TIRANA, February 21
Today we share the inspiring story of Albanian entrepreneur Rakip Belishaku. He is the founder of Rinora Handmade, a sustainable business that makes all-natural soap and produces sponges from a cucumber-like plant. He does all this in rural Berat while innovating agricultural processes, trying to empower women, raising awareness on environmental issues and green solutions, and supporting those in need. This business took off during the 2020 lockdown, and this makes it a great example of how determined entrepreneurs can turn challenges into opportunities.
Thank you Rakip for accepting to share your story with us! As an introduction, please could you tell us more about yourself and your background?
I come from a small village in Berat and was raised by parents whose occupation was agriculture. Having a difficult life in rural Albania, they pushed me to focus on education as a way to build a better future for myself. I graduated as Petroleum Engineer and for the last seven years, I have been working abroad for different Oil corporations.
What was first, the soap or the sponge? Please, can you tell us your story with the loofah sponge? How did you come up with this idea and how did you make it happen? What was your initial vision/goal?
Living in Berat where olive oil is a local product and noticing that sometimes there is a surplus production I wanted to create an added value product. Soap demand in Albania is fulfilled almost 100 percent from import and there should be a movement of local soap manufacturers to change this situation.
The story with loofah begins three years ago while I was for a working visit in Vietnam and I saw this “strange looking thing” that was for sale in the Hanoi Airport, in the local products area. I bought one and since there was no label on it, I tried to google it for several days until I discovered the name of this product. It is called “Loofah” or “luffa”. I teamed up with two agronomists and we started testing several seeds varieties until we discovered the right one that fits the soils parameters and climate of our region. Loofah is a tropical plant so it does not grow easily anywhere. After the experimental plantation, we started a commercial scale plantation, and currently, we are at a cultivated surface of 10,000 sqm. My vision was to produce an eco-friendly product and produce it in Albania. On all our packing and labels we have stamped the slogan: “Proudly Made in Albania”.
Are all the raw materials used for soap and sponge production sourced locally?
Our loofah is 100 % made in Albania and we are so proud of that. For the soap, olive oil is extra virgin cold-pressed from Berati’s olives, and the lavender, Rosemary, and other medicinal plants are collected in different villages in Albania. To produce soap, practically you need oil and caustic soda. They react together and at the end of the reaction (cold process) which takes four weeks, you are left with natural soap. The caustic soda we are using is imported from the EU and has zero heavy metals on it. This is the only raw material we are importing and we are happy to continue this way. Once upon a time, Albania has produced caustic soda in Vlora, and the old technology brought catastrophic consequences for the environment in that area.
You built a sustainable business model that preserves the balance of natural resources without causing waste. Do you think that the Albanian economy could switch towards a circular model that focuses on the 3P model (planet, people, profit) instead of on just money profit?
Since the free market economy started in Albania 30 years ago the goal of most entrepreneurs has been to make profits despite the consequence their activity has on people and the environment. Lately, I have seen several startups that have a different approach, and they are putting people and the environment first. We hope that this is a new trend and that other businesses will switch to the 3P model.
Besides green innovation, what is the social impact of your business?
Our plantation and our processing unit are located in a rural area and we want to hire women and this way empower them. Except for direct impact, we have a Giveback program called #soapforhope. This means that 10 % of each sale of our products, loofahs, and soaps goes to support women and children who have suffered violence. This way customers make a direct contribution to this cause every time they buy a product.
Your product expands the concept of well-being and health from the personal level to environmental health and wellbeing. What is your motto?
We are trying to create a triangle of value between customers – environment -community. Our goal is to produce excellent quality products that serve our customers while protecting the environment and supporting the community.
Does Albanian law provide facilities for businesses like yours?
We are not aware of such facilities. We believe that there should be some kind of support for a start-up that has a positive approach toward the environment and social causes.
How long did the initial phase last? How did you find the land, seeds, work premises, and the initial budget?
From the idea to the final product, it took us around one year and a half. The first land we used was our family’s property and it had been planted with olive trees so we had to plant our luffas between olive trees. When we were convinced that the project was successful we rented the land for the next season. The investments needed were covered by myself but I want to mention that Rinora Handmade was the winner of Green Business 2020 organized by Partners Albania for Change and Development and Balkan Green Ideas 2020. Their financial support made our work easier. At first, I was doing it all by myself as I couldn’t afford to hire someone, but now we are hiring part-time workers for different processes in the farm and our processing unit. We hope that soon we will have full-time employees.
It’s my impression, based on Rinora’s social media channels, that you started your business in spring 2020. So is it true that great business ideas are born during the hardest times?
If it wasn’t for the pandemic I don’t believe Rinora would exist today. I had done the research, bought the seeds and everything else needed but I was working abroad and I feared that It would take a lot of time to make it as I was not all the time country, and delegating work was not easy. In March 2020 I was in Italy when the pandemic reached our countries and I was fired due to operation termination. I was happy because finally, I was free to dedicate my time to my project.
How long does it take to bring the loofah from seed to the end consumer?
It took around one year and a half to go from seed to final product. We had to discover new techniques and procedures to take care of the plant, how much watering and fertilization was necessary, and when to harvest the loofahs. After that, we had to build a warehouse with shelves to store the loofahs. We faced challenges for the processing also. There were no machines in the market to buy so we had to design and build our machines. Finally, we launched three loofah byproducts to our customers.
What do you need the most now?
Now we are looking for partners to expand in international markets ( we are working with a German company for the moment and we want to reach other countries). We are mostly working on online sales for the domestic market and we need to improve our online presence and digital marketing.
How do you find investors/ funding?
We haven’t had any investors yet, but we are open to any kind of cooperation.
What’s the biggest risk you have taken so far?
Putting all my savings into a project no one ever tried in Albania. At first, even my family was skeptical about the outcome of my initiative or if it was worth putting my money and energies into.
Do you fear failure?
Actually No. I have had so many failures that I have learned to live with them. They are a blessing. Sometimes you win and sometimes you learn.
How did other farmers react to your business idea? Are they interested in growing loofah plants?
They are a bit intrigued by this plant and I believe they have mixed feelings about it. Loofah is a labor-intensive plant that requires continuous supervision and intervention. Also, the market is a bit weak since loofah is not known in Albania and a lot of work on marketing and brand awareness is needed. These two factors make it hard for the normal farmer to involve in this business.
What is your vision for the future?
We want to enlarge the customer base in Albania and expand to other international markets with our brand or private label for other companies.
According to you, what are three or more key factors to becoming a successful social entrepreneur in Albania?
I believe you have to be innovative, to put the people first, and you have to be extremely honest/transparent.
What about the main obstacles?
The most important is to stay calm especially when things don’t go well. As per Murphy’s Laws on Business and Management, a carelessly planned project takes three times longer than expected; a carefully planned project will only take twice as long
How do you see the relationship of younger generations with farming land and agriculture?
Nobody wants to become a farmer nowadays. The young generations want to emigrate and I don’t blame them. Agriculture in Albania is in survival mode, with land fragmentation, the low scale of mechanization, high prices of inputs, and agricultural products uncertainty/volatility.
What about their participation in environmental issues?
There is a lack of interest where there is no money involved. Environmental issues are treated with the absence of interest by most people. We are still throwing garbage on the sides of the rivers with the hope that the pollution will get transferred somewhere else. We must understand that there is only one planet and we must take care of it and leave it a better place for future generations. My opinion is that we need to do more convincing work while children are in school so when they grow up they will be responsible citizens and help protect the environment.
Do you have an education/volunteering program for young people, farmers, and end-users?
Currently, we haven’t set up any volunteering program, but we are open to any suggestion or any organizations that want to cooperate. As soon as we put our startup on the right track we will look for other ways to support our community.
Do you think that if foreign citizens were allowed to buy land in Albania, there will be more agritech startups and innovations in agriculture?
I see it hard to happen since the land is fragmented and it is hard even to make a two-hectare farm together in one place. I believe that there will be international agritech startups that will launch their services to Albania to serve agriculture-intensive farms like greenhouses.
What would you say to someone who has an idea but is undecided about starting a sustainable business?
It is not going to be easy but the future has to be sustainable otherwise there will be no future. Sustainable businesses don’t usually go big, but small is the new big especially when you have a mission apparat from making money.
How or where can people buy or order your handmade soaps and loofah sponge?
Our focus right now is sales through Instagram. So if you take a look at our products and content and if you like what you see you can dm us for more information or to place an order.
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Photo credit: Rinora Handmade