Alma Huseinbegović is the Directress of the Cooperative of Agricultural Associations in the area of Konjic, north Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Cooperative serves as the umbrella for 700 members, 80 of which are women.
Konjic is the largest municipality by the territory it covers in BiH, where many small farmers produce vegetables, fruit, milk, cheese and medical herbs. They all bring their products to the Cooperative, which helps them sell it and reach wider markets. When the producers can not sell it directly at the market, the cooperative buys it and takes care of the further sale.
The Cooperative also serves as the guarantor for the grants and credits when small farmers need it, while also providing technical support for them.
All of this did not exist when Alma came back to her town Konjic in 2008, after graduating from Mostar University. She gained her honours degree in agronomy at the age of 21 and instead of staying at home, she went out looking for volunteering jobs. She was offered a position to provide help at the municipality Konjic for a year, where her skills and education were soon recognised, and after a short engagement she was offered to establish the Cooperative and be the directress. At first, Alma was unsure she was up to the job, but she was assured that she would receive help if needed.
So, she ventured into a new experience, with her one colleague and not much in a way of space, equipment or the budget.
“Sometimes we were not sure we would make it through the season, with only two of us and so many small producers quite far away.” says Alma, remembering how it was in the first year of running the Cooperative. “We did not have a car and we needed to visit so many producers at quite large distances. So, most of the time we ended up working till late in the night.”
Today, the Cooperative has equipped offices, 11 staff on call from the Association of Agricultural producers, vehicles and a regular budget provided by the Municipality. They also work on a number of projects, enabling them to extend their services to their members. Alma adds that all of their projects are 30% co-financed by the Municipality, which so far was very supportive of the Cooperative.
In getting to the market the producers have many problems. First of all, there are property issues over the land, as well as credits that they need to extend the production. Also, there is not enough quantity as a consequence, while they also lack the cooling plant so that the larger quantities can be stored for longer.
Raspberries, blueberries and chestnuts are most commonly sold products, however there is not enough quantity to satisfy the demand of foreign markets to which they can easily sell.
“It is not easy to be a Directress of the Cooperative”, says Alma. She adds that it takes determination, hard work and good cooperation with the local authorities, who she praises all the time.
But, Alma has one more worry on her mind: she was offered by the Italian Government a grant, amongst 70 other people from Europe, to undergo a specific course held in Italy, at one of the prestigious Institutes, which will provide her with the practical knowledge in her area of work. This knowledge Alma will be able to apply in her work when she comes back in six months time. Instead to be happy about this opportunity, Alma is worried, as the course is for six months throughout the high season, from May – October 2014. “How will the Cooperative and my colleagues cope?” Alma wonders, being aware how short of staff they are in summer.
Through IFAD (International Federation for Agricultural Development) financed project, Oxfam is supporting the cooperative through the improvement of their capacity to better support their members in providing services that will improve their production capacities and enable better access to market for them. Oxfam also encourages usage of renewable energies by supplying the Cooperative with a dryer run on biomass and soon to be provided renewable energy distiller for production of essential oils from medical herbs.