Oikocredit USA’s Leah Gage has headed to Eastern Bulgaria to spend the week with our Bulgaria Country Office staff and spend time at the agricultural and credit cooperatives Oikocredit funds there. Follow her as she posts her findings from the field! @OikocreditUSA #OikoinBulgaria
“The future is in the young people.” These are the words of Jordanska Dimitrova, the trade union officer for Niva ’93, one of Oikocredit’s cooperative partners in Bulgaria.
If the future is in the young people, then Bulgaria’s future is looking statistically bleak. There is an undeniable brain drain in this country. Population growth has dropped drastically since the 80s. The birth rate is down and the population over 65 is growing. Over 1 million Bulgarians have emigrated since the 80s, most of whom are young adults.*
From observation, it’s clear that the elderly dominate the rural populations of Bulgaria. That’s in part why Bulgaria’s cooperatives are structured as they are – after forced privatization in the 90s, young inheritants of land had mostly emigrated or moved to the city, no longer carrying on the agricultural traditions of their elders.
The result: village coops banned together to rent these small parcels of land, providing these youngsters with membership in their village coop, a connection to their ancestry, and a small amount of income each year. In return, the cooperatives cultivated the land en masse, producing more lucrative and marketable amounts of produce to support themselves.
But the brain drain in Bulgaria is a problem, and according to Chairwoman Velika Slavova, her greatest fear for the future of her country is the emigration of young people. “Bulgaria used to be very strong,” she says. “The future of the country is in the young people,” says Yordanka Dimitrova, manager of the coop Trade Union.
To reverse this trend, Niva ’93 is investing in the future of her village’s young people. Hristos Slavovo (30 years), finished his masters in agronomy 3 years ago, paid for in part by the Niva cooperative. Now he is the head agronomist and manages the orchard that was developed with Oikocredit funds in 2003. Sashka Atanosova is also an agricultural specialist with Niva. At 24 she is one of the youngest members of the Niva staff, and she too has received a scholarship from Niva to study agronomy and come back to invest in her community.
Of the 103 full time employees of Niva, 13% are under age 30 and 50% are between age 30 and 40. As Chairwoman Slavova told me, reducing unemployment is the number one most important factor for her community, and it’s what will keep young people investing their efforts here in “Professor Ishirkovo” – the village of 1,600 in which they live. When I asked Hristo and Sashka if they enjoyed working at the coop, they both laughed and said “of course!” Perhaps they were putting on a bit of a show for me. But there’s no question that they’re here, working for the coop, thanks to the investment in their future by a cooperative that understands the importance of investing in young people.