If you drive down to Jegunovce in rural North Macedonia, you will find yourself on a dirt road with nothing but small farms and houses spaced few and far between. Several plots of land are abandoned. With a rising number of young people choosing to leave the country, older farmers are struggling with upkeep of the land.
In the sleepy Polog region, most families that remain are engaged in farming, growing alfalfa, corn, and seasonal vegetables like peppers and tomatoes. Their farms are barely big enough to grow fodder for a few cows.
Sinisha Stefanovski was born and raised in Polog. Eight years ago, at age 33, he started a food trade business, packaging and freezing meat and seafood products. While his business fared well, he was looking for opportunities to grow. His travels to neighboring Serbia piqued his interest in a different and more profitable product: raspberries.
After visiting several raspberry nurseries in Serbia, Sinisha learned about the optimal soil, climate, and know-how needed to produce and export raspberries. He discovered the climate and soil in Polog were the right mix for this cash crop, which can bring up to seven times more than the crops traditionally grown in the region. The missing piece was the expertise.
Most farmers in Polog don’t have access to the necessary resources to determine the most profitable crop for production and sale. They grow the same crops their fathers and grandfathers grew before them. Sinisha was determined to change this.
“I decided to do my research to learn about the entire supply-chain involved in growing, packaging, freezing, and exporting raspberries. I already knew about packaging and freezing because of my food trade business. I adopted the setup I had seen in Serbia,” he said.
“I started LK Raspberry with one idea, to keep young people from moving out of the country. My first goal was to get as many contract farmers with small family plots as I could,” Sinisha continued. “Investing in raspberries is not expensive. I am trying to ease the investment costs for farmers by providing them with inputs they don’t have to repay.”
Sinisha offers his farmers access to industrial freezers free of charge to help them get started. LK Raspberry is a pioneer of large-scale raspberry production in North Macedonia. By its second year, LK Raspberry crops were rivaling Serbian-grown raspberries in quality and price. To date, no other large producer has invested in and encouraged the cultivation and sale of raspberries in the country.
LK Raspberry is now available at many of North Macedonia’s supermarkets and exports to other European markets.
“We created a brochure for contract farmers willing to produce raspberries. They would know we are right here, close to them. They can come to us freely and ask anything that is unclear to them. They can see how we work and what it’s like to grow raspberries.”
Export-grade raspberry production is nearly impossible to achieve without an efficient irrigation system. USAID and LK Raspberry co-invested in drip irrigation systems to make the small plots of land viable. Partnering with USAID lent credibility to the venture, giving small farmers the reassurance they sought about the prospects of growing, freezing, storing, and exporting raspberries.
Ljupcho Dzhordzevski is one of the 13 farmers who partnered with LK Raspberry and USAID. By the end of the year, Sinisha hopes that number will be up to 20 farmers.
“In the past, I have grown corn, wheat, and alfalfa; my biggest issue was getting paid for the produce,” he said. “We are happy with the assistance that Sinisha has given us. He gave us the seeds, explained how to plant the crop, how to position the concrete support beams, and he participated in the entire process. So far, raspberries are the most profitable crop I have ever produced. I have stopped growing everything else. Now, I only plant raspberries in all my fields.”
Through the Business Ecosystem Project, USAID has partnered with several large producers in North Macedonia to help small farmers produce profitable crops, meet international standards, and export local produce to European markets. The partnership with LK Raspberry is one example of USAID’s interventions as a catalyst for economic development.
About the Author
Hazel Correa is Senior Development Outreach and Communications Specialist at USAID’s mission in North Macedonia. She is a seasoned communications professional with over eight years of international experience in global and national roles. Follow her work @hazel_correa.