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Fair Trade Arrives in Bulgaria

Leon Kaye | Monday November 22nd, 2010 | 0 Comments

Well, sort of.  Fair trade is a relatively new concept in Bulgaria, but it is ripe with opportunity and its products are ready to move beyond its borders.  This nation of 7 million is both blessed and cursed by its location.  While close to Central and Western European nations as far as the crow flies, Bulgaria is relatively isolated.  Romania, former Yugoslavian nations, and Greece to the south all have had their issues and conflicts.  Now as one of the newer European Union nations, Bulgarians are moving ahead with confidence, uncertainty, optimism, and challenges.

Fair trade is one window through which Bulgarian can participate as a buyer and seller of niche products.  Consumers here are getting a taste of fair trade coffee through Starbucks’ opening of several new stores through its capital, Sofia, in the last year.  Some purists may sniff at Starbucks entering the market, but the Seattle outfit is the world’s largest buyer of fair trade coffee, and will help raise awareness of the movement’s benefits.  The genius of Starbucks is how it engenders competition.  The clichéd opinion is that somehow the coffee giant drives out competition, but if anything, Starbucks empowers locals to open copycat stores in just about every market it enters–and if that means more fair trade coffee is brought from abroad, that can only benefit suppliers abroad and shopkeepers in Bulgaria.  But let’s move beyond coffee.

Bulgarian families, artisans, and farmers could all benefit from the fair trade movement, too.  Agriculture is still an important part of the economy, as evident in the lush tomatoes, cucumbers, winter fruit, and herbs that are so abundant here.  Few farmers use fertilizers, and water is plentiful.  After Communism ended, many farms were simply returned to the families–hence the small family farm is still the rule.

You can see the results in any Middle Eastern supermarket: if you see jars of picked vegetables, ruby-colored pepper spread, or eggplant concoctions, chances are they are from Bulgaria.  If Bulgarian farmers would organize into collectives and get a small premium for their crops, the differences could be huge: investment in biomass plants, better rural roads, more health clinics, or scholarships for universities.  Such a shift could take a while, however.  Worker productivity lags behind other European nations, and after a couple generations of socialism, the mindset of “mine” is pervasive . . . Any hit at “collectivism” or “organization” smacks of the old days, which few Bulgarians wish to relive.

Fair trade pickles might not make Westerners tingle as much as the thought as fair trade coffee or tea.  But Bulgaria is a large producer of spices and herbs, both for food and medicinal use, and rose oil.  Then you have the wine–a treat not only because of the quality, but because generally, ordering yourself a wine means the entire bottle, not just a glass.  Winemakers here have a tough time competing against imports from Chile, New Zealand, and Australia, but the unique varietals here are not to be missed–if wineries received a fair price for their vintages.

Moving away from food, Bulgarian craftsmanship offers possibilities as well.  We tend to gravitate towards Latin America, Africa, and Asia for fair trade products, and that is understandable for a bevy of political, historical, business, and environmental reasons.  Nevertheless, Southeastern Europe (or The Balkans) offers a long history of workmanship that is unknown or unappreciated.  Such attention is important because while Bulgaria lacks the degree of ethnic tensions that hamper many of its neighbors, social problems still fester.  Women who lose a spouse, fall victim to domestic violence, or lose a job after taking maternity leave are especially vulnerable.  Orphanages lack necessary funds.  Bulgaria hosts a large Roma population that is economically disadvantaged.  And the recent global financial crisis has hit the poor the hardest.  Weaving, embroidery, knits, and woodcarving are just a few micro-industries that could help the rural poor and urban disadvantaged build better lives.

One organization working to change this is Integra Bulgaria, which partners with small businesses and social entrepreneurs who are interested in making a difference for those who are most at risk.  The agency works closely with disadvantaged women, orphans, and small and medium businesses, and strives to find both job opportunities for at risk Bulgarians and markets for small enterprises.  If more projects could start in Bulgaria, this country drenched with mountains, forests, and fantastic beaches offers the fair trade-fixated social entrepreneur an exciting future.

Leon Kaye, a regular 3p correspondent, is currently traipsing through the Balkans, exploring import-export and social enterprise opportunities.


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