Red-roofed village houses set in a canopy of trees, tall peaks painted fresh green towering around. Just across the narrow road, crystal-clear water flows through a creek while young women wearing traditional dresses greet guests with freshly-baked bread and salt.
Only two months ago I was in this stunning spot in the mountains of southern Kosovo* as one of the guests of a new site, the social enterprise called Independent Association of Women-Sevce.
Through our rural development project funded by the Austrian Development Cooperation, we partnered with this association of 40 women to establish a modern production line of rural gastronomic goodies, turning household traditions into a business opportunity.
Having tasted their masterful fruit juices, jams, and ajvar, I know the social enterprise will not have a shortage of customers (me proudly being one of them). Now with the summer season about to end, I can see the last several weeks have marked something much more significant. This is the culmination of an improbable journey for these women.
In 2016, 9 local women pioneers formed a group with the goal to reduce poverty and build opportunities for employment of local women by catering to the increasing demand for “all things natural”. The message was heard loud and clear, and now the group proudly counts 40 members.
It’s no secret that jobs and business opportunities are in short supply in Kosovo, as in the rest of the Western Balkans. Women face even greater barriers to building a career. The statistics are bleak: only 1 in 8 working-age women in Kosovo has a full-time job, 80 percent are considered inactive in the labor market, and two thirds of unemployed women have been in that situation for over a year. Access to credit is limited for a variety of reasons, including property issues. Remote rural areas such as the village of Sevcë/Sevce suffer from such challenges ever more strongly.
Seeing statistics on the issue is one thing, but the problem really comes alive when you see the faces behind it.
Just before the opening ceremony in late July, I remember seeing Zorica, the head of the association, holding her hands together nervously as she prepared for her speech. In front of the large crowd at the inauguration, she exuded confidence, pride and success. “Our women will now have more opportunities in the future. Most of us have never had a job, so we are grateful to our supporters who believed in us. We will confirm this belief”.
The social enterprise aims big. The women plan to turn between 7-10 tons of fruits and vegetables into tasty juices, jams and pickles, produce more than 500 kg of pure fresh honey, and make around 1000 kg of delicious mountain cheese each year. Already, they increased production from 10 jars of ajvar in one go to over 140, catering to local restaurants as well as customers approaching them directly after learning about this initiative.
Building their market presence and solidifying their brand is the next step on the journey, and the women are working towards deals with companies distributing products to further markets all over Kosovo.
We may have changed the statistics by only a bit with much work lying ahead of the social enterprise; we have yet to see its long-term success. I firmly believe the true impact will be measured by the more intangible precedent set for future generations by these 40 pioneers.
*References to Kosovo shall be understood to be in the context of Security Council Resolution 1244 (1999)