From: Alice Taylor
Record Year of Production for Albania’s Medicinal Herb Industry

The COVID-19 pandemic boosted Albania’s medicinal herb industry, which saw production increase by 65% in 2021 compared to 2020, reaching 7608 tonnes.

The pandemic resulted in a global trend of people looking for bio products and complementary therapies such as herbs and plant-based medicines. Albania was no exception. The country has a prominent industry in medicinal herbs such as sage, lavender, lavendin and everlasting flower. It is, in fact, the world’s leading exporter of sage.

Albania’s medicinal herb industry and the challenges it faces

More demand for essential oils, teas, lotions and potions meant incentives for Albanian farmers to produce more.

Income from growing and selling medicinal herbs is an important form of income for many families, including those in rural and mountainous areas. According to some figures, there are around 20,000 families and 100,000 people that benefit directly from this industry.

Shkodra in the north is the most prevalent area for this trade, followed by Elbasan in the central region and Kukes in the mountainous north.

It is a net exporter of medicinal plants, with the industry contributing 19% of export income. Albania is also ranked 16th globally in this area. The local industry already grew by 14% in 2020, but this reached unprecedented levels the following year of 65%.

However, farmers are concerned about the future of the industry.

President of the Association of Medicinal and Aromatic Plants Filip Gjoka is concerned about the abolition of the 6% VAT scheme, which he says will discourage farmers. Other issues, such as the increase in the price of raw materials and items needed for cultivation, is another factor that could hamper growth.

But the main issue facing the industry’s sustainability is that of mass emigration abroad and to bigger cities.

One farmer, Xheladin, who tends 50 hectares on the outskirts of Koplik told Exit last year 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. He explains he can harvest around 8 tonnes of flowers in a good year. 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.

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.