Etlinger: Spicing up the agricultural sector in Kosovo

This article is taken from the series of IPAK Vienna/ECIKS Newsletters “Success Stories from Kosovo” (Check at the bottom of this article for the PDF version)

In the past few years Kosovo has been frequented by many international experts. The newborn country has been mostly cherished for the great potential it has in the agricultural sector. The legacies of Kosovo’s tough historical past resulted in this sector being the most underdeveloped one, regardless of the fact that it could, with very little investment, be a great sustainable injection to the economy of Kosovo.

Statistical data show that Kosovo has about 580,000 ha of agricultural land, and that still Kosovo imports 70 per cent of its agricultural products from the region and the EU. This certainly does make us believe that there are many hindrances for the potential investors of the agricultural sphere in Kosovo.

Nevertheless, many people believe that reviving this industry is not a mission impossible. One of them is Mr. Tahir Kokollari, the founder of Etlinger. His life story takes us to Austria. Like many fellow-Albanians he left Kosovo to work abroad in an attempt to find a better future.

“For several years in a row, I worked for the Austrian company Etlinger which dealt with canned vegetables for the Austrian market. The company closed 7 years ago and I decided to move back to Kosovo. Although I had left this place empty handed, I returned with a dream, a plan and tons of experience and expertise. I founded a company in my place of birth, Shtime (Kosovo), under the same name – Etlinger – for processing and canning vegetables. In my mind, this investment would kill two birds with one stone: not only would I be introducing a Kosovo product with western standards to my country’s market, but it would also generate new employment opportunities,” says Mr. Kokollari, recalling the flow of events.

Tahir was not alone in his journey to accomplish his plans. An Austrian named Peter Pfluger, the owner of “Kolm Pfluger,” crossed Tahir’s path in what resulted to be “a match made in heaven.” Kolm Pfluger was established in 1910. It specializes in pickled and canned vegetables: cabbage, pickles, chilli peppers, etc.

“We are one of the main suppliers of canned and pickled vegetable to the main chain markets in Austria, including Zielpunkt, Billa, Merkur, etc. Because of the intense production that takes place in our company, we have to outsource quite some of our work abroad. This is where our paths have met with Mr. Kokollari. We found it to be a quite natural cooperation bearing in mind that Tahir has gained a large deal of his experience in Austria and has combined this in an excellent way with the broad knowledge of the terrain in Kosovo,” explains Mr. Pfluger.

This economic fairytale was, of course, not as smooth as one would want it to be. Like all big projects this cooperation was faced with many challenges.

“Initially, we had to come up with co-financing, which fortunately was achieved with the assistance of the Austrian Agency for Development. Later on, this became a smoother task with the assistance of other donors in Kosovo, such as USAID and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation . This year (2011) we were stricken by a new challenge that does present quite a difficulty for the business: for political reasons the preferential trade agreement between Kosovo and the EU was not further extended. As a consequence, we now have to pay 16 per cent of customs to Austria, therefore our products are more expensive and less competitive in the market. If this serious problem continues, it will put the whole project into question,” says Tahir worriedly.

And while Mr. Kokollari is objectively evaluating the cooperation between Etlinger and Pfluger, we come to notice that this joint project has much to be proud of. Although Tahir is modest about his achievements, the numbers that reflect the hard work are inspiring.

“In the first four years of our cooperation, we have exported 2,200 tons of processed vegetables from Kosovo to Austria. We have employed 150 workers, 90 per cent of which are women. Initially, only 20 per cent of Pfluger’s products were imported from Kosovo. This percentage has increased and we are aiming to rise it up to 60 per cent in the near future. Although I am very satisfied with the result, I am mostly satisfied that this joint project will serve as a concrete example that it is worth to invest in the agricultural sector in Kosovo and above all that with the right investment this sector could be turned into an employment generator in Kosovo. It would have been very difficult to make it all happen if we would depend on loans from the banks in Kosovo only, therefore I am thankful to the financial assistance provided by Austrian Development Agency and to the consultancy provided by ECIKS in this joint effort,” says Tahir smilingly.

Just like Mr. Kokollari, his partner, Mr. Pfluger recalls the events and challenges that they have encountered on the road to materializing their plan.

“For me as an investor it is of high importance to bear in mind that Kosovo uses the Euro. This facilitates quite a few processes and above all it eliminates both the exchange rate risk and the currency risk. We have a remarkable experience in Kosovo and to me it is quite a surprise that some investors regard Kosovo with doubt. Let me reassure them that their doubts are groundless and that Kosovo truly is a place with a difficult past but it has great potential and a bright future ahead,” concludes Pflunger.

This noteworthy cooperation symbolically shows that the agricultural sector in Kosovo can be revived and it can easily become one of the main supporting pillars of Kosovo’s economy. The story shared by Mr. Kokollari and Mr. Pfluger sets the example that with the appropriate attitude, know-how and experience a company like Etlinger becomes the spice to flavor the agricultural sector in Kosovo.

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