The idea for what would become the biggest project of my time in Peace Corps found me one morning on my way to the office. Dashi, not his real name, had heard there was a new American working at the local government office looking for project ideas. So, he found me. This was less than a year into my Peace Corps service and I had to rely on google translate but eventually over the course of this first of many business coffees I understood Dashi’s idea: cultivate sage in our region of Albania to raise the incomes of subsistence farmers.
Why are you doing agriculture development if you were sent there as an urban planner, you ask? Well, as I wrote here, for a number of reasons urban planning isn’t something that happens in Albania. Also, I had studied up on my region and found out it was overwhelmingly a subsistence agriculture economy. In fact, Diber, my region, is the poorest corner of Albania, making it perhaps the poorest part of all of Europe. If I wanted to leave a positive impact on my region, raising incomes through agriculture was the way to do it.
Over the next year, the project developed and more stake holders got involved. Soon I was working with a local purchaser and wholesaler of sage and other plants which currently grow in the wild, a local woman’s agricultural nonprofit, and a processor and exporter. The project had to include all the steps in the “value chain”. Perhaps the most enjoyable part of the project was staying in remote villages to talk to farmers about sage cultivation from their perspective and travelling across Albania meeting new people who had some experience in the industry such as the mayor of Koplik and small business owners.
The proposal itself was rather massive. Over 3 years, 500 subsistence farming families would be trained to grow and dry sage and would be supplied with young sage plants. In total we would grow 150 Hectares of sage. Facility upgrades both for local and for export processing would be subsidized and this new sage would be sold under a Diber Brand. Participating households would see an increase in income around $1755 averaged over the 6 year productive life of the plant. Currently the annual income in the region is around $1300 which is the lowest in Albania. The total size of the project was $1.2million dollars, $700,000 of which would come from USAID and the rest as in-kind or cost sharing from project partners.
Why Sage, you ask? I quickly learned at the beginning of the process that gathering medicinal plants, especially sage, is a huge part of villagers’ incomes throughout Albania. Albania, especially Diber, is a rich source of “Medicinal and aromatic plants” such as Sage and currently the medicinal and aromatic plants is the largest agricultural export in Albania. In fact, previous development projects elsewhere in Albania for growing sage had been successful. Where does the sage go? Most of it goes to the United States of America.
As I mentioned, it was a team project and without amazing Albanian partners this project application would never have been written. Still, it did rely mostly on my effort, especially at the beginning when it was still simply a hazy idea. I also couldn’t have brought people together, had meetings, asked questions, met new people, or proposed ideas if I weren’t able to speak Albanian. The technical skills I used mostly came from finance and project management courses during graduate school at Cornell.
Unfortunately we did not win the funds. However this seems to have affected me much more than my partners on the project. I thought perhaps they would feel I had wasted their time on a pipe dream but in fact they were extremely gracious for the effort I had put in. They took a lot of pride in the final project proposal and, in the end, I learned a lot from them. They were right to be proud of the work we had done putting together a realistic, game-changing economic development project for our community. Although we had not won the funds from USAID, if we had not worked together for over a year on the project, our little corner of Albania would never have even been considered by USAID at all. I was so focused on getting the funds that I had forgotten that pearl of wisdom that in the end it is the journey, not the destination that matters.
to read the final project proposal, click here -> Diber Sage Project