USAID’s Planning and Local Governance Project (PLGP) conducted the first-ever Gender-Sensitive Value Chain Analyses in Albania in 2019. Throughout this process, different barriers to women’s inclusion were identified. For some value chains, a lack of standards inhibited market access. For others, there were issues with product processing. PLGP used targeted interventions to generate positive change for an established women’s cooperative of jufka producers and women growing traditional Medicinal and Aromatic Plants (MAPs). Tapping into their existing expertise, PLGP’s Economic Expert created an enabling environment for each to transform and grow their businesses into sustainable, successful operations and opened the door to new levels of stability and hope to them, their families, and their communities.
Creating an Environment for Success: Transforming a Women’s Cooperative in Dibra
While life in Diber, an eastern and mountainous municipality, may be a struggle, the women there are resilient. For years, a group of 20 women in Maqellare have been known for their high-quality jufka. Despite this renown, a lack of business acumen coupled with the short production window (the jufka cannot dry in the cold) has kept the group at a subsistence level.
PLGP supported the cooperative with wrap-around services covering all phases of their production and marketing. Through training sessions covering business administration, requirements for business registration, and food safety standards, the women were empowered to run their existing activity more efficiently. They were also able to access new markets with appropriately priced and packaged artisanal products. With their newly registered business, they also achieved the Albanian products standard, giving credibility to the quality of their goods. The production cycle was extended with the purchase and installation of a state-of-the-art air circulation system. With this in place, the cooperative can make jufka year-round in their facility, resulting in an overall production increase of 40-60% and providing an additional fifteen jobs for women in the community (five within the facility and ten artisans who work from home).
Previously, jufka was sold in large unlabeled boxes at a price of $2/kg. As a result of PLGP’s efforts in certification and labelling, the price of jufka increased 35-55%. The group is negotiating with supermarkets and high-end shops in Tirana for a price of $4-5/kg. Coupled with the increased production, the cooperative will see an added income of $35,000-40,000 this year.
“Now we can work year-round and enter a larger market, thanks to USAID,” said Melita, one of the members of the group.
“It’s unbelievable how much we evolved in such a short period of time. We have been producing jufka for many years, but we were informal. We could not even release an invoice to our clients and could not enter the market. During the last six months we registered with the authorities and achieved the AG standard. We also improved working conditions, ensured year-round production, and improved packaging and labelling. Now we are entering the market with our own registered brand! All of this during a pandemic. I am very grateful to USAID for the support, to the American People for their generosity, and to the team of PLGP for their dedication!” -Lirie Rexha, Leader of the Cooperative.
Planting Roots for Sustainable Incomes
The Medicinal and Aromatic Plants (MAPs) subsector generates income for about 100,000 households across Albania. Industrial production focuses on conventional mechanized cultivation in large plain areas; however, many poor households in rural, mountainous areas engage in the wild harvest of MAPs. This work presents risks like the constant threat of wild animals, dangerous terrain, and a lack of physical safety when collecting and transporting the produce on small, poorly maintained roads. The socially isolating work provides little income to the families involved and often causes damage to the environment as well, through improper harvesting techniques.
Recognizing the potential for growth in this sector, the Planning and Local Governance Project (PLGP) implemented small-scale MAPs programs to promote their cultivation, improve harvesting techniques, and boost marketing efforts in Bulqize, Cerrik, and Diber. With a focus on women’s engagement, these efforts tapped into a largely informal workforce that became larger as more women were involved in the production, processing, and marketing phases of this value chain.
Through the technical assistance that PLGP provided to MAP producers, forty-five women and their families improved their working and living conditions from the increased income. PLGP’s technical assistance, coaching, and support for product inputs (e.g., seedlings) covered all phases of production including brokering market access.
Protocols and technical manuals ensured the transfer of knowledge of sustainable farming practices, moving women away from sometimes inefficient and dangerous wild harvesting. Experts met with groups and individuals to teach them best practices for propagation, cultivation, and harvesting. Solar drying panels reduced drying times and food certified transport sacks ensured the quality of products was maintained to from field to market. PLGP liaised with farmers and export companies to ensure fair and equitable contract agreements were reached. All of these efforts were showcased within the communities, promoting women’s economic empowerment and value-chain inclusion as a best-practice to generate income and build community resiliency.
Regarding the safety of wild harvest, PLGP advocated for the rejuvenation of fields which had lain fallow for over 20 years. Now, four hectares of fields (Bulqize 1.5 hectares, Diber 1.7 hectares, Cerrik 0.8 hectares) are cultivated with mallow flowers which will generate significant revenues of $80,000-$100,000 in total. Each of our women beneficiaries will receive approximately $30-35/day during the harvest season (up to four months) and average profit of $2,000-3,000 for each farmer as a result of their partnership with PLGP. Through this transformative process, farmers will be able to reinvest in seedlings (or propagate their own) for next year’s harvest and build upon the established relationship with exporters to promote sustainable farming and stability moving forward.
“I have been collecting wild plants for many years without making any relevant income. Thanks to USAID’s support, hopefully this year we are not only making a profit but can plant roots for a sustainable income for the years to come.” -Lutfie Xheta, MAPs producer in Bulqizë.
“My family never thought that we would be able to cultivate our own land, because we lacked both the money and the knowledge required for this type of business. Thanks to USAID’s support, my neighbors and my family came together and decided to cultivate a piece of land that had not been used for more than 20 years. A prosperously cultivated land and the revenues generated from it provide sufficient income for our households, so we do not have to go to the mountains for risky harvesting. Indeed, we are encouraging our fellow farmers to engage in this successful activity.” -Hana Tifekcia, mother of three in Dibra.
Moving forward, these interventions in artisanal food production and MAPs cultivation will continue to generate income for beneficiaries, shifting the positions of power for women within their homes, communities, and society as a whole and providing sustainable, generational change.