How foraging for fruit is changing lives in Georgia

To mark international women’s day, Caroline Berger, Oxfam’s media officer, travelled to Georgia to find out how foraging for fruit is changing the lives of women and opening up new trade opportunities for the country

Georgia is almost entirely dependent on agricultural imports and reliant on an inefficient soviet farming system. But with Oxfam’s support things are starting to change.  To mark international women’s day, Caroline Berger, Oxfam’s media officer, travelled to Georgia to find out how foraging for fruit is changing the lives of women and opening up new trade opportunities for the country.

Galavani on the outskirts of Georgia’s capital is home to hundreds of people who have been displaced by conflict in the early 90s and more recently in 2008. Lia, like many women living here, is struggling to make ends meet and reliant on lowly state pensions to feed her children, especially during the harsh winter months.

Lia fled conflict in South Ossetia and arrived in Galavani with nothing.   During the Soviet times, life was prosperous and Lia earned a decent salary exporting home grown apples to Russia. She wistfully remembers, ‘In those days, we had enough income and each harvest would help us to live. When we came to this village, we had to start all over again. ’

To earn a living many women like Lia resorted to picking rose hips, a flavoursome berry known for its natural remedies which grows in abundance in the Georgian forests. But Lia earned little money selling rose hips to the local middle men. ‘During the harvest season it rained and the water affected the quality of our rose hips. We only received 80 tetri (20p) per kilo,’ explained Lia.

With Oxfam’s support in the form of a solar drying green house, Lia and 30 other women who have been displaced from conflict are now able to dry their rose hips and get a better price for their produce. For Lia the extra income means she can take care of her family. Lia’s eyes light up when she talks about her new business; ‘Before we had to make tough choices between putting food on the table or paying bills to heat the house. Now we’re hopeful about the future, and I have a steady income.’

For the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Lia and other women in the village are forming a cooperative and learning to reap the benefits of working together. They’re cooperative ‘‘The Gift of the Forest’ will be the first of it’s kind in Georgia. Lia explains, ‘During the Soviet times, I remember my family worked in a cooperative. We didn’t have the knowledge of how to run a cooperative or the power to make decisions. We didn’t know where our product was being sold but now we have much more control and ownership.’

Nunu is a member of the rose hip cooperative. Since joining the group, her profits have doubled. ‘Since we’ve had this greenhouse solar dryer, my income has increased by 300 lari (90 pounds) during the harvest season.’ The extra income means that Nunu can support her children’s education. She smiles, ‘Before we didn’t have enough money to pay for university but now my eldest son can finish his education.’

Rose hip juice has always been popular in Georgia due to its organic properties but few investors outside of the country knew its value. But all that changed when Oxfam and its partner the Rural Communities Development Agency (RCDA) exhibited the juice at an organic fair in London, which attracted the interest of a rich Japanese investor. Rose hip berries are famous in Japan as it’s believed they protect the immune system against radioactive materials. Since then Oxfam and the RCDA have joined forces with the private sector to buy dried rose hips from Lia’s cooperative and process this into juice for export as far as Japan.

When the new factory opens this month, it will take as many berries as the women can pick during the harvest season, turning it into juice and providing a regular income to hundreds of people in the community. The factory has the potential to produce 4000 bottles per hour, and sell some 30 tonnes at the local market.  Giorgi the head of the factory has big ambitions, ‘We plan to export 50 tonnes of juice to Japan each year. In the future our goal is to expand and double our export sales”

Rostom, the head of Oxfam’s partner organisation RCDA, is excited about the possibilities the new factory will bring. ‘The rose hip juice has been certified as organic,’ he explains.  ‘With this certificate it won’t be difficult to start exporting it to European countries.’ Rostom hopes the signing of new EU trade agreement will open up even more trade opportunities.

For Lia, the cooperative represents more than just profits. ‘This project has given me hope,’ Lia smiles warmly. ‘Every morning, I feel like my life has new meaning.’  In the future, Lia plans to expand her business and find ever more forest fruits to export abroad. She hopes that one day the markets will depend on her. For now, Lia’s next venture is picking flowers and selling them for international women’s day.

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