A New Plan of Action for Georgian Agriculture
Investor.ge's Heather Yundt interviewed Agriculture Minister Otar Danelia about the government's new action plan to bring European standards to Georgian agriculture and how cooperatives can fit in.
The signing of Georgia's historic Association Agreement and Free Trade Agreement with the European Union in June has raised both hopes and fears about how the removal of EU import duties will affect one sector in particular: agriculture.
The agricultural sector employs as much as half of Georgia's workforce, but accounts for less than 10 percent of Georgia's GDP, despite becoming a state funding priority in recent years.
Otar Danelia, Georgia's newly appointed as agriculture minister, sees the long-awaited signing of the agreements as a much-needed opportunity for the sector to develop and implement new standards.
"We should not consider [these agreements] just as an obligation. Even if there was no Association Agreement or [Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement], Georgia was supposed to start implementing standards," he said. "That's why it is not only necessary, but very important that it happen now when the government is supporting the agricultural sector like never before."
"Georgia has been struggling for the past few years because the agricultural sector was not in a very good position, unfortunately.
It was not promoted by the previous government, and therefore the science is gone, the education is not there, the technologies are not there."
A Plan for Each Village
Danelia says his team at the Ministry of Agriculture has been working hard to develop extensive plans for each region, which include projects like animal vaccination and identification, irrigation, and the building of a phytosanitarium for the testing of products like honey.
"According to each region, we have a development plan. What we're going to do is on the level of each single village. We will have a clear vision of what is supposed to be developed there and where we see the sector in the next ten years," he said.
"In all directions, we have an action plan. And it's very gentle, I would say, to make sure we consider the interests of our people. Imagine, for tens of years there was no practice and then you want to implement something in one day? It would be painful. So we will make sure it is not painful for them. We will give [the farmers] proper recommendations and consulting."
Given the proven success of Georgian wine exports, Danelia says wine will remain a priority. But he also expects to see a significant boost in exports of fruits and vegetables.
"Pretty much every single vegetable in Georgia has huge potential, as well as fruits, because we are going to standardize fruits.
When we had the harvest, I asked the experts to investigate what types of fruits we have, what sorts are there, so that we have a catalogue. So we will see which one is for making juice or jam and which is considered for the table."
Cooperatives One of the "Highest Priorities"
To develop the technical capacities of Georgian farmers, the European Neighbourhood Programme for Agriculture and Rural Development (ENPARD) is working with the Georgian government to establish agricultural cooperatives across the country.
"[Cooperatives are] one of the highest priorities," Danelia said. "Cooperatives seem to be quite efficient, because if you want to have some machine or if you want some special equipment, it's difficult to buy when you're alone."
"We will have special programs for [the cooperatives], we will have special products for them, we will have special rates, we will promote them.
We will find the key figures, let's say one in each village, and we will coach them. We will teach them how to manage the cooperative, because it needs management."
Since the law on Agricultural Cooperatives was introduced last year, Georgian farmers have registered more than 80 cooperatives. However, promoting cooperatives is no easy task in a country that still remembers the Soviet "kolkhozes," or collective farms.
"Some people are mixing cooperatives with kolkhozes, because that is the only unit they have seen in terms of agricultural cooperation," he said. "They really have nothing to do with each other. But so far the communication we have provided has been very successful."
To address the confusion, Danelia says the Ministry of Agriculture will soon have a bus tour the country promoting agricultural cooperatives in the villages.
Budgeting for Change
It's not just the EU that's supporting the extensive reforms in the sector. The Georgian government has also made agricultural development a priority by increasing the Ministry of Agriculture's budget exponentially in recent years, from just 30.6 million GEL in 2010 to more than 260 million GEL this year. Danelia says this support, in addition to tens of millions of euros in program support from the EU and other funders, ensures his team will have no problem implementing the reforms.
"It's all a challenge, but I don't see any problems," Danelia said. "We are looking for additional external expertise if we have a lack of knowledge in some specific areas. I pretty much know which country has the knowhow in different areas. The team is motivated and the government is supporting it. And once you have government support, you have resources, you have the team, you have experts."
"I think by the end of 2015, people should feel a difference. Normally it takes three to five years to see a result. But as a feeling, it should be there by the end of 2015. That's how ambitious our plans are. But they are all achievable. It will take hard work, but we are ready for it."
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