Just after arriving in Albania, I accompanied Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, Phil Reeker, on a visit to Goriçan, a small village tucked in the lush, green hills of central Albania, to meet with a group of farmers assisted by USAID. Upon entering the village, it was evident that agriculture is important to this community. Nestled in Goriçan’s rolling hills and valleys are dozens upon dozens of greenhouses dotting almost every corner of the landscape. In the last 10 years, a group of enterprising farmers have invested heavily in greenhouses, making it possible to harvest year-round production of high-value vegetables. The result has been a transformation of not only the village landscape but also the economic livelihoods of the community.
Unforeseen by Albanian farmers 10 years ago, but increasingly apparent today, their investments have created an important buffer for the community now faced with a return of guest-workers, primarily from Greece, and other consequences of the economic crisis impacting Albania and the region.
Like many rural communities in Albania since the 1990s, Goriçan lost many young workers who migrated as guest workers to Greece and neighboring countries to escape the widespread poverty and instability that characterized Albania’s post-Communist transition. While many left, some farmers remained, and with the early support of USAID, helped lay the foundation for transformational and sustainable development in the community. Starting in 2003, USAID sent two farmers from Goriçan (along with others from other parts of Albania) to specialized training in Croatia and Hungary, and helped the community establish Albania’s first farmer’s association named “Hortigor”, and provided grants to rehabilitate roads and build a consolidation warehouse.
Today, Hortigor members from Goriçan and 10 surrounding villages own 45 “hectares” of greenhouses. These have become major producers of tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and eggplants in Albania. In fact, I learned that Hortigor member greenhouses represent one-third of all greenhouse area operating in the village and 15 percent of all greenhouses in Albania!
USAID assistance, in recent seasons, has reached more than $2.8 million dollars in export sales from Goriçan and the surrounding areas, but future developments and investments will depend on the availability and access that many farmers have to commercial credit. To date, there has been little lending in Albania. I was very pleased to sign, as my first official duty as Albanian Mission Director, a Development Credit Authority agreement with two local banks. It is our hope that our $15 million dollar loan guarantee will help to lower barriers to credit, and encourage banks to offer appropriate loan products to enterprising farmers in communities like Goriçan. This marks a logical transition for USAID Albania to move from traditional technical assistance towards sustainable, private-sector led growth in the sector.
As a leader in agriculture development, and as a result of USAID’s smart and targeted development assistance, Goriçan is well-positioned to absorb the skills and know-how of returned migrants from Greece, and implement them at home. I look forward to following the community’s progress as it seeks to expand into large-scale commercial farming that will be able to supply large, reliable and high quality agricultural produce throughout the Balkan region. I am proud of the work that USAID Albania has done to support the agriculture sector and I look forward to future engagement.
Still, I am mindful of the continued need and the pressures that the Eurozone crisis is putting on Albania, particularly its rural areas. Approximately 50 percent of the Albanian workforce is active in agriculture, and despite progress in developing the sector in recent years, Albania still has a 9:1 import to export ratio for agriculture. Small landholdings, weak property rights and rule of law concerns have also inhibited growth. Clearly, there is still room for improvement.