Mission Clean Food for Fair Livelihood: The Story of the Jam Lady
Mission Clean Food for Fair Livelihood: The Story of the Jam Lady
Sofia, July 31 (BTA) - Every Wednesday, Maya Angelova sells jams and preserves she has made in her small shop in the mountain village of Prevala in the pristine but underdeveloped region of the Western Balkan Range. The jams are nicely packaged and proudly displayed, and demand often exceeds supply.
Only five years ago Maya was making jams in the kitchen in her homes, selling the small batches on markets in the large cities once or twice a year - and basically eking out. She and her partner have since expanded into a small jam operation, a shop and a demonstration centre for making traditional Bulgarian pastry, all of them seated in the refurbished building of the old village bakery. Her chance in life was For the Balkan and the People, a five-year Swiss-funded project which offered her financial aid and expert assistance to turn her home operation into a viable small business.
The project works with close to 50 farms and small businesses aiming to show how one can protect nature and have a sustainable business in high nature value areas. The project ends in August this year.
The project has an official seal of success: in 2016, it won the Natura 2000 award of the EU in the Socio-Economic Benefits category. Dr Stoilko Apostolov, the coordinator of For the Balkan and the People, says there is more than the award to prove that it has been a very successful project. "We lit a spark for life and a will for honest business among small entrepreneurs and farmers in northwestern Bulgaria: a region which has been a symbol of despair and poverty for 20 years," he said in a BTA interview.
He said the project reignited the enterprising spirit of small family-run farms and encouraged them to produce and sell high-quality traditional foods, to invest, develop and make a profit - not wait on subsidies.
Dr. Apostolov is proud that the project has help build a network of small family-run businesses - farms, guest houses, restaurants, artisans - so that they can offer a complex service to customers and support and help to each other.
The project team has been able to convince the administration and the food quality and environment protection authorities that having sustainable businesses in the rural areas is the strongest tool against depopulation, which is endemic in rural Bulgaria.
Dr Apostolov sees in the work with the authorities the biggest success of the project lies. "To me personally, the biggest success was in changing the attitude of the Bulgarian Food Safety Agency to processing on the farm, giving farms the opportunity to process and sell directly. This is a huge change. Back in 2008, we could only dream about it. This will have a potentially huge impact by encouraging the growth of a client-oriented group of farmers and changing the way townsfolk think of village people. This is very important for everybody".
The on-farm processing and direct sale has already been successfully multiplied into other regions of the country and farms which process milk and meat now also operate in the Eastern Balkan Range, in Strandzha, the Rhodope and Rila, says Apostolov. "I intentionally give you mountain names: these are the regions in Bulgaria where nature is best preserved ad the model we have put forward will be easiest to apply," he adds.
He believes that, slowly, the models which For the Balkan and the People has introduced will develop and grow sustainably on their own. "But in many regions these models won't work without the help of the government and local authorities," says Apostolov. He argues that such help does not require huge resources and proves it with figures from For the Balkan and the People: a total of 24 farms received 188,000 leva in support for equipment for processing milk, honey, meat and eggs. This makes 7,833 leva per farm. The farmers made a matching investment for a total of 542,000 leva, adding up to 730,000 leva for all farms.
"In this way, every 1 lev invested in the farms by the project was matched with own investment of 3 leva," Apostolov says. This beats by far the CAP subsidy ratio of 1 euro attracting own investment of 0.28 euro, according to InteliAgro figures, he says.
The Bulgarian team appreciated the privilege of working with Swiss experts with long years of experience in nature protection and organic farming, as well as top-level technical experts. "To me, however, the biggest gain for all Bulgarian organizations in the project consortium was learning to be consistent and put the most effort in finding a common solution and reach a consensus. I believe these skills may be in the core of the success of Switzerland and we have had the pleasure of learning how to do this together with our Swiss colleagues," says he.
Swiss Ambassador Denis Knobel sees as one of the key accomplishments of For the Balkan and the People having been able to include in one project NGOs, government institutions, private businesses and national parks. He was speaking at a discussion forum in Sofia in early July that was one of the closing events of the project.
The project coordinator mentions as another major success the farmers' market held in the space outside the Agriculture Ministry - outside the municipal fruit markets - every Wednesdays for weeks now.
Ambassador Knobel shares the enthusiasm over the farmers' market. "I really hope that this market place will be here regularly, weekly, in the future, to bring quality and fresh produce to the people," the diplomat said.
Jam lady Maya Angelova has no fears about the future without the project. Even though she does not have enough words to thank For the Balkan and the People for their financial, technical and moral support and friendship, she is confident that she has developed a good project and a sustainable business which have a future even after the project is over. Also, she hopes to establish partnerships with tour operators to bring tourists to her jam shop and demonstration centre. Then, when winter comes and the jam making season is over, she plans to open a bakery to make bread for her fellow villagers.
The project is implemented by ten Bulgarian and Swiss partners, including nine NGOs (Bulgaria's Bioselena Association for Organic Farming, Association of Parks in Bulgaria, the Bulgarian Biodiversity Foundation, WWF Bulgaria, the Bulgarian Society for Protection of Birds, and the Swiss Pro Natura/Friends of the Earth, REDD, BirdLife Switzerland and SAVE Foundation), as well as the Bulgarian Ministry of Agrocilture and Foods represented by the Executive Agency for Selection and Reproduction in Animal Husbandry. The project was on in 9 areas of NATURA 2000 located in the Western and Central Balkan Range. The project used a budget of CHF 4,790,000 including a CHF 4,200,000 grant from the Bulgarian-Swiss Cooperation Programme. The project activities encompassed nature protection, economic development through nature conservation and public awareness raising.
The project has helped improve the national legislation regulating farm processing and direct sale of foods of animal origin and now 45 farmers are registered for production and direct sale of milk and dairy products, honey, eggs and meat. It has also helped set up farmers markets and other events where users can meet farmers. Two demonstration centres for rare breeds and farm processing have been established. Eight business models have been supported for the project farms and these have already reported an increase of incomes by over 20 per cent.