Harvesting natural resources for local growth
Mladen Orašanin loves nature. He is also devoted to his community. These were two of the forces that inspired him to turn his family’s decades-long tradition of gathering and selling local herbs and fruits into a registered enterprise. “There are not many concrete job opportunities around here,” says Orašanin, who is based in the village of Zljebovi, near Sokolac in eastern Bosnia and Herzegovina. “I was, and still am, convinced that we must rely on domestic potentials and use our natural resources.”
Orašanin established Bilje i Ljekobilje, or “Herbs and Medicinal Plants”, in 2015. The company cultivates, collects, processes, and distributes a wide variety of local aromatic plants, forest fruits, and mushrooms for food and other applications, such as essential oils. “It was time to raise the family tradition to a new level,” Orašanin explains. “That was when I began to look into the market, see how we could make this a mature business.”
He found help at Sarajevo Regional Development Agency (SERDA) through a mentoring program supported by the EFSE Entrepreneurship Academy. Thanks to SERDA’s support, Orašanin quickly discovered that there was no business like Bilje i Ljekobilje in the surrounding area. This meant plenty of opportunity, of course, but also a lack of peer support and knowledge exchange. SERDA was able to fill the gaps. “Their support was so valuable,” remarks Orašanin, “especially with organisation and management of the company and discovering the requirements of the market.”
What is more, SERDA encouraged Orašanin to apply for the EFSE Entrepreneurship Tournament in 2018. It was at this national competition, sponsored by EFSE and supported by SERDA and Mozaik – another local accelerator partnered with EFSE – that Orašanin was able to impress an audience of more than 200 investors, international financial institutions, government representatives, and other experts of the promise of Bilje i Ljekobilje. He was elated when the judges announced that his company had been awarded a grant of EUR 10,000 to invest in its future.
Orašanin used the money to substantially scale up his operations. Specifically, he was able to purchase a machine that he had long been eyeing to help harvest chamomile flowers. “It precisely selects and separates out flowers to prepare them for making essential oils. We have now been able to start a chamomile plantation on 10 hectares of land. In addition, we received a certification for organic production in 2019, so things are really picking up.” Orašanin reflects: “The whole experience had a significant impact on the development of my business.”
Today, Bilje i Ljekobilje distributes both locally and abroad, which involves hiring more than 100 subcontractors from all over Bosnia and Herzegovina.
But what about the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on micro and small enterprises? Has Bilje i Ljekobilje needed to cancel any agreements with harvesters or distributors?
Orašanin values his ability to contribute to employment in his community. “We have renewed all our contracts,” he says emphatically. “The crisis has certainly had a major impact; everyone is affected. We feel it especially in the restrictions on international mobility, because we have been ramping up our exports. But we just landed a major cooperation with a big German company, and there is plenty of work. The weather has also been promising this year. I have hopes that things will stabilize. Because we have big plans coming up.”