Portuguese limestone (the well-known lime), and a special type of clay, to create a very strong, light, fire-resistant building material with a very high level of thermal and acoustic insulation. It also “breathes” very well, eliminating any moisture issues commonly found in existing structures.

Is the hemp you use produced in Portugal?
For now, we buy our hemp in France because the machine needed to transform the plant into the fine form we use in the blocks does not yet exist in Portugal (or Spain). We are working on the purchase and assembly of this machine in our factory, so that we can only work with Portuguese hemp, support local producers and expand the entire hemp industry in Portugal.

What were the biggest difficulties in implementing your project?
Unlike other companies that manufacture similar blocks, we do not add any type of cement or unnatural hardening additives. This means that the drying and curing process of the blocks naturally takes up to 60 days, which presents a huge logistical storage challenge, but we refuse to compromise on the quality and ecological aspects of our blocks. Another challenge is that this is a very new market in Portugal and people are still quite hesitant to change the conservative ways of materials and construction methods.

“It is important to highlight that Cânhamor will only purchase and transform organic hemp”

Projects are born of ideas and made by people. Who created Hemp?
We are four people living in Alentejo, who dreamed of creating a business with this truly remarkable plant. One brought the idea, another brought the financing and the third brought the initiative and action. Today, the people who make this business work are equally dedicated workers who produce high-quality blocks every day.

What factors dictated the choice of Portugal and the parish of Colos, in the municipality of Odemira, for the installation of the factory?
First of all, it's the area where we live and we want to integrate this passion into our lives, not just as work. Secondly, it is a very large area, thousands of hectares of unused land and could be ideal for growing hemp, helping to regenerate the soil and providing business to many local farmers.

Does Cânhamor intend to reach the industrial scale?
Yes, at the moment we are a medium-sized industrial factory with seven contract workers. Together with the local authorities, we are developing a process to build a large-scale factory (from hemp blocks) to achieve a much higher production capacity and hire many more people. We intend to build it as early as 2022. When it is ready and we have the processing machines needed to work with local hemp, we will truly be a Zero-Waste industry, here in Colos, Alentejo. 

The drying and curing process for hemp blocks typically takes up to 60 days

What is the main destination of your hemp blocks? The local, national or export market?
We intend to sell our blocks mainly in the Iberian Peninsula, so that we can maintain a negative carbon footprint and focus on projects as close and local as possible.

What about the size of the factory, how many employees do they employ and what is the monthly production capacity? How big will it be after expanding to the new facilities?
At the moment [October 2022] we have a fairly small factory, employing 6 production workers plus 3-4 workers in office, Marketing, management etc. We produce between 4.000 and 9.000 blocks per month (depending on the size of the block), which is enough to make two to three houses per month, depending on the size of the house. In the new factory, we will be able to make 120.000 blocks per month, enough to build more than 60 houses per month.

In addition to the construction of the new factory, Cânhamor will acquire a decorticator, to be able to purchase hemp production directly from local farmers. What can you tell us about the capacity of this new machine?
What we want is to offer a complete solution, which fulfills our slogan “from seed to block”, making the entire supply chain local and sustainable. We have already purchased the decorticator, which will be installed in the summer of 2023, to process next year's hemp harvest. We are now bringing together all the farmers we can to collaborate under the umbrella of a producers' association, which will facilitate the licensing process for farmers, the purchase of seeds, as well as the rental and sharing of machines used for harvesting, steeping and transport.
Cânhamor will purchase all local production grown by farmers in the area, which will be transformed with this new state-of-the-art industrial decorticator, which can process up to 2 tons of dry stalks per hour. Our goal is to harvest and process 1.000 hectares of hemp per year over the next three years. Our hemp cultivation consultants will support all farmers who wish to start growing hemp or existing farmers who wish to switch to hemp as an alternative to other crops such as corn or sunflower.

“The four partners are good friends and we are very happy to work together in synergy as Palestinians and Israelis”

How are you planning to connect directly with farmers, will you order the production or will the farmers take the hemp to your facilities?
As I said before, we will follow the process, from obtaining the license, purchasing the seeds, preparing the soil, cultivating and harvesting. We also intend to provide the necessary machinery and transportation for the farmer to our facilities for processing. We will also issue a contract promising to purchase all production, which on the one hand helps to obtain licensing and guarantees the flow to the farmer. We will also monitor the maceration process, which is essential to ensure that the fiber and straw can be obtained with the highest quality. We are working together with the hemp producers association lusicanna, to ensure that farmers are supported, technically and financially. It cannot be stressed enough that this cultivation will help regenerate and clean the soil, without consuming herbicides, pesticides and using much less water than other conventional crops. Finally, it is important to highlight that Cânhamor will only purchase and transform organic hemp.
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