Unusual, but Bulgarian
How is the business with “exotic” products, such as kiwi, shiitake mushrooms and microalgae, developing in our country
“Would you like a jam from Bulgarian kiwi?” – Albena asked me at a farmer’s market. And she won me over with a story about a kiwi family farm with a 40-year history. Kunka tempted me with sapid shiitake mushrooms from Karlovo. At the end of my walk, I also got fresh spirulina from a factory near Pomorie. This walk enriched me with unexpected tastes, but it also allowed me to think upon how long I have considered some new food products only as “imported” ones.
According to data of the European Commission from the beginning of 2018, the areas with organic agricultural products in Bulgaria have increased by 35% between 2010 and 2016. Besides our well-known fruits, vegetables and grains, the market for “exotic” products that are grown in our country, and not just experimentally, is opening up more and more.
“Everyone can grow tomatoes and cucumbers...” We tried with einkorn wheat and valerian, but we realized that “our thing” is the shiitake wood mushroom,” says Kunka Petkova from BioWay.
Stoyan Asenov and she are former military officers. In 2014, they enrolled in a course by a Bulgarian representative of a Japanese company, who gave them first-hand guidance in the original technology for production of shiitake on round wood, and not on the so-called “synthetic logs” (similar to the cultivation of field mushrooms).
“We have invested all our savings and have taken a credit to build a stable production and establish franchise farms. We prepared a 30-year plan that we follow strictly. Everything was trial and error,” say the partners in business and in life.
They set up the company in 2015 when they tried the first mushroom from their own farm, located on 1 hectare in Banya, Karlovo. “It was better that we did not try the substrate mushrooms – if we had done it, we would probably not get involved in their production. Mushrooms grown on oak are much more delicious and extremely useful. Often, the first reaction of people on the farmers’ markets is: “I have tried them but I don’t like them,” but after trying out our products, their faces light up. Children are our greatest fans.” Kunka learned how to cook the mushroom in at least 100 ways to offer clients options for using it in a bean soup, stuffed peppers, salads...
BioWay is the largest producer of shiitake mushrooms on oak logs in Bulgaria. It offers them fresh, dried and canned, in supermarket chains, on the Internet and in restaurants. Their canned mushrooms have no analogue on the world market.
A franchise with 10 seasonal bio-farms under the name BioWay Farms was established at the beginning of 2017. Without advertising aggressively, many Bulgarians living abroad, who were looking for a profitable agribusiness, contacted them. “In Bulgaria, there are wonderful conditions for the cultivation of the highest class of shiitake. Any elderly lady with a larger yard can make a farm for the wood mushroom and feed a whole family. But their professional farming requires great investments, quality wood material, and attention. We have great requirements towards our partners and quality is important to us. We have inquiries for export from the Baltic Countries, Romania, Germany, even from Japan, but for now, we sell only in Bulgaria,” Stoyan Asenov ends.
After the delicious lunch with shiitake mushrooms, I opened the jar of jam from Bulgarian kiwi. Albena and Kostadinka Georgieva from Kiwi.bg offer it on the farmer’s markets as a (non)typical local product.
500 decares of kiwi were planted in Petrich in 1978 as an experiment. Until 1994, the municipal farm grew them and exported all of them. “Our family inherited 5 decares, and we continued to cultivate it,” Albena says. The first year, they threw away 1.5 tons of fruit because they were not prepared to trade it. Then, they discovered that through Facebook, they can offer it to people who wanted to lead a healthy lifestyle. Since it is only fresh for three months, they decide to use it to make jam, tea of dried kiwi, dried fruit bars, chocolate, soap, fruit wine, liqueur and vinegar.
“Bulgarian kiwi is smaller, more sugary and tastier. We do not apply pesticides when it grows nor any chemical fertilizers in order to not lose its quality, but because of its size, we cannot export it. We only work with family and friends. It is difficult to hire seasonal workers because they prefer Greece. We cannot find people, who are willing to work, from the labour bureau, either. We would like more farmers in Petrich area to grow kiwi because it has the potential to become a typical local product,” Albena says.
There are about 200 decares of kiwi in the area, but the processing industry has no interest in developing this niche. Our family sends the kiwi fruits for jam and chocolate to Plovdiv and the region; it is dried in Haskovo. “We are looking for people willing to experiment because “a small farm means small revenue.”
Albena is not optimistic that their children will continue the production. In her opinion, in its present state, it is not attractive to them, although it is the younger people with an interest in healthy lifestyles who are their most loyal clients. “In five years, we’ve taught them to look for Bulgarian kiwi, to look for clean and seasonal food. But we work at two places. If the state wants to keep people in small settlements, it must really support small farms. An agribusiness can be successful if it is backed up with adequate financial results. For now, we are working, and whatever happens, happens,” she ends.
My day ended with my first bite of fresh spirulina from a farm near Pomorie. Ivaylo Stoev from Algee Bulgaria told me how coming from e-commerce, he was involved in the production of microalgae without knowing anything about them.
“In 2011, I came across information on the application of microalgae in different industries. This was in line with my desire for an innovative “green” business. I founded the company two years later with my own money – I transferred everything from one of my businesses to the other, I suffered many failures, but with persistence and support from family and friends, I went through the hardships,” he says. Ivaylo has an economic education, but in a few years, he has become an expert in the industrial cultivation of microalgae, thanks to both self-learning and to the support of his colleagues.
The developer entrepreneur started thinking: “Why not consuming the spirulina fresh? It is probably the most popular type of microalgae in Bulgaria. We created a site and our first clients were people who use spirulina in dry form. They liked the fresh pasta because of the high bioavailability of the active ingredients, because it has no unpleasant taste and smell or suspicious origin.”
Their first pilot plant for spirulina cultivation was built near Pomorie. There, they introduced the first industrial bioreactor for microalgae in Bulgaria and probably on the Balkan Peninsula. “We made all the possible errors on a small scale. We improved the technology and, at the same time, we developed a line of innovative food supplements to strengthen the immune system to support haemoglobin, iron deficiency, etc.”
Today, the challenges that the company is facing are the construction of their new production facilities near Stara Zagora, establishing the brand on the domestic market and the export and development of new products. “On a daily basis, clients are faced with the question what would be best for their health. We are not very interested in what our competitors do; what is important to us is to do our job in the best way possible,” Ivaylo says. This year, exports of fresh spirulina and food supplements to Romania will begin, with interest shown from England, Italy and Germany. One thing is certain – microalgae are a business that inspires him and he strives for the best in and for it.