Taking a closer look at Albanian agriculture

From above, Albania is a picturesque scene of patchwork farms framed by mountain ranges, lakes and turquoise seas. Look a little closer and you may see a few greenhouses filling the narrow plots of land, goats being herded down dirt roads and chickens scattered across barnyards. A little closer and you may see a few larger fish farms and barns. However, across the country Albanian farming is predominantly small scale.

Agricultural production and export in Albania has been constrained by small and geographically fragmented plot sizes, unclear land titles resulting from the communist-era cooperative systems and limited capacity for technological development. Over half the population of Albania is employed in the agriculture sector yet it makes up only 16-18 percent of the country’s GDP. For small scale farmers, yields are low and input costs are high. Most agricultural inputs are imported, including tractors, fertilizers, and even chicks.

This summer, Koji Ito and Boban Paul, MPA/ID students at the Harvard Kennedy School, have been working with the Albanian Ministry of Agriculture and CID to study the value chains for poultry and medicinal and aromatic plants (MAPs), respectively. They are working with the government and local academics to study constraints and bottlenecks in these sectors and to develop potential policy strategies that could increase productivity. But to really understand the dynamics of agriculture in Albania, they needed to take a much closer look.

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Koji Ito has been travelling around rural Albania with a counterpart from the Agriculture Ministry and two students from the Agricultural University of Tirana in an effort to interview poultry farmers and retailers first-hand and inquire into the production system, for which little information was available. “At first some farmers were not willing to talk to us,” says Ito, who explained that a good number of businesses operate outside the scope of the government and may prefer to be left untouched. “But others were very open and even interested in what this research is going to reveal about their industry.”

The poultry sector picked up quickly and well in the post-communism transition years; however, Albania still imports more than half of chicken meat on the local market. Most farmers rear chickens for subsistence purposes with minimal technology, and only a handful produce intensively to fill large urban markets. The government is considering potential policies for supporting growth in domestic poultry production, so as to reduce dependence on imports.

For medicinal and aromatic plants however, the focus is on increasing exports. Farmers and exporters of MAPs, particularly sage and lavender, feel there is potential for growth in this sector due to international demand. Boban Paul, along with local students from Agriculture University of Tirana, has been visiting MAPs farms primarily in Northern Albania, at the foothills of the Albanian Alps. By going into the fields and actually seeing how plants are harvested, they found that current production practices are actually not sustainable. “The farmers realize that some of the harvesting practices are leading to a scarcity of MAPs,” explains Boban Paul, “but they are not yet doing anything to change this.”

In Northern Albania, medicinal and aromatic plant farming makes up close to 35 percent of household income and about 18 percent of agricultural exports. However a lack of a quality controls and certification processes limits the market price Albanian producers can fetch for their plants. “Some exporters sell to Germany where they suspect the plants go through additional processing and quality management and are probably re-exported to the United States at a higher price,” explains Paul. 

Growth Lab interns conversing in the outdoors

The field research the students are undertaking will provide the Ministry of Agriculture with valuable data on the characteristics of Albanian agriculture at all stages of their value chains. Some of what they have discovered supports what the government already suspected, but they have also discovered interesting and important nuances about these sectors that will help guide policy decisions.

Field work can be difficult and time-consuming, especially when dealing with rough roads and language barriers, but it will help provide the Ministry with a much clearer picture of what the agriculture sector really looks like. For the students, the opportunity to meet with local Albanian farmers and producers has been informative and at times entertaining:  “During one field visit we asked a cultivator what he pays for fertilizer,” recounts Paul, “and the farmer answered ‘It depends on the cow!’”

See also: Albania