Creating plum jobs in Armenia

Posted by Annemarie Papatheofilou Creative Manager

28th Oct 2013

Anetchka selling fruit at the roadside market

 

Annemarie Papatheofilou has just returned from Armenia where she met a group of feisty women who, with Oxfam's support, are building a business from the ground up, and who won't stop until their home-grown fruit jam is a household name.

The first thing I notice about Emma  is her black-stained fingers.  She is shaking my hand with an enthusiastic vice-like grip, and the colour is hard to miss.

I have travelled just over 200km from Yeravan, Armenia's capital, to Ayrum, a tiny town near the Georgian border, and I'm here to visit the newly-formed Lchkadzor Co-op.

Emma is one of the first members of the co-op I meet and my curiosity gets the better of me, so I ask about her hands. She explains that day after day spent picking blackberries, plums, rosehips and - the worst culprit -walnuts, has left every fruit picker and farmer here with a permanent stain on their skin.

Building a future

Twenty years ago, Emma and her husband were earning a regular salary in the Soviet-owned canning factories. But when, like many other Soviet states, Armenia won its independence, the factories were closed - leaving the town, and the region without jobs.

The Lchkadzor Co-op was officially formed in 2011, when the women decided that the only way to make a living from their fruit was to find a way to build a small fruit-processing plant and run their own business.

It's an ambitious plan, but Oxfam has supported them from the outset - helping them develop a business plan, and providing low-interest loans and start-up capital for the almost-finished processing plant: " One of the first things we discussed when we formed the co-op was whether we could build and run our fruit-processing plant,"says Emma. "We are determined to make it a success."

Plum jobs

For Emma, her fruit-stained hands are a badge of honour - a daily reminder that although times have been tough, she has been able to take care of her children by selling the wild fruit and nuts that grow in the nearby forests.

It's hard work, and in the past few years, people have left the region to find work abroad, so sales from the roadside markets have dropped dramatically. But thanks to the co-op, all that's set to change. When the new processing plant opens next spring it will take as much fruit as the women can pick,  turning it into syrups and jams, and providing jobs, and a regular income to around 2,000 people in the community.

The road to independence

The women are really excited about what they've achieved so far - and the possibilities that the plant will bring:

"We are really excited about the new fruit-processing plant," says Emma. "The whole community is behind the enterprise, and when I see the first jars of jam being produced I am going to feel very proud."

For now though, Emma has to sell her fruit where she can. So the next day, bleary-eyed from the 6.00am start, I join Emma and her son as she looks for blackberries at the edge of the forest. With their blue plastic buckets waiting to be filled they start to pick only the ripest fruit from the rows of blackberry bushes. I try to help, but unlike Emma, I'm too worried about scratching my hands on the sharp thorns, so am pretty useless.

When the buckets are full, we walk back to the main road that runs from the capital, Yerevan, towards Georgia.   We join a dozen or so other fruit pickers at a roadside stall and find a place to display our buckets.  The competition is tough and everyone tries to pile their fruit as high and as creatively as possible to tempt the passing drivers.

It's a game of chance and the cars that stop seem to be getting fewer.   So it's good to know that Emma and her neighbours will soon be saying goodbye to the roadside lottery.

Oxfam's work in Armenia



Blog post written by Annemarie Papatheofilou

Creative Manager

More by Annemarie Papatheofilou