The Digital Asylum of a Cynic (…or How to Modernize Bulgarian Agriculture)

I am Bulgarian; a ‘typical’ Eastern European, as I have been reassured on many occasions when around the world. One infamous quality of a ‘typical’ Bulgarian is cynicism: I tend to be rather suspicious of people’s good intentions; this is especially valid when it comes to public institutions (which is extremely paradoxical bearing in mind I have spent the longest period of my professional life working in one — but that’s a whole other story). Consequently, I get excited every time when e-governance is brought up — after all, machines don’t care who your father is, what your accent is, can you bribe them; they don’t have “intentions” to be suspicious of in the first place. In other words, I am a strong e-gov supporter. I believe recent technological developments make digital solutions to some rather prevalent pains in the governance domain an achievable prospect. To illustrate this, I will use the example of the agricultural sector in Bulgaria. I believe that a digital transformation of the Agricultural Ministry could open the door for both self-cultivated growth of the sector and an increase of external investment in it.

Bulgaria has climate and natural resources which favor agricultural development. The country has long history of farming and agriculture. The sector was heavily developed during the communist era and traditionally represents a considerable share of the economy. Currently, about 47 per cent of Bulgaria’s territory is farming land, the vast majority of which is very fertile. After the country joined the EU in 2007, the sector’s development was boosted further by the increasing inflow of European funds in agriculture. Nearly 40 per cent of the EU budget is dedicated to agriculture. Through the Rural Development Operational Programme Bulgaria gets over € 3 200 billion injected into its agricultural sector via different payment schemes.

In other words, there is a big potential for this market to grow and develop. However, there are challenges which severely forestall its sustainable development. The fact that EU resources are poured into it masks the highly inefficient governance of the sector, which affects practically all farmers but is especially harmful to the small ones.

Having all arable land collectivized during communist time, Bulgarian farmers are still dealing with a rather complicated status quo. In short, 45 years after property rights over farming lands were suspended, a tedious process of returning the lands to their owners (and respective heirs) led to their scattering into many small plots. Building a profitable agri-business in such context means finding a way to consolidate bigger plots. This happens 1) by purchasing lands or 2) by renting them. Here starts the administrative drama. Every agricultural producer has to report the lands they are cultivating innumerous times. A Ministry located in the capital, far from most agricultural hubs, remains irresponsive to numerous reports and complaints about the inadequacy of the required procedures. Let us look at some of the circles of this administrative hell.

First, there is the so called “Questionnaire” (its official title in Bulgarian is three rows long, which is only a prelude to what it actually is beyond its name). It is basically an extremely detailed description of each of the plots one is cultivating, its geographic coordinates, its size, its owners and a ton of other data, which for users’ convenience is being filled in manually every single time. In case one has mistyped something, the system would not allow submission of the Questionnaire, therefore one has to look at the data cell by cell in order to find one’s mistake.

After this warm up, farmers go onto the next level — filling in the declarations, as per Article 69 and Article 70 of the Law on Ownership and Use of Agricultural Lands. Much of the information in those declarations is the same — the ‘declarations’ themselves are practically Excel tables which farmers fill in and submit on a flash drive to their respective branch of the Agricultural Ministry.

Alas, that is not where the story ends. Each year, agricultural producers are asked to submit a notary-certified agreement between themselves and every single owner of a plot they rent and cultivate. Interestingly, one is allowed to have a 20-year long rental contract, yet every year one has to appear in front of a notary and sign the above mentioned annual agreement. Let me put this into context: imagine an 80-year old „дядо“ (Bulgarian for “grandpa”) being dragged out of his mundane but happy pastoral life and into a notary’s office for the same procedure each year. Now imagine you have dozens of those lessors. In practice, by the time one is done administering one calendar year, the next one is already knocking.

This process, apart from annoying, opens the door for fraud, manipulation and corruption. Many of the civil servants in charge of administering it, offer shortcuts or “special assistance” to those willing to pay (or in smaller towns, to those who are more influential). It also impedes the market position of smaller farmers — a big agri-producer can afford to hire an entire office to manage that, whereas a small one has to go through it on their own.

An interesting addition to what has been said so far is the fact that some of the most notorious EU funds misappropriation scandals are in the Agricultural Ministry. A couple of years ago, the latter paid some € 50 000 for the creation of a Twitter (3 followers) and Facebook accounts for one of the EU programs it administers. Few months ago, a €500 000 worth public tender made it on the media, as its objective was the creation of two websites “popularizing” that same program. While such examples happen to surprise us, the cynical, less and less, no good news appear to balance them out. To the contrary, farmers tend to say they make their business despite the government, not with its help.

Developing a centralized database as well as a user-friendly platform which facilitates agricultural producers could transform the sector and finally open it up for innovation, entrepreneurship and FDI. A successful digital transformation would include the creation of national registrar for agricultural producers, the development of regional digital maps of all arable plots subject to interactive customization (ticking off plots one is cultivating, instead of filling in their coordinates in an excel table), as well as online submission of all necessary reports, declarations and documentation.

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