Young Seedlings of Georgia's Agriculture

Young Seedlings of Georgia's Agriculture

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Georgia's ambitious youth don't necessarily want to stay in their ancestral villages. What kind of future can they have in farming activities on tiny plots of land, with no guaranteed access to markets, no insurance against catastrophic events, and no good quality schools for their children. So far, both government support policies and millions of dollars in grants and loans provided by the international community have failed to bring about any significant improvement in agricultural productivity. Perhaps, they are betting on the wrong (old) horses?

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Ancient Greeks’ fascination with Georgia was not limited to the Golden Fleece. Legend has it that ‘Georgia’ comes from the Greek γεωργός (Georgios), reflecting the advanced land plowing practices of Georgian tribes, which distinguished them from their nomadic and yet unsettled neighbors. The Georgians (Colchians and Iberians, to be more precise) must have really made a formidable impression on the Argonauts to deserve such a recognition.

Fast forward to the 21st century. According to the CIA World Factbook, Georgian agriculture employs a mind-blowingly high share of the country’s labor force (55.6%) with agricultural productivity remaining virtually stagnant over the past two decades. According to The World Bank data, Georgia’s agricultural value added per worker is one of the lowest among developing countries and is way behind that of our European neighbors.

There are numerous reasons for the low productivity of Georgian farmers. The usual suspects are: endemic infrastructure problems; outdated technology and equipment; lack of professional skills and knowledge; and severe liquidity constraints – a key cause of underinvestment in the sector.

While these challenges are well-documented, the root cause of the problem (and its potential cure) maybe elsewhere. This view comes from an authoritative source: Nino Zambakhidze, a well-known (agri) businesswoman, and head of the Georgian Farmer Association (GFA). What is really crucial for Nino is the fact that the vast majority of Georgia’s rural youth leave their villages and move to the cities. 

“Most young people I meet on my trips in the countryside simply don’t see their future in agriculture”, says Nino. “They lack appropriate role models and have no idea how a successful farmer may look like. They don’t understand what benefits they might derive from agriculture, and have no incentives to invest in those skills and knowledge that would help them become successful farmers and agricultural business managers. Yet, if there is any hope for Georgia’s countryside it must be associated with those very youth. They are the ones who can breathe new life and bring the much needed efficiency to the agricultural sector.“

While heartbroken, Nino was determined to turn the tide. As a first step, she resolved to find successful young entrepreneurs who work in agriculture and have the leadership skills to ignite hope in the hearts of many more young Georgian farmers. And it did not take long until Nino had the-one-who-seeks-finds moment, when Baia Abuladze – a 22 year old winemaker who recently stormed the Georgian cyberspace – knocked on the doors of GFA. Says Nino: “I met Baia on the GFA premises. Her eyes bristled with enthusiasm as she was telling me her story. What immediately struck me was a great sense of humor and an irresistible drive.” 

What followed was an incredible success story.


SHE CAME AND SHE CONQUERED

Baia was born and raised on her parent’s farm in Obcha village (Baghdati region in Imereti). As a typical agricultural family, the family owns cattle, domestic animals, and cornfields. However, Baia’s family owns the largest vineyard in the village, and winemaking has been its main business for years. While being an outstanding student at the local school, Baia did not hesitate to get her hands ‘dirty’. From early spring to late autumn she helped operate the family farm. ‘My father would not fit into a kvevri. I had to jump in and help him get it washed’ – quips Baia with a radiant smile.  

The hard work and dedication produced what is highly valued in business and cannot be acquired at any school or university – experience! “Baia took my breath away with her knowledge of winemaking. She spoke about the subject with the precision and passion of an artist paying attention to every stroke of her brush while painting a masterpiece.”

Like many kids of her generation, Baia went to study in Tbilisi, majoring in political science at Tbilisi State University and continuing to a Master’s program in public administration at Ilia State University. But she never severed ties with the village and her family farm. Although the family owns an apartment in Tbilisi, the only place Baia calls Home is her ancestral Imeretian Oda in Obcha. She remembers longing for the summer holidays when she would be able to come home and give her family a helping hand.

Baia slowly came to realize that her family’s winemaking business had great potential for growth. Higher education and life in the capital helped her understand that in order to be successful in winemaking she had to create a brand and market bottled wine. She used her skills to secure a 5,000 GEL grant from the Micro- and Small – Sized Enterprise Promotion Program (MSSEPP). “The grant allowed us to buy everything we needed for bottling” – reflects Baia. Then came the process of label design in which Baia also played a vital role. After a while, Baia’s hard work and determination have finally paid off: Baia’s Wine was born! Having secured contracts with five stores and two restaurants in Tbilisi, Baia was already planning to distribute her wine in Batumi. “It was such a pleasure when they called and told me that my wine was selling well. An amazing feeling of accomplishment’ – notes Baia with pride.

However, Baia’s life was to change once again. It all started when Baia came across a Facebook post about GFA. Curious, she wrote to Nino and requested a meeting. Two days later, Nino helped Baia write a blog article telling her story. From that day on, this story was all over Georgian TV channels, online media, newspapers and magazines. “I received 1,500 Facebook friend request and 500 messages in just a few days’ – recalls Baia. 

This was a defining moment. Baia fully appreciated the value of publicity that her acquaintance with Nino generated. As more and more people got to know about her family and village she felt proud for her accomplishments and finally came to understand that winemaking has always been the love of her life. “Without Nino’s support,” – says Baia, “I would have perhaps ended up becoming an academic. It is all different now. With so many people watching and supporting me, I feel responsible for upholding the name of my business, my family and village. This gives me a totally different motivation. I am 100% devoted to my business now.”


FINDING STRENGTH IN UNITY

Encouraged, Nino continued her quest and found many other like-minded young farmers. She recounts the story of each and every one of them as a proud and caring parent. She knows to tell about Gurami from Bodbe who practiced butchery since he was 14. “Gurami’s Meat” – a brand created by Gurami and his brother – enjoys great reputation all over Kakheti. And there are Melano, who grows mushrooms, and Nodar, who produces milk, cheese and other dairy delicacies in the Georgian highlands. There is Mindia from Samegrelo whose honey is beyond competition. And there is Giorgi from Samtskhe-Javakheti who owns vine terraces and produces traditional Meskhetian wine. 

"They are all well-educated, have charisma and are good public speakers. They understand marketing 101 and have a passion for business. They know English and can go online to find anything they need for their business” – tells Nino with pride.

Nino was determined to make these young farmers known to a larger audience. “With publicity one can kill two birds with one stone” – says Nino. One the one hand, public recognition is a formidable incentive for these young guys to do their best and continue to improve their products. On the other, their example would be a signal to many others that going back to one’s village and operating a successful agribusiness can be really ‘cool’”.

Nino very well understands that this is just the beginning of a long journey. In order for these well motivated young professionals to have an impact on the lives of their fellow young citizens, she decided to bring them together and create an organization - the Young Farmers Association (YFA), to be led by Baia. The main objective of YFA will be to advocate for youth in agriculture, to identify motivated young farmers in need of help and guidance, and provide them with the professional advice they seek. “They speak the same language and it will be easy for them to relate to their young friends. Their voice will be heard”. – believes Nino.


YOUNG AND MOTIVATED

Baia and other YFA members are obviously the cream of the crop. And Baia, like Nino, does not underestimate the gravity of problems plaguing Georgia’s agricultural sector. However she remains hopeful. “Agriculture is a priority for the government and donors. I receive many messages from young farmers who need advice on possible sources of startup capital, how to write grant applications, where to look for appropriate trainings.” “All we want is nudge them in the same way in which I was nudged by the MSSEPP grant of 5,000 GEL and Nino’s help with publicity... We provide a little push and they will do the rest. They have sufficient ability and experience” – she proudly concludes.

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Agricultural development is indeed a high priority item on the agenda of the Georgian government and international donors. Yet, so far, both government policies and millions of dollars (and Euro) spent by the international community in agricultural subsidies and grants have failed to bring about the needed change. Perhaps, they are betting on the wrong (old) horses?


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The article was produced with the assistance of the European Union through its European Neighbourhood Programme for Agriculture and Rural Development, Austrian Development Cooperation, CARE Austria or CARE International in the Caucasus. The contents are the sole responsibility of the authors and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of the European Union, Austrian Development Cooperation, CARE Austria or CARE International in the Caucasus.

 

 

 

 

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