In the north of Albania, on a plain between Lake Shkodra and the Albanian Alps, is the heart of Albania’s medicinal herb industry. The air here is thick with the scent of flowers and the incessant buzzing of bees. With the harsh sun beating down from a cloudless sky, dozens of workers pick and gather bundles of blooms and leaves, destined for the international market.
Albania is the world’s largest exporter of sage and one of the leading cultivators of other medicinal herbs including lavender, lavendin, and everlasting flower. These raw products are processed, exported, and used as medicinal products, in teas, essential oils, and cosmetic products.
This industry is responsible for around 19% of Albania’s total exports but due to a combination of factors, its future is uncertain.
Cultivated in a space occupying some 5000 hectares of land, farmers work, mainly by hand to grow, nurture, and then harvest the medicinal herbs. Some are dried and then exported, others are distilled into essential oils before they are sold and shipped abroad. The farmers here include those with just 50 hectares and those with several hundred. Some work by hand, others have machines.
The issue of emigration
The sustainability of the industry is under threat due to a number of reasons. One farmer, Xheladin, who tends 50 hectares on the outskirts of Koplik told me that his children have grown up and moved abroad and have no intention of coming back to take over the family business.
“It’s sad. They have successful careers- a doctor and broker- they see no future by coming back here,” he tells Exit.
He has been growing sage, lavender, thyme, and helichrysum, or everlasting flowers since 1990. On a good year, he explains he can harvest around 8 tonnes of flowers. One tone of herbs equates to a maximum of 4kg of oil.
While he says that demand is high, the lack of interest from the younger generation poses a threat for the future. The workers that currently tend to his land have another four or five years before retirement. After that, he says he doesn’t know where he will get more labourers from.
“I don’t know who will take over my farm and who will take care of the land,” he says
Mass emigration is a problem in Albania. Recent reports put the percentage of those who want to leave between 60-83%. 49% of Albanians are actively making plans to leave and more than 30,000 applied for asylum in the EU in 2019 alone. It’s estimated that around 800,000 people have left the country since the fall of the Communist regime.
This part of Albania has been used for growing medicinal herbs since the 1970s. During Communism, the sector was worth around $50 million a year and employed some 100,000 people. Now, the annual export value is in the region of $17 million.
Difficulties sourcing machines
The soil in this area, while full of stones, is excellent for cultivating these kinds of plants. Lavandin, a hybrid plant with a more herbal scent, can produce for up to 25 years. Flowering for around 10 days during June, it is harvested and then sold as a dried product or processed into essential oils.
But the lay of the land poses another problem for some of Koplik’s farmers. The use of machines is necessary to both improve efficiency and to make working with the stony ground easier. The problem is that these machines have to be imported from abroad making it expensive and logistically complex for smaller farmers. In addition to this, the maintenance of the machines is costly and again requires the importing of parts from outside of the country.
One of the largest producers in the area, explains that getting someone to fix the machines can be tough as there is only one person in-country who can fix them, the nearest other technician is in Italy. Other items such as stills or storage items also have to be imported, incurring additional and significant costs.
With no workers and no machines, there may soon be no one able to continue their work.
Partnerships among farmers
For farmers looking to improve their circumstances, the option is there to partner with larger farms or producers. This, however, comes with challenges for both parties.
Some farmers are wary of partnering with larger companies due to fluctuations in contract terms and prices. Others are worried they may not always meet the quality control that is imposed on the product.
One producer grows a range of medicinal herbs and then distils them in a number of distilleries in the area. They export around 6.5 tonnes a year to clients in the US, Canada, Australia, and throughout Europe. As well as growing their own herbs, they collect crops from farmers in the area and in other parts of Albania such as Librazhd, Lushnja and Saranda.
They explained that working with smaller farmers can be tough. The international market is demanding organic products that meet certain certifications which can be hard for small farmers to achieve or afford. The product cannot be sprayed with chemicals, nor can any of the crops be contaminated with other plants. The presence of a few blooms or plants of the wrong kind in a batch can be disastrous.
“If the farmers bring in a herb that is dirty or mixed, we cannot continue. We spend a lot of time cleaning bags of herbs that are contaminated with items that can ruin the production. We end up having to do a complete cleanout in a system that holds about 2-3 tonnes of the herb. If we don’t, it can change the colour of the oil or make it impossible to sell,” they said.
They added that farmers need to be more open-minded in the growing process and should consider new herbs. But to ensure success, farmers need to stick to the terms agreed in a particular contract.
Another small farmer told me that the market is unpredictable. Some years, a product can sell for $4 a kg, but the next year it could be $1 kg. This can have a disastrous impact on their operations and means investment is difficult due to uncertainty.
Old school vs new school
Another barrier in the system is that many of the smaller ‘old school’ farmers don’t have bank accounts or a tax number (NIP). There is a lack of willingness to move from a cash system. This excludes them from working with bigger companies, as well as prevents them from being eligible for any external grants or funding.
All of the farmers’ Exit spoke to mentioned the issue of land ownership. Following the fall of Communism, land that was seized was redistributed. Some have documents, some do not. Others are attempting to legalise their property via the governmental framework.
So how can things improve?
While the issue of mass emigration is tough to tackle, some of the producers are trying to find ways to incentivise and train workers. This combined with programmes from local NGOs which encourage farmers and assist them with quality control and not overproducing, are key ways to support the industry.
One farmer said that the modernisation of attitudes will go a long way as well. Partnering with herb processors, investing in land, following contract terms, and moving from a cash-based system should also be priorities for small and medium enterprises.
Of course, the government has a role to play as well. Most of those Exit spoke to said there is little investment or support for their work. They said the state should be supporting farmers in investing in their land.
“Agro business anywhere is challenging, but in Albania, it is even more so because the government rarely supports those who truly need it. This country is built on agriculture and there are few willing to invest in people and the land,” one large-scale producer said.
In terms of what the future holds, some are more optimistic than others.
“The industry is sustainable as long as people make an effort to follow the ways of the market. We are always looking for ways to expand and diversify- finding other uses for our products. We also try to work with as many smaller farmers as possible.”
Xheladin is not so sure:
“I have invested a lot in this life, but I don’t know what the future will hold.”