If you travel around Albania, you cannot fail to miss the abundance of farmland. Rolling fields, fertile plains, and pastures home to all different kinds of crops. Driving through almost any part of the country, you are also sure to notice farmers by the side of the road selling all manner of fresh fruit and vegetables. Melons, cherries, tomatoes, pumpkins, onions, gourds, potatoes and more- you are spoilt for choice.
But unfortunately, due to a lack of decent agricultural infrastructure, many of these farmers end up throwing tonnes of produce away every week. Unable to get them to the cities or larger towns, instead they rely on passersby to provide an income.
The situation has become even worse in the last few months. Due to the COVID-19 lockdown, a lack of tourists, and fewer Albanians on the roads, there are fewer people to purchase their items, so more ends up being disposed of.
So much good quality food never makes it to the tables and the farmers lose time, money, and effort by cultivating crops that don’t get sold.
Furthermore, in the far-flung corners of the country, there are a plethora of traditional food items. Types of cheese, sausage, cake, nut butter, different kinds of honey, raki, wine, and more, that doesn’t get experienced by those living in the bigger urban areas.
In big cities like Tirana, there is an opportunity to buy fresh, local produce but in fact, much of it labelled as “local”, comes from Italy and Greece. Many of the supermarkets import foreign produce while just a few kilometres away, superior Albanian products are being thrown away due to lack of demand.
But thanks to one initiative, this could be slowly starting to change.
Agr.al is a project that tries to bridge the gap between farmer and consumer. Instead of purchasing products of an unknown origin, Agr.al labels each item with where it has come from. Through getting connected with farmers, they have created a network and supply chain full of top-quality, locally grown and produced Albanian products. These items are then home delivered to customers in Tirana, each week.
Consumers can choose ready-made baskets of fruit, vegetables, and meat, or they can pick from a list of what’s good that week and make up their own box. The initiative allows farmers in rural areas to sell their products to the people that want organic, quality food, on a regular basis.
Exit caught up with some of the farmers that have become involved in the project, to find out more about how it has the potential to impact their lives.
Fatime and her family live near Kashar not far from Tirana. They have cultivated their land sincere the fall of Communism almost 30 years ago.
They produce tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, courgette, eggplants, fresh beans, potatoes and seasonal fruits including grapes, figs, and plums. Three years ago they were able to build a small greenhouse that allowed them to extend the period of production for some of the items.
While Fatime has a group of loyal customers in Rruga Fortuzi where she has been selling for the last 15 years, she is thankful for Agr.al.
“Agr.al discovered me as they heard good things about my products. Still, the quantity is small but I hope they grow so that me, and others, don’t have to stand on street corners to sell the products but can stay home and work the land instead.”
Olsi Gjuzi has a farm near Lanabregas which is a short drive from the capital. He and his family have worked the same plot of land since the 90s. He explains that the land was owned by them for even longer but the communist regime forcibly created cooperatives that owned the land instead.
They grow almost all of the popular seasonal vegetables and fruits in small quantities and they used to sell them at Ali Demi farmers market. He laments that many Tirana clients are interested in how the product looks, rather than its quality.
“They look for beautiful appearances in vegetables and fruits, not the genuine, imperfect products,” he said.
After taking to Instagram to promote their products, Agr.al discovered them and got in touch.
“I hope they succeed with their project as there is no future in us trying to sell just small quantities of products.”
Dode Marinaj lives in the village of Kcira, near Puka in the north of Albania. Some 21 years ago, together with the local Priest Don Giovanni Fiocchi, they started the Centre Father Mhill Troshani (AMT).
This worked with local people in conjunction with humanitarian Catholic organisations to teach them how to fish, instead of just being donated one.
Since then, they have taught residents of the area to gather forest fruits, herbs and mushrooms, and also how to make jams, and liquors from them. They also brought in foreign experts to teach them how to make great quality honey.
Now, the locals are able to make high-quality salami, dried meats, and other products, of a superior quality to what you would find in the supermarket. In addition to this, they are also cultivating tulips.
Thankfully, 50% of the products are now exported to Italy, with the help of the church. But they want to sell locally as well. Through a partnership with Agr.al, they are able to strive towards purchasing more equipment and involving more people in the project.
“We are glad that Agral contacted us and wish they would grow, as soon as possible, as it would have a great direct impact on our activity. We believe that online tools can make a real difference.”
Manjola owns a farm in Fushe-Preze and it has been in her family for over 90 years. Five years ago, they started to cultivate raspberries, a product that is not so common in the Albanian market.
When they started, the citizens of Tirana and other cities weren’t familiar with the fruit, but now she says the situation has changed a lot. People even come from Tirana to visit the farm to see what kind of plant it is, how it is harvested, and ways to use and preserve the fruit.
“I like the idea of Agr.al as it will help us spread the knowledge of this still relatively, not well-known product.”
Agr.al started in 2015 as a mobile app that helped small farmers connect with the market. Supported by the Vodafone Foundation and the EDS Foundation for six months, they registered a number of farmers and taught them how to publish information on their products. While the farmers were enthusiastic, unfortunately, customers were not. Uptake was scarce and there were only 200 downloads of the app.
After a few hiccups along the way, Agr.al decided to change their approach. Instead, they had the idea to get the products and bring them directly to the clients. Again, sadly there was little interest and there were only around 30 loyal customers. Farmers even offered their products for free in order for the project to succeed, but Agr.al declined and paused the project.
As of the 1 June 2020, the initiative was relaunched. They offer a daily service Monday-Friday and deliver with their team of punctual, helpful, and English-speaking staff. They offer a range of ready-made baskets, or custom made, and are targeting immigrants in Durres and Tirana.
So far, they have 26 loyal customers but they are still a long way from the 250 needed to make the project sustainable. Reaching this number will allow them to hire 8-10 employees, streamline the ordering process, and create a steady demand for all of the farmers they work with.
Agr.al either needs more customers and quickly, or an investor who will help them grow and acquire more customers over a longer period of time.