This article is taken from IPAK Vienna/ECIKS Newsletter “Success Stories: Women Entrepreneurs in Kosovo” (Download the complete newsletter as PDF)
In 1999, Kosovo became the home of many expatriates. After an extremely difficult period of conflict, finally, life began to change gradually in Kosovo; the economy began to develop, the cultural sphere began to come back to life, Kosovo began to take the shape of a normal country. Nevertheless, for many years to come, some goods remained luxuries that could only be bought in the neighboring countries as many investors considered the business environment in Kosovo still to be too fragile and not secure to invest.
Bleta Zeqiri was one of the many Kosovars that drove down to Skopje, Macedonia, almost every week to enjoy the taste of fresh Belgian chocolates. Slowly, she developed a passion for genuine chocolate, and this passion led her to search for possibilities to open a Leonidas branch in Prishtina, Kosovo.
“I was enchanted by the taste, by the beauty of Leonidas chocolates. Every time I came back from Skopje, I shared the chocolates with family and friends and caught myself describing every single ingredient in each of the small pieces. And it did not take me long before I went to Skopje and met with the owners of the Leonidas shop there to discuss a possible cooperation. To my surprise every step was twice as difficult as I had thought it to be. Kosovo was not an independent country back then and obtaining the right to operate as an independent branch was not possible,” says Bleta, reflecting back to her struggles in 2006.
She continues to explain the months ahead were a period of almost daily trips to Skopje, serious negotiations and many sleepless nights. Finally, there was a light at the end of the tunnel – the Slovenian branch of Leonidas was willing to serve as an mediator for importing the chocolates into Kosovo since we were not an EU country nor an independent state.
“I was given the telephone number and an e-mail address to my contact person in Slovenia. At that point, I was desperate and any sign of hope was more than welcome. So, I sat down and typed a long e-mail, explaining my situation and seeking suggestions for a possible cooperation. I was committed to sweeten Kosovo and to get my people to speak the universal language of chocolate, and this gave me the courage to keep going until I had reached my goal. And yes, my perseverance paid off – I received a positive e-mail from Slovenia. This was the start of a beautiful journey full of sweetness,” says Bleta, with a huge smile on her face, as if this was the very minute when she received the good news.
With help from her family, she found a small shop. While her father himself constructed all the cupboards and the shop shelving needed, Bleta flew to Brussels to attend trainings from the official Leonidas Belgian Chocolate Corporation.
“Belgian chocolates are an art on their own. In order to be successful you have to have passion, treat the chocolates with care, and wrap them as if every day is a special occasion of your own, not of the client only.” explains Ms. Zeqiri.
In February 2007, Leonidas Belgian Chocolates opened in Prishtina and it soon became the common language of both local inhabitants and the internationals working in Kosovo. Ms. Zeqiri continued to work with a lot of love and commitment, overcoming all obstacles that arose in the meantime. Soon enough everybody in Prishtina learned to speak chocolate.
A year later, Kosovo declared its independence and this was a very positive move for Bleta’s chocolates. She now could import her goods directly to Kosovo and did not have to go through Slovenia anymore.
“This was certainly an easier procedure. Not only was it easier, it was also cheaper. This helped me save money. Business was going well and it kept growing. My investment has paid off – I am running a business that I love, and I am making Kosovo a sweeter place. After all, no one has ever met a chocolate they did not like,” she smiles while rapping the next gift on the counter.
Bleta Zeqiri’s business has grown rapidly. In 2009 she opened a second chocolate shop in Prishtina’s city center, “The Chocolate Corner” and only a month ago, she expanded Leonidas with another shop at Prishtina’s exclusive shopping mall ALBI. Her confession has led us to believe that when passion and perseverance exceed the obstacles, nothing is impossible in Kosovo.
IPAK Vienna / ECIKS