By Greg Delawie
Just a few years ago 27-year-old business owner Trimor Hyseni could never have imagined that he would one day become a successful raspberry farmer, or be on the vanguard of a sweeping revolution in Kosovo’s agricultural sector. But thanks to his own initiative and technical advice from USAID’s agricultural team, he harvested €25,000 euros worth of raspberries from his small plot in just his first season. Today, he and his family are incredible examples of what’s possible when you take a risk and pioneer something new. More than 70 percent of Kosovo’s 3,000 raspberry producers are now young people, eager to follow Trimor’s example.
Trimor’s story is powerful, because as much as we talk about Kosovo’s challenges, it’s just as important to learn from its successes. And the remarkable transformation taking place in Kosovo’s agriculture shows what’s possible when you do things the right way. Over the last several years a transition from traditional to high-value crops, the adoption of a market-driven, value chain approach, and a change in attitudes are having a critical effect: driving profits, propelling the sector into the future, and carrying Kosovo-made products well beyond its borders. In fact, the 15 crops USAID supports have generated $66M in new sales since 2015 – and by 2020 that number is expected to jump to $130M in combined domestic and export sales. Many of these products were close to zero exports before being jump-started by USAID assistance, and with each successful harvest, more and more university students are pursuing agriculture as a desirable career that generates a good living. So what did it take to get here, and how can we replicate this success in other areas?
First, it helps to understand the landscape, and real progress starts with good analysis. A decade ago USAID undertook a comprehensive study of markets, topography, weather patterns, and logistics. That study produced a list of the crops capable of transforming Kosovo’s agricultural sector – including the raspberries that now support Trimor and his family – and created an early roadmap for success. Local and central government leadership in supporting these non-traditional, high-value crops was also essential in helping to persuade farmers to invest in new crops, and in changing attitudes across the sector. Time and again we’ve seen that when municipal governments invest in local agriculture and partner with donors, domestic resources are used smartly and strategically.
Doing this the right way also meant making the hard choice to stop emphasizing direct grant support to farmers. It’s always difficult to move away from a type of assistance that people have come to rely on, but it’s also a necessary step forward towards longer-term sustainability. That’s why the U.S. follows a market-driven approach, facilitating market linkages and providing training and technical assistance, but never inserting ourselves in the middle of the value chain. Kosovo strategic partners have been in the lead from the beginning –providing incentives for more farmers, aggregators, and retailers to work together, to improve product quality, and to reach new markets. I saw this cooperation first-hand last summer in Shtrpce when I met Nysrete Ramadani, a grower and collector of medicinal and aromatic plants and a member of the Women’s Association “Boronica e Sharrit.” The Association strengthens the cooperation between women farmers in region – from both Kosovo-Albanian and Kosovo Serb communities – and with the help of a regional aggregator, helps their products find export markets as far away as Austria, Germany and Switzerland. As the EU market takes note of Kosovo as a trusted supplier of a high-quality product, it creates a cycle of confidence at every step along the value chain that helps sustain growth across the sector.
Setbacks will come, and every farmer knows to expect some bad weather along the way, but sustainable, long-term success means looking to the future. National associations must continue to bring the sector together to solve mutual problems. The Government of Kosovo must consistently address industry-wide issues for the benefit of the entire sector, not for a well-connected few. And Kosovo’s universities must invest more in agricultural education, research, extension, and careers.
Success is no accident, and whether it’s in agriculture, the rule of law, energy security, or anything else, there are no shortcuts. It takes information, collaboration, courage, and a lot of persistence to change minds and achieve lasting results. It takes a level playing field in which merit and hard work are rewarded, to inspire the best and brightest to join the field. Six months ago I had the chance to sit down with some recent graduates from the University of Prishtina’s Faculty of Agriculture. These young people were smart and passionate, and all they wanted was a chance to apply their knowledge and enthusiasm. Carrying the transformation forward means ensuring opportunities for these young graduates and all those who follow them – supporting Kosovo’s next generation of committed, successful, and innovative agricultural leaders.