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Last Updated: Monday, 18 April 2005, 22:30 GMT 23:30 UK
Albanian entrepreneurs eye world markets
By Kieran Cooke
On the Karaburuni peninsula in Albania

Neim Gjipali, cheese maker
Cheese maker Gjipali wants to export to Italy and beyond
Neim Gjipali - whose organic cheese making concern is based in a small building at the end of a deeply rutted, unpaved track on Albania's coast - is one of Albania's more daring entrepreneurs.

"Most Albanians have very little money and sometimes it is a struggle for them to find food for their families," Mr Gjipali says.

Yet, although having poor customers is never good for business, Mr Gjipali is doing well.

"I sell all I can produce even though the price of my cheese is higher than other products," Mr Gjipali says, proudly showing off his rounds of white cheese, made from the milk of sheep on the nearby Karaburuni peninsula.

"People here are fussy about what they eat and they like natural goods."

Resourceful entrepreneurs

Mr Gjipali is working in of the most beautiful and unspoilt parts of Albania, a three hours drive south of the capital Tirana that provides an insight into this European nation's economic plight.

Prime Minister Fatos Nano
Prime Minister Nano says the economy is improving

The country of 3.4 million people is near the bottom of Europe's economic development league.

The average annual income is just $1,600 and unemployment officially stands at 15%, though most analysts say it is more than double that figure.

Since the collapse of the old communist system in 1991 and the opening up of what had been one of the world's most isolated countries, more than a million have left in search of jobs.

The hope these days is that resourceful entrepreneurs like Mr Gjipali will breathe fresh life into the economy.

Helping hands

Eight years ago, Albania was close to anarchy following the collapse of a number of fraudulent pyramid selling schemes that deprived domestic savers of an estimated $2bn.

Albanian olive oil
Bottles for Albanian olive oil are imported

A group of agronomists and farmers founded an association for organic agricultural products.

Now more than 30 farmers produce organic goods - everything from olive oil to honey to teas - and some are starting to export.

"The Karaburuni peninsula is rich in herbs and its sheep are a special breed, famous for the quality of their meat and milk" says Mr Gjipali.

"I had some help from a Swiss aid organisation and the World Bank starting up my business, but the bulk of funds - about $20,000 - came from money sent by my daughters and my son working abroad.

If it hadn't been for their help, nothing would have been possible."

Economic growth

Remittances play a big role in Albania's economy.

About 750,000 Albanians work in neighbouring Greece, another 250,000 in Italy.

Funds sent back by these two groups alone are estimated to amount to about $1bn annually, equivalent to about half the national budget.

"Remittances are still important, but as the country develops their impact will diminish," Prime Minister Fatos Nano tells BBC News.

"There's no doubt economic conditions are improving. Year on year growth is 7% while inflation is under 4%.

"We've made considerable progress in liberalising our markets and in reducing the impact of the informal economy."

Unspoilt land

Yet foreign investors are still thin on the ground.

Church on Karaburuni peninsula
Albania's beauty has failed to lift it out of poverty

Widespread corruption and a weak judicial system are seen as two of the main obstacles to foreign funds entering the country.

Nervousness about the potential for trouble in the run up to a general election this summer is also keeping away investors.

The agriculture sector is seen as one of the main areas of future growth.

Market gardening was encouraged during the communist years and hundreds of agronomists and other specialists graduated from the country's universities.

Lavdosh Ferunaj, head of the organic agriculture association, says Albania could become a new market garden for Europe.

"Compared with many countries our land is unspoilt," says Mr Ferunaj. "Our fields are free of pesticides."

Destruction

Mr Ferunaj insists a major obstacle for private enterprise to thrive is the lack of a proper credit system which would make it easier to raise funds to start and expand their operations.

Another issue is illegal building and bad planning which he says is threatening to destroy the nation's most precious resources.

"There is also the question of land ownership, a problem which is the legacy of the communist times and has still not been sorted out," he says.

There are other difficulties standing in the way of agricultural development.

Much of the transport system is in a shambolic state.

After the collapse of the communist regime and following the economic upheaval in 1997, people went on the rampage, smashing anything to do with the state.

Much of the agricultural infrastructure, including greenhouses and irrigation systems, was destroyed.

There's a chronic lack of food processing and packaging facilities. As a consequence, the bulk of foodstuffs are imported.

Organically produced olive oil is among the few agricultural goods exported, yet because there is no glass manufacturer in the country the bottles for the exports have first to be imported from Italy.

A better future

"There are big problems but things are changing" insists Zyhdi Teqja, head of a council linking Albania's agribusinesses.

"People with skills are beginning to return from abroad and invest their savings in projects. Progress is being made."

Mr Gjipali the cheese maker agrees.

"My business is expanding. Soon I hope I can start exporting to Italy and elsewhere in Europe.

"Who knows, perhaps some day my children will be able to come home and settle here. We all want to build a new, better Albania."


SEE ALSO
Country profile: Albania
04 Jan 05 |  Country profiles
Go-ahead for Balkan oil pipeline
28 Dec 04 |  Business

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