lettuce growing conditions checked in a lab

Skilling up the Western Balkans agri-food sector: digitalising, greening

At a time when food supply and distribution is under the microscope as a result of the war in Ukraine, along with the move towards more digitalisation and greening, improving and developing the agri-food sector in key EU accession countries is coming into sharper focus.

Agri-food has been identified as a common priority area for economic growth in the Western Balkans, where the sector accounts for almost a quarter of total manufacturing but just 10% of added gross economic value. It is this disparity that makes the sector a key target for skilling, upskilling, and reskilling through sector cooperation, participants at an event organised by the European Training Foundation (ETF) heard, on 29 June.

The online launch event entitled Skills for Enterprise Development – Skilling up the Western Balkans agri-food sector: digitalising, greening was opened by Manuela Prina, Head of the Skills Identification and Development Unit at the ETF.

Manuela noted that working together with small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), business intermediary bodies, training providers and policymakers made it possible to address skills needs for job creation in a sector that has the potential to innovate. In a region where unemployment averaged nearly 14% in 2020, with youth unemployment at 40%, human resources are in need of development, and coordinated skills development in agri-food is key to opening up new opportunities.

Designed to address the priority for growth and competitiveness in the Western Balkans 6 agri-food sector, the event emphasised the importance of both green and digital approaches to improving productivity, sales and distribution of raw materials and finished foodstuffs.

“We are looking into one of the most pressing questions from employers: how do we make skills part of the puzzle that helps them embrace opportunities in the future,” Manuela said.

Views from keynotes speakers

Tatjana Shterjova Dushkovska, General Secretary, Western Balkans 6 Chamber Investment Forum, agreed that agri-food is “an exceptionally important sector for the development of the Western Balkan region”.

“It has the power to be transformative – which is why it is one of the focus points for setting up the common regional market,” she said.

The common regional market in the Western Balkans is also a step towards developing economic and policy measures in line with EU standards for countries on the accession ladder for EU membership.

“All of you working in the sector know that this region has much potential for development for growth. Skills development is key to grasping the opportunities that are available here,” she noted.

All aspects of the sector – from farm to processing, distribution and export supply chains – could indeed be revolutionised with the right input of skills.

Various platforms and resources to support such a shift exist in institutions across the region and the EU – from the Western Balkans 6 Chamber of Commerce’s free databases to access potential partners, to the Budapest-based European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT), which has established expertise in supporting agri-food sector development.

Antoaneta Angelova-Krasteva, Director for Innovation, Digital Education and International Cooperation, Directorate-General for Education, Youth, Sport and Culture, said that by concentrating on the skills dimension of improving the agri-food sector, participants would be aligning themselves with the EU’s new emphasis on research and innovation.

“We are strongly committed to innovation, it is key to overcoming the consequences of the pandemic and to boosting European economic strength and competitiveness,” she said.

Antoaneta stressed the importance of accessing key instruments and tools – such as those offered by the EIT in Budapest, where over the past 10 years its specialists worked with 2,000 partners and supported more than 3,000 start-ups and scale-ups.

Nikola Radovanovic, Senior Economic and Policy Analyst at the Joint Research Centre noted that smart specialisation is an evidence-based approach to innovation that looks to “engage the entire community – business, academic, civil organisations and policymakers”.

A bottom-up approach has also helped mitigate the effects of special interest lobby groups in policy development in the agri-food sector.

Ivan Stefanic, Programme Manager for food chain technologies, novel and sustainable food at the European Innovation Council (EIC) and SMEs Executive Agency said that any skills input into the agri-food sector much addresses viability, sustainability and added value.

Care must be taken in developing new policies to ensure that they do not add to greenhouse gases, or balance out other processes, particularly trends towards deforestation and losing viable agricultural land.

With funding ranging between EUR 2.5 million for grants and EUR 15 million for equity investment in an overall annual financing package worth EUR 1.7 billion, the EIC is a key partner for change in the agri-food sector.

In a focus discussion on the use of technology in the agri-food sector, Vesna Bengin, Senior Researcher at the BioSense Institute, Serbia, agreed that the digital transformation of agriculture – of which her institute is a regional leader – is a critical element in the development of the sector.

A recent survey of Serbian farms found that many farmers are fully aware of the advantages of digital technologies, and more than half are university educated.

“One in three Serbian farmers is already using digital technologies,” Vesna said.

How farmers are using those technologies, and the degree to which they are using them efficiently – there lies the challenge.

“When asked what they needed most to boost production, rather than grants or loans, farmers said they most needed knowledge. Even though we are talking about people with higher education in agriculture, they know that they lack the knowledge they could apply in their sector.”

The need to engage with the IT sector was also highlighted. Although Serbia is very successful at developing software for international clients, it has few links to domestic agriculture and the needs of farmers.

“This is essentially a communication issue – more than USD 20 million in grants has been given to help the IT sector develop specific digital tools for the agricultural sector. But mindsets are different and there remains a lack of communication.”

In a panel discussion on the green r/evolution in agriculture, Tom Verbaeten of CNH Industrial – whose company specialises in equipment and services for agriculture and construction worldwide – noted that applying technological solutions to agriculture can help farmers meet green targets and improve productivity. He added that “precision farming” could contribute to a greener planet.

“Customer demand is changing – demand for food will increase by 70% by 2050 – and this at a time when there will be less arable land available to farm.”

Across a farmer’s fleet of vehicles (in the field and on the farm), using equipment that could record and update data in real time could help predict maintenance schedules for expensive pieces of kit such as combine harvesters. Ensuring equipment is working means less time lost to maintenance and more efficient use of fuel and other resources.

Intelligent nozzles could help ensure straight lines when planting and minimise waste when spraying.

On the farm, all data collected from tractor, harvesting, satellites, weather and other sources could come together in software packages that are analysed to advise farmers on what to do at the right moment to have the best chances for the highest yield in the growing season.

The result will be “increased yields, lower fuel use, and lower CO2 emissions”, Tom said.

In wrapping up the conference, Zigo Rutkovskis of the Directorate-General for Agriculture and Rural Development noted that agri-food is a key sector for reform in the pre-accession plans of Western Balkan EU candidate countries.

“Investment in change and improvement, particularly in terms of the green and digital transformation, would not only promise economic benefits but broader social and political opportunities in the future,” he said.

Learn more about the ETF’s project

Skilling up the Western Balkans agri-food sector: greening, digitalising, the ETF's recently launched project focuses on SMEs. It primarily targets:

  • innovative SMEs involved in areas such as digital transformation and sustainable transition of the agri-food sector;
  • agri-food SMEs looking to make an innovation shift;
  • business associations and industry clusters supporting SME internationalisation;
  • education and training providers involved in innovation and skills formation in the agri-food area.

The project fits into a broader EU approach to improving agri-food businesses across the Western Balkans.

What next?

The project will be actively engaging actors from the EU and the Western Balkan region to address skills needs in supporting the development, greening and innovation of the agribusiness sector. In September, stakeholders will meet in Turin under an initiative that the ETF is preparing in partnership with the Torino Chamber of Commerce.

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