Interview: Farm To Table model implemented in Albania as a social business

Interview: Farm To Table model implemented in Albania as a social business

Farm to Table
is a movement created with the aim to educated people regarding the huge importance of bio products for the welfare of each person. The movement tends to raise awareness for producing food locally, for the usage of bio/organic agricultural products and to avoid from the daily menu the modified foods. Nowadays, in many countries Farm to Table movement is being driven by restaurants, shops and campaigns.

Furtunately, Farm to Table is now present even in the Albanian market, as a initiative taken by a group of Albanian young entrepreneurs. In spite of implementing this idea in the form of a restaurant or another profitable business form, they have choosen to establish a social business, funded by Yunus Social Business in Albania.

We were fascinated about this idea and had the pleasure to interview the PR Manager of this newly built startup, Sonila Sota.

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Usually startups are created with the aim to resolve a problem or to accomplish the necessities of a targeted group of customers, but a social business has a lot more responsibilities for its customers than a simple startup. Except from solving a problem, a social business commits to help its customers by providing products and services that will improve the living standards or the life of them.

What is the problem that Farm to Table is aiming to resolve in the Albanian market?

Sonila: The main problem that Farm to Table is solving is the uncertainty of food quality and transparency in sourcing.

The product of Farm to Table

Sonila: The products of this store will be the daily ingredients to make any meal. Starting with dairy (milk, yogurt, butter, cheese) from cows, sheep and goats, eggs, meat, olive oil, beans, cereal, flour, honey, tea, spices, seasonal fruit jams, fresh fruits and vegetables according to the season, wine etc.

Aside from what was mentioned above the main criteria that will make our products wanted by the consumers will be our competitive prices and the freshness. In a modestly small grocery store the consumer will have the possibility to find everything needed for everyday grocery shopping.

How did you come up with this startup idea and why did you focus in the agricultural sector?

Sonila: In her 14 years of living in the United States, Sonila was faced with a daily struggle to find natural and organic food that weren’t filled with hormones, additives or treated with pesticides. The high percentage of obesity and lifestyle diseases linked to the poor quality of food as well as the yearning for the taste of Albanian cooking pushed her to start searching for a farmers’ market. She was able to locate a farmers’ market, however this was a struggle on its own because it was held only once a week on Saturdays and during very limited hours (9:00-13:00). Aside from this it was very far, about an hour by bus. Everything had to be transported in plastic bags that often would break due to the weight of the food. They would end up in the trash before they even got the job done. They were contributing to pollution creating another unnecessary problem.  Sonila’s solution was to bring her own cloth bags who were easier to transport food in and above all reusable, hygienic and reliable. About a year ago she made the decision to return to her homeland of Albania but her enthusiasm linked to the idea that she would not face this problems here disappeared fast. She is once again facing the issue of imported food treated with hormones and chemicals. Also, the pollution due to plastic bags and food packaging is a reality that is an eye sore and a true health hazard. Another sad reality she encountered was the underdevelopment of the Agricultural sector here in Albania which makes up for over 60% of the workforce. All this issues pushed her to try and find a way to address this crucial social problems. Everyone has the right to eat healthy. The purpose of food isn’t only to keep us alive but also to make us for energetic, develop our bodies and minds. Today we are facing the opposite effect. Food has turned into an enemy, it has no flavor or nutritious values and causing critical health problem such as cancer, diabetes and heart disease. Not only is the food itself filled with hormones and chemicals but the packaging (plastic/ tin can) makes up another health risk because it releases toxic substances into foods for as long as they are in contact. On the other hand, farmers and they farms play a vital role in natural biodiversity especially in Albania where we are so lucky to have a wide range of wild flora and fauna species, so much more than other European countries altogether.

In Tirana, Sonila had the good fortune of becoming friends with two sisters from Korca, Neri and Juna Gjovari, who share the same ideas and concerns about the uncertainty of food safety and the high percentage of environmental pollution due to food packaging. As a result they came with the solution called Farm to Table, a startup that is structured as a grocery store which will market natural and organic Albanian product, package free a way of shopping that our mothers and grandmother are very familiar with. Farm to Table, will give the Albanian natural farmers a possibility to have a dignified spot in the market and sell their products in the right hygienic conditions. This will also give the consumer the possibility to enjoy their food intake to the maximum and above all always be guaranteed on knowing where their food is coming from instead of purchasing a product that is marketed as local when in fact has been imported. Offering the products in bulk, Farm to Table, will put the consumer in charge of buying what they want, as much as they want. For those consumers who are tired of dealing with food packaging waste and care about having a positive impact in the environmental ecosystem, Farm to Table will give them a choice that no other grocery store does.

This type of business has many competitors, starting from the supermarkets, free markets and organic/bio food shops. But what does this social business offer more than its competitors?

Sonila: As a concept none of our competitors are correlating the aspects of our store being that most of them offer imported items and those who do offer local products have a very limited range making them less than ideal for everyday shopping. On the other hand the free market offers local products that are displayed in poor hygienic conditions. The main factor is that we offer transparency in sourcing of the products we choose to market.

Does your company bring a novelty to the market?

Sonila: Above all we are bringing trust to our clients by giving them the opportunity to truly get to know the farmer from whom they’ll be consuming their everyday food. We are a trustworthy bridge between the farmer and the consumer’s table. Farm to Table is a different kind of store. One that is responsible to the community and environment and one that facilitates a healthy lifestyle.

How important is the team for your startup?

Sonila: Working as a team is very important because there are many obstacles to be crossed and there is power in the numbers. Each and every one of us has experience in different fields and together we complement one-another and the needs of the startup. As Farm to Table expands we want to introduce other professionals to the startup. Our mission is to provide as many job opportunities as possible for the Albanian farmer and youth.

Our team is made up of four individual between the ages of 26-31, who share the same passion and care greatly for positive social and environmental impact.  Sonila Sota, educated in Business Management in Austin, Texas, U.S.A, with a 6 year work experience in the fields of Management and Marketing. Sonila’s role in the startup is Marketing and PR (Public Relations). Neri Gjovari, educated in Business Administration in Bristol, United Kingdom, with a 5 year work experience in Accounting and Finance. Neri’s role in the startup is Financier. Juna Gjovari, educated in IT (Information Technology) In Tirana, with a 3 year work experience in Environmental Project Management. Juna’s role in the startup is General Manager. Enea Sota, educated in Architectural Design in Tirana, with a 5 year work experience in Agribusiness. Enea’s role is the startup is Logistics.

Have you already received a feedback on the satisfaction of your customers about your products?

Sonila: We have actually had the opportunity to start selling some products and the positive feedback we have gotten has exceeded our expectations. In the last four months we have presented our idea to many people in the expat and local community and the reaction has been extraordinary. It’s almost as if they’ve been waiting for an idea of the sort for a while now. In 6-12 months we expect to be opened and with a loyal customer base.

If you had the chance to meet a foreign investor that would probably like your business idea and would want to invest in it, what would be your response?

Sonila: We have a solid business model that will be very profitable and above all Farm to Table is bringing a new trend to Albania that is present in only three other countries in the world. We will be only the fourth store in the world that combines social and environmental elements.

At the moment we are looking for investors but we have not yet discussed the possibility if partnership. Initially our startup will be a local social business but our long-term goal is to create a brand that will serve as a portal that will introduce and market the Albanian farmers and their products internationally.

How will you describe your experience at Yunus Social Business Albania?

Sonila: In fact we have had the chance to follow the path of YSBA (Yunus Social Business Albania) in their two years of operating in Albania. They share the same visions we have so we didn’t think twice to apply for their Accelerator Program. YSBA has been a total support structure for us. They have not hesitated at any moment to give us their expertise and knowledge. They have integrated us in their network and have encouraged us to push forward. They have also served as a linking bridge with very capable foreign coaches and mentors who have helped our startup tremendously. YSBA has given us a work structure that alone we believe it would have taken us a really long time to develop. In the last four months under their supervision and harmonious collaboration we have been moving forward with total trust in Farm to Table. Although the Accelerator Program has ended they continue to be a supportive guidance for us and our gratitude is infinite. YSBA is made up of individuals that we consider ourselves very lucky to have met and get to know. Through them we have had the opportunity to meet other young Albanian entrepreneurs who have also been a source of inspiration for us. We are sure that our collaboration with them will continue to be successful and long-term and we highly recommend other young entrepreneurs to become part of this wonderful network.

Interviewed by Alketa Halilaj, Editor in chief – Invest in Albania

Photo: Farm to Table Albania

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