Goat cheese, cornel jam, dried mushrooms. The 5 last October one hundred agricultural producers from northern Albania met at theAgrofest. OBC Transeuropa interviewed Nicola Battistella, of RTM Volunteers in the World, among the promoters of the initiative.
The 5 last October in Pukë, northern Albania, the Agrofest was held. What is it?
It is a fair dedicated to typical local products, which has been held for fifteen years now. It was born thanks to Agropuka, a local association that deals with coordinating and training producers active in the breeding, harvesting of wild berries and mushrooms. We at RTM, in past years, accompanied the beneficiary producers of our rural development projects here, but this year there was one more step: thanks to the resources made available by the Alliance program for the development and valorisation of agriculture family in the north of Albania co-financed by AICS and CEI, we decided to actively contribute to the organization of the event. Together with Agropuka and the Municipality of Pukë we have tried to conceive the fair not only as a market, but also as a meeting place between all the components and those interested in the agricultural sector.
This year there were about a hundred producers, mainly from Pukë, Fushë Arrëz but also from Vau i Dejës and the lowland areas, in sectors ranging from sheep and goat chain to honey, mushrooms, dried fruit, berries and their processed vegetables fresh, preserved and mountain herbal teas.
Who are the visitors of this fair?
This year we have invested more in preparation, visibility and communication. This has brought more people than most of the area, but Agrofest is starting to attract people from far away too: there were visitors from Tirana and Scutari.
This happens because now there is a greater offer than in the past, which ranges from animation for children to a series of prizes by category to producers.
For the first time, there were exhibitors with agricultural machinery, obviously small, especially for processing honey, milking or feeding animals.
Can you tell us about Pukë and its surroundings?
It is a town of just under five thousand inhabitants in northern Albania, located in a predominantly mountainous area, which has suffered heavy depopulation since the 90 years. There are no major economic activities for which local development is based on small realities, often family run. This is the most sustainable approach, given also the absence of large connection infrastructures and services, both general and business-oriented.
A significant proportion of the people living in these rural areas are employed in the sheep and goat sector. We are talking about families that own 60-80 goats, some 200, and a small cheese production workshop. They base most of their family income on the sale of kids for slaughtering and cheese. To give a dimension to things: if you have 100 goats and you work well you can have an income of 300-400 euro per month, if spread over the whole year.
Lately, the production of honey is also growing in this area, with families having 50 to 70 hives. Another activity is the collection and processing of blackberries, raspberries, blueberries, cornelian. These are mostly collected in the wild even though now someone starts with cultivation. Goat cheese, forest fruits, and honey are the three sectors that seem most promising and on which more things are moving.
Why the presence of RTM in northern Albania?
RTM arrived for the first time in Albania in a somewhat indirect way, during the crisis in Kosovo, to give support to refugees arriving from there. Then it started operating in Kosovo after the end of the war, but the relationship with Northern Albania never failed because there was the Diocese of Reggio Emilia, the city where we are based, present in the area. In 2013 it was decided to return more consistently to Albania by intervening in two sectors, that of rural development and that of women's rights.
Returning to the Agrofest, one of its stands was dedicated to the "Sapori del nord" brand ...
One of the results of our projects was the creation of a brand, and a corresponding specification, for mountain sheep and goat products, in particular dedicated to cheese. The brand, in Albanian Shija and Veriut, was born from the work together with a group of breeders. It has not yet been officially presented, we will probably do it in the spring, but in the meantime we have decided to run it in contexts of this type.
The idea is that of a brand for sheep and goat products that can also act as a driving force for other typical products and for the small "guesthouses" that offer visitors local productions.
Using the promotion of a very typical product such as goat's cheese to pull other typical features of the area is crucial. With these community actions we want to remedy the problems that are connected to the small if not very small dimension of local productive activities.
Was there any producer in Pukë who particularly impressed him?
Emigration here often affects young people, who seek work outside and therefore in the rural areas often remain the elderly. Nevertheless both at the level of the public and of producers at the Agrofest we were able to involve young people among the 25 and the 35 years, who proved to be particularly active and proactive.
They then gathered some success both in terms of products and in being able to break that image of the sheep and goat sector that too often is associated with situations of indigence to 'there is nothing else to do, we have to do this'.
The cases of these young guys who succeed in their field has a huge impact on what is seen as a marginal job and instead becomes a job that can lead to good results.
All this also has an impact on the introduction of improvements in production processes: these young people are willing to experiment, introduce new things, get involved.
He has spent a few years in Albania dealing with territorial development. What are the most critical elements?
The elements on which there are more critical issues are substantially structural. First of all, the lack of infrastructure, from the roads to the fact that the electricity supply in some areas is still very inconsistent - or not - and this poses serious problems for the conservation of the products.
Then there is the inaccessibility to institutional subsidies and the difficulty in accessing credit. It is difficult to make investments if there are no government subsidies or if going to the bank to request a loan, conditions are required that are prohibitive for most local producers. There is talk, for example, of interest rates higher than 10% for a farmer in these areas who has no guarantee. Even the ministerial subsidies continue to be inaccessible for most of them, either because they need to move to urban centers to apply or because a series of requirements are required that many do not have.
Finally it must be kept in mind that many of these economic activities remain - at least partially - informal. There are no benefits to fully regularizing an activity and there are no penalties if it is not done. However, this slows down the possibility of development in this sector, limiting for example the constant controls on the quality of the productions or a more organized marketing.
Elements of optimism?
First of all the fact - I repeat - that there is a substantial number of young people who are moving in this sector, which is perhaps a trend that we have also seen in Italy in recent years. And then there are attempts - albeit slow and not easy - to create networks of producers. For example, last winter, a group of breeders asked us to help them with this. And in a country where - given the communist past - any form of cooperation and association is viewed with disinterest or in a negative way, it was a strong signal. We therefore started this journey which led to the birth of a breeders' association in July, including some young people, including some girls. It is a first step, we have started to do activities, it could all end in six months, but it could also lead to the organization of joint buying groups, joint sales systems, the launch of common veterinary treatments. All this could move things.
Among other things, we have noticed that a series of measures, treatments and procedures that were not previously adopted have now become part of the daily activity of these producers. When cases of good practice are created, then they spread very quickly: if you work with the most active producers and are willing to experiment, you get good results, then they are the ones who communicate them to colleagues. Some measures that have had positive results are spreading well outside the beneficiaries of our projects.
And from consumers? Is there more attention to this type of product?
Some products we have worked a lot on, especially goat meat and cheese, are now sold at an average price higher than a few years ago. And this, for the producers, is absolutely positive. Promotion events have certainly benefited. But also the fact that these producers are more self-confident and no longer afraid of not being able to sell the product. First they accepted a low price to get rid of it as soon as possible, and collect as much as they could collect. Now there is no more fear of remaining with the unsold. Goat cheese is usually made from June to September and this year it will probably be the last fair in which many producers will participate because they have already run out of stocks. Now small productions that are doing well manage to reach Tirana, for example, when they were previously confined to Pukë or at most Scutari. Someone has also started exporting to neighboring states, and serves as an example and a driving force for everyone else.
Attention to the fate of entire families, attention to the development of local communities, attention to the landscape, attention to issues of economic development. In short, these are the key elements that theAlliance for the development and enhancement of family agriculture in northern Albania proposes to set in motion, starting from traditional knowledge, typical products and the role of women.
4 July 2017 launched from the city of Pukë, this three-year project is promoted by two Italian NGOs - Reggio Terzo Mondo (RTM) and emerging countries Development Cooperation (COSPE) - with the support of the Italian Agency for Development Cooperation (AICS). The objective of the initiative may sound "traditional" - the eco-sustainable development of one of the most backward areas of Albania - but the network and the method they propose to implement it are innovative. Agropuka, given its role in the region, participates in the initiative as a permanent member of the Management Committee of the Endowment Fund for the Development of Family Farming, a project-based financing scheme.