With the support of the Sweden/USAID FARMA II project, the ProReha Association, and their subsidiary Greens Ltd., train people with disabilities to become their contracted farmers in the production of the organic micro vegetables, aromatic plants, and edible flowers.
“We want to do things the right way,” says Vedad Vajzović, President of the ProReha Association from Vogošća, near Sarajevo. “We started with the production of the organic micro vegetables some three years ago. We saw that it was a soothing activity for many people with disabilities, and we decided to keep at it. In 2018 we first promoted our products, and when restaurants started placing their orders, we registered a social enterprise, Greens Ltd.”
The ProReha Association was established eight years ago with a mission to provide professional rehabilitation and vocational education to people with disabilities. Since then, they provided services to 150 people, of whom 50 have full-time jobs thanks to their coaching and employment mediation.
Going urban and organic
The concept of urban agriculture started picking up in Bosnia and Herzegovina several years ago, but not much of it is organic. According to the BiH Statistic Agency, in 2018, only 0.03 percent of arable land is used for organic production.
"We opted for organic micro vegetables because they do not require much space. With a proper greenhouse, or a glasshouse, they can be produced throughout the year," says Vedad.
"We grow our crop on vertical shelves that essentially multiply the planted surface by eight. In other words, one square meter inside the greenhouse, with its eight shelves, equals eight square meters outside. Furthermore, most of the micro vegetables take only ten to fifteen days to grow, while aromatic plans and edible flowers have a four months production cycle, during which they can also be picked," he adds.
According to Vedad, Greens Ltd. is the first producer of organic micro vegetables in BiH, and that is where they found their business niche.
"Greens Ltd. is a social enterprise. While we function as a socially responsible company that employs up to five people with disabilities, we apply all sustainable business practices. We will either survive on the market if we do well, or we will go under if we don't. We have our place on the market, and we strive to get even better."
Expanding the model
At the moment, Greens Ltd. supplies its products only in Sarajevo Canton. They follow the three F concept (From Farm to Fork) and are trying to make their deliveries within an hour from the vegetables or herbs being picked. That is why they are looking to increase the production in Sarajevo, and also to expand it to two more cantons. For starters, those would be Zenica-Doboj Canton with all of its twelve municipalities, and Central Bosnia Canton, or rather Travnik, Bugojno, and Jajce municipalities.
To make this happen, the Sweden/USAID FARMA II project is now supporting ProReha in organizing training courses in urban organic production for more than 30 people with disabilities.
"Following the identification of potential candidates for the training, we now have more than ten training participants in each of the three cantons. The first theoretical training session was held in Vogošća on July 8, and we will continue from here," says Vedad. "We will go through all the steps and also have practical training seasons. We will do this in three locations, in Vogošća, Zenica, and Bugojno, so that all the participants have equal access. Once the training is done they will become our contracted farmers, and we will find the market for their products.”
Coping with the pandemic
Like all other small businesses, Greens Ltd. was also affected by the pandemic. Their biggest market was the HoReCa sector, which halted during the pandemic. "In mid-March, as all the restaurants closed, we lost our market," says Vedad. Though Greens Ltd. also sold to Mercator and Agrikom retail chain, at that time, HoReCa still accounted for 80 percent of its business.
"Our employees wanted to continue working, but we had no market to sell our products. So we had to get creative. Instead of micro vegetables, we started producing grow-your-own plant kits and running the Stay Home and Grow Your Own Plant campaign. Those were a big success, and still are, and they helped us get by.”
Vedad says that HoReCa is slowly coming back and that they got back to supplying restaurants at the beginning of June. With the introduction of the grow-your-own kits, HoReCa and retail now have equal portions of their business, which has eased some of the pressure. With this new market structure, and with the training session expected to be done in mid-September, they are looking to further expand their sales and turn most of their trainees into the active workforce. So though small and organic, for many people with disabilities, the products from Greens are larger than life.