Social Enterprise in Albania

Monday 10th May     Tirana to Shkoder

In addition to my social enterprise development work for Oxfam in Russia, I'm also now helping to restructure the Oxfam country operation in Albania as a social enterprise.

To give me some idea of their work here, this morning Oxfam drove me out from the capital, Tirana, to the far northern town of Shkoder (pronounced Shkoddra) where we transferred to a big Landrover Defender – there are no made up roads out to the isolated villlages where Oxfam works – and subsequently to the even bigger and more rugged Landrover of one of Oxfam's partner NGOs, the Albanian Permaculture Resource Centre (which Oxfam actually set up). We were soon among horse and donkey-drawn farm traffic and – despite the valley heat – snow-peaked mountains.  Little boys with sticks encourage solitary cows along the track that challenges even the Landrover, until we abandon that too alongside the most beautiful river – the water turquoise under the white rock and sun. We make our way on foot across the valley, over a bridge only passable in summer (though in Albania this is most of the year!) - where you look far down into a deep gorge under the water - then up the other side of the valley to the little farm we are visiting here.

Oxfam LandroverGeof and Eddi flanked by two of the leading chestnut farmers, in front of the warehouse and processing plant Oxfam helped them build

The remote areas of Albania are still dominated by subsistence farming. The climate is wonderful and you can grow an amazing variety of crops on a small piece of land – the average farm size for the whole country is only just over one hectare. The farmers live mainly by gowing (and making) what they need, and selling small surpluses in local markets for a little cash.  Only in recent years – with the help of Oxfam and the permaculture experts – have they been free from hunger, and able to live simply but well.

Of course I knew about Albanian hospitality. I have an old friend here, Adri Biҫaku (pronounced Bichaku) who I worked with on the Hamlet Trust's social enterprise development programme in Eastern Europe 10 years ago – and I'll never forget how Adri and his colleagues, from the poorest country of all, always brought the most to eat and drink.   I'll certainly never forget their rather over-generous helpings of raki (homemade Albanian brandy).  But nothing could have prepared me for the hospitality I found among the hill farmers. Only gradually did it dawn on me that this is not a hospitality that is offended if you don't eat what is put in front of you, but rather one that, if you do eat it, just keeps on filling your plate until you are completely and utterly stuffed.  But here is the marvelous fact: gradually the big table filled up with dishes – tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, sweetcorn, olives, onions, cheese, meats, eggs, apples, pears, strawberries (a new experimental crop here), nuts, wine, and of course raki – and all of it was grown and prepared not just on this farm, but within 50 metres of this house.  Such is the power of permaculture – and Albania's benign climate.

We spent 2 days visiting such places, first with the local Oxfam staff Dritan and Eddi, then the permaculture experts Tome and Teofik – the latter might lay claim to the title 'father of Albanian permaculture', as author of the seminal text in Albanian (Teofik Fugarini, Permakultura në Shqipëri).  Teofik is of course a highly qualified agronomist, but also now an evangelist for the whole permaculture philosophy.   For him, a really sustainable agriculture is not just about organic farming – it is about lifestyle too - so for example even in this still very traditional rural environment they insist on gender balance in their courses, and among their 150-odd 'key farmers' who champion the permaculture cause out in the villages.

Women FarmerGeof and Tome (left) with one of the Albanian Permaculture Resource Centre's 'key farmers', her mother (centre) and children - the little girl next to me is learning English at school, so I teased her a little about that!

A few farmers are beginning to develop further away from the subsistence / local markets lifestyle by working together – for instance in the Rec Prodhimtar chestnut farmers association, and the Vreshtaret e Zadrima Malore wine growers co-operative.

Under the oppressive and to be honest just plain barmy regime of Enver Hoxha, which isolated and ruined Albania after the Second World War, the word 'co-operative' was completely discredited – though of course this had nothing to do with our idea of a co-op as a voluntary and democratic association of people for mutual benefit. This is why the Kooperativa Vreshtaret e Zadrima Malore is in fact the very first Albania co-op of the post-communist period.  Although guardians of one of the world's best brands, Oxfam is not always good at letting the world know about it's achievements.  I'm no longer active in the UK co-operative movement – though of course the ideals of the movement are still fundamental to my philosophy – but if anyone reading this is an influential co-operator, I'd like to ask why the UK movement is not supporting this fragile new offshoot nurtured against all the odds by Oxfam. Tony Laithwaite, from whom (via the National Trust) I in fact buy my own wine, has been here – though not yet bought in bulk. I'm certainly going to write to him and tell him how much I like Zadrima!

Tuesday 11th May     Back to Tirana

One of the emails downloaded on my return to Tirana was from an NHS worker worried that the possible transfer of her employment to a social enterprise might mean a less secure pension and loss of annual leave entitlement.  I read this after a day spent with men and women whose whole adult life, 30 years or more, has been a daily struggle to put something to eat on the table in front of their children – sometimes failing, and only in recent years with the help of organisations like Oxfam achieving some small margin of comfort.

Of course this is a facile comparison, and one I would never make directly to the people involved. The protection of hard-won pension and leave entitlements is very important (if it is affordable).  But this blog is a place where I can also express my passing feelings as well as my considered views – where I can be un-professional for once – and on this occasion I couldn't help feeling that in the UK many of us may have moved just a little bit too far away from the hard edges of life.

...that monolithic sort of thing......that monolithic sort of thing...

Wednesday 12th – Thursday 13th May     Tirana

At the moment the Tirana area is littered with the debris of too many people only just scraping a living, but make no mistake this has the potential to be a very beautiful capital city.  The setting is lovely, surrounded by mountains – a cable car can take you up one from near the city centre in half an hour – and close to the Adriatic coast too.  I've already mentioned the wonderful climate – May is the best time by the way – before it gets too hot – and great local food and drink - and of course the most relaxed and friendly of people.  It reminds me more of southern Italy than its closer neighbors in Greece and the other Balkan countries.  The traffic chaos certainly bears comparison with Naples (but don't worry – it's not quite that bad!).  It lacks historic buildings, but does have interesting remnants of soviet-style cityscapes if you like that monolithic sort of thing. There are some interesting museums and galleries too – the National Arts Gallery has a small collection of mainly Italian old masters – Barbieri (Guercino) the highlight for me - and a pretty good modern selection, heavy on Futurism as perhaps you'd expect, but a smattering of many of the greats – an interesting Picasso, typically odd abstractions by Klee and Miro that I hadn't seen before, even the odd Brit (Bacon, of course).  But perhaps best of all, Tirana is a great place to sit outside a bar and watch the teeming world go by.

Korҫa - pronounced 'Korcha' - the best Albanian beer - will cost about £1 in Tirana and come with a little dish of nuts or crispKorҫa - pronounced 'Korcha' - the best Albanian beer - will cost about £1 in Tirana and come with a little dish of nuts or crisps; a really good 'illy' coffee will be less than 50p. The sharp-eyed might spot the oranges hanging in the tree behind the glass.

Unfortunately these days are spent mainly holed up in the Oxfam office helping the staff explore potential earned income streams and, more importantly, make the psychological leap from line-management to enterprise.

Last night, however, was spent with my old friend Adri Biҫaku.

Adri is an international dynamo of a man who has run the leading Albanian mental health NGO Alternativa for the last decade or so, during which he has built up what he believes (probably rightly) is the best mental health staff team in the country.

Alongside its main work (of helping people with mental health problems get out of institutional/residential care) Alternativa runs two social enterprises: a candle-making workshop and a bicycle repair workshop. The former sells mainly in Holland, and the latter mainly repairs bkes collected by police (and unclaimed) from the streets in Holland and donated to Alternativa.

Adri has built an international network of supporters who forgive his wicked humour (those of a sensitive disposition should make sure they know exactly what he's ordering in the local restaurants – if he is evasive it might turn out to be his favourite bull's testicles).  Many stallwort supporters are British, which should make us all proud.

Through international donations and the inevitable EU and other international aid programmes Alternativa has prospered without Albanian government funding, even though it saves millions of leks in institutional care – not to mention immeasurably improving the lives of hundreds of people with mental health problems in what I guess is still Europe's poorest country.

But Adri is more worried about the future funding of Alternativa now than he has been for a decade. If you can help, please get in touch through me (


It was great to read about your trip to Albania! Could you please, pass my best regards to Oxfam Albania team and of course to Tome and Teofik!!! They are great and it will be superior if you can help them to transform into the sustainable and effective social enterprise. Good luck to all of you!

Thanks Victor

- I will certainly pass on your best wishes (for those who don't know Victor he is one of Oxfam's leading experts on microfinance, currently based in the Oxfam Moscow office, but as you see very well-traveled!)

Update - Just heard from

Update - Just heard from Oxfam's Moscow office that Victor has moved on to work for one of Oxfam's Russian partner organisations, IBLF (Youth Business Programme).