Archil Elbakidze’s strawberries
Archil Elbakidze is a chemist. He has worked in the field of agriculture for many years now. The organization he founded, Abkhazinterconti, is already 20 years old. Over the years, Archil has gained so much experience and knowledge that today he regards himself as an expert in berry fruits. For some time now, he has been consulting others around Georgia, but consultancy takes only one third of his time.
Abkhazinterconti Foundation is a civil society organization (CSO) that focuses on supporting small- and medium-sized enterprise (SMEs) development and promotes farming, as a way of reducing poverty. To this end, it strives to introduce new technologies in agriculture, train and re-train farmers, and provide effective extension services.
The ultimate goal of Abkhazinterconti’s efforts is to support internally displaced persons (IDPs) and other disadvantaged population to improve their economic wellbeing. It is, therefore, not surprising that Archil Elbakidze and his colleagues specifically target the country’s most vulnerable populations, employing some within their social enterprise, providing others with training and other skills development opportunities, or providing them the financial resources they need to engage in sustainable farming in rural areas.
In 2018, Abkhazinterconti received its first grant award from Europe Foundation to improve the profitability of its social enterprise by developing a strawberry greenhouse and to engage in structured institution-building through EPF’s organizational development initiative.
“Four or five years ago, we started to set up a strawberry greenhouse on a bare field near Kutaisi. Since then we created such a micro industry that today our enterprise functions as a demonstration model. We try to set an example to farmers how to succeed in growing and selling strawberries and other berry fruits,” Archil Elbakidze said.
Strawberries grown by Archil Elbakidze are clearly special. The berries are larger in size and deep red color, and more importantly, they are very sweet and aromatic. According to Archil, the quality of strawberry harvest depends on many factors, including the seedling type, technology of growing, quality of tending, etc.
“Around 55% of strawberries available on the Georgian market is imported from Turkey because it requires knowledge and experience to grow quality strawberries and to deliver them to the consumer. We have been learning the strawberry technology for the fourth year now and have already acquired expertise in this area. The species which we grow are of Dutch origin. Georgian species, for example, provide crops only during one month whereas the Dutch species provide crops during seven or eight months. While it is difficult to grow Dutch strawberries, the benefits of harvesting maximum amount of crops on a small plot of land outweigh this drawback,” continued Archil Elbakidze.
Nana Kharabadze is an internally displaced person from Abkhazia. She has worked in the social enterprise founded by Abkhazinterconti since 2010. She is a biological lab technician, but after fleeing Sukhumi, she was unable to find a job as a lab technician. In Abkhazinterconti she mastered a new profession, as she was able to learn the technology of growing and tending strawberries and thornless blackberries. She also completed a series of trainings in food technology and, today, apart from growing and tending strawberries, she also produces jams and compotes in the enterprise.
“I am very happy that I started to work here. It gave me hope that I will always be able to support my family,” Nana Kharabadze said.
While the enterprise has a clearly defined social mission with its profits used to improve the economic wellbeing of the country’s disadvantaged population, Archil still views his activity as a business.
“It does not matter for consumers whether strawberries available on the market are grown by good or bad people. For people to purchase strawberries, they must look inviting and taste well. This is how a business works and this is also how we think; therefore, the social mission which underlies this activity, is the result of our vision and attitude and not a strategic advantage on the market,” Archil said.
According to him, it is precisely due to the business objectives that they were able to see the need for organizational development. “Europe Foundation supported us in achieving this very goal and it did so very effectively in terms of knowledge-sharing and provision of technical assistance. Europe Foundation provided us with access to both financial and non-financial resources. Just as importantly, the Foundation made sure that we were ready to undertake the daunting task of organizational development, initially assessing our situation and then working with us to develop a strategic action plan tailored to our potential and motivation. This has greatly ensured our success,” noted Archil Elbakidze.
With grant support from Europe Foundation, the old wooden greenhouse was reconstructed and a modern iron construction was built. Strawberry nurseries were arranged on shelves and 1,400 seedlings were planted. In addition, we installed a drip irrigation system, as well as ensured constant water, gas, and electricity supply to the greenhouse. We also installed toilets and a septic tank, which is necessary to meet modern sanitary and hygienic requirements. Just as importantly, we mastered the strawberry jam and compote production technology.
“We need to diversify our production line to achieve larger turnover and to generate more profit. This is why we began jam and compote production,” Archil continued.
Nana Tsikvashvili is an invited specialist at the strawberry enterprise. She has 40 years of experience in the field of food technology. “We do not use any nitrogen, pesticides, preserving agents, and colorants. Our compotes and jams are natural, with fresh berries placed in just the right amount of sugar syrup. We also pay attention to water quality as well, which must be filtered and prepared for making the compote,” Nana added.
Since it is a demonstration farm and an educational model for local farmers, those at Abkhazinterconti enterprise try to learn about and produce other marketable products as well. For example, table grapes which are not produced in Georgia, thornless blackberries, and salad greens.
Archil Elbakidze does everything with enthusiasm, including the institutional strengthening of Abkhazinterconti Foundation, which was recently completed. Now the CSO can boast with strengthened governance systems, improved program management, a functioning system of attracting financial resources, etc.
“We are, thus, more prepared both to meet the market demands and to fulfill the expectations of our constituencies. It is very difficult to grow and manufacture products, especially, when it is a parallel job. However, we are fond of this line of work and we are good at it. We believe that we can increase the profitability of our enterprise, so that the generated income can bring tangible benefits to our society,” Archil Elbakidze said.
Author: Ketevan Magalashvili
Photos by: Irakli Shalamberidze