Ilia Kvitaishvili, an agricultural expert working with Counterpart, discusses agricultural development with local farmers.

By Jennifer O’Riordan

Blueberries are becoming increasingly popular in Georgia – and now experts are hoping the nutrient-packed fruit will help to revive the country’s ailing agricultural export sector, particularly to European markets.

“Blueberries grow very well in this climate,” says Ilia Kvitaishvili, an agricultural expert and consultant. “They also work well in unproductive fallow tea fields where the soil lacks nutrients due to years of continuous tea cultivation.”

Georgia’s agricultural sector is struggling. Although 44 percent of Georgia is used for agriculture and the sector employed around 47 percent of the total national labor force, it only contributed to 10 percent of the nation’s GDP, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

Georgia’s agricultural output could be increased three to five times over with proper management and investment, experts say.

Blueberries and their potential are part of an in-depth assessment of Georgia’s agricultural sector led by Counterpart International and funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development. The results will be part of an essential analysis for USAID’s Country Development Cooperation Strategy. USAID Georgia is one of the largest donors to the agriculture sector in the former Soviet state.

Counterpart agriculture sector staff and expert consultants began fact-finding and analysis activities, interpreting the data and providing USAID with key recommendations.

“Blueberries have a high value on international markets, making them a prime candidate for stepping up trade with the European Union,” explains Counterpart Senior Director Patrick Sommerville. “Our assessment recommends a dual-pronged strategy focusing on some commodities for import substitution, and others as high-value exports. With regard to the latter, blueberries appear to fit the bill.”

The subtropical climate in west Georgia favors a wide variety of crops, including citrus fruits and tea. Viticulture and fruit production prevail in the east, while livestock can successfully be raised throughout the country.

While blueberries present export opportunities, Sommerville and Kvitaishvili found that poor infrastructure makes it hard to improve farming methods and get produce to market. Credit is difficult to access and loans are expensive. Most Georgian farmers struggle to make a decent living, earning less than $150 a month.

To compound matters, the 2008 conflict between Georgia and Russia resulted in the internal displacement of around 130,000 people – of which 26,000 are still unable to return to their homes. Many of those forced to flee left behind not only their homes but also farms, livestock and equipment: their entire means for generating income.

In 2010, agriculture became a development priority for the Government and in early 2011 the Georgian Ministry of Agriculture’s budget increased by 72 percent from the previous year. This combined with efforts by international organizations are set reinvigorate the country’s agriculture sector: improving the lives of thousands.