Centre d'investissement de la FAO

Georgian vegetable producers prove that kindness is contagious

A kind gesture by entrepreneur and food hero, Keti, helps other women through the COVID-19 pandemic
Despite the inclement weather and logistical challenges brought on by the pandemic, exporting culinary herbs to Russia has helped increase Keti’s income and keep other women employed.

A valuable encounter at an FAO -organized study tour last year gave Keti Tomeishvili, a Georgian vegetable producer, the lucrative idea of growing culinary herbs alongside her cucumbers. This opportunity, coupled with high demand for herbs in neighbouring Russia, has really paid off. Now this extra income is not only helping Keti during these difficult times brought on by the pandemic, but she is also able to help other women in her community.

Keti hails from Imereti in western Georgia. She initially began her business in 2017 by growing cucumbers in greenhouses. In this part of Georgia, greenhouses don’t require much heating in winter, making them an affordable option to grow produce all year round. They provide protection from colder weather, while also reducing the need for chemical fertilizers. The result is good quality produce with a longer shelf-life.  

Hard-working and energetic, Keti has invested in improving her business over the last couple of years – from drip irrigation to good quality seeds and better pest management.

In 2019, Keti travelled to Ukraine and the Netherlands with a small group of Georgian and Moldovan fruit and vegetable growers to see the latest in greenhouse production trends and technologies. The study tour, supported by the European Union’s EU4Business initiative, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and the Government of the Netherlands, was organized by FAO in cooperation with the Netherlands Enterprise Agency.  

It was part of a larger FAO-EBRD initiative to help fruit and vegetable growers in Georgia, Moldova, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan modernize their operations to tap into more lucrative markets. The study tour gave Keti a chance to learn more from her peers and leaders in the greenhouse industry and make valuable business contacts – from input suppliers and wholesalers to innovative producers.

One such contact, also part of the group, was Goderdzi Shavgulidze, head of the Georgian herb cooperative Kvitiri, a big exporter of culinary herbs. At the time, Keti’s greenhouse business only produced cucumbers for the local market. But after meeting Goderdzi and seeking out his advice, she set aside a section within her 2 000 square metres of greenhouse space to grow coriander. The Kvitiri cooperative then helped her sell the herbs. 

Her decision to diversify came at the right time. It opened up new markets and boosted her earnings, helping her to cope better with the pandemic’s economic shocks and putting her in a better position to support fellow workers in her community.

Keti managed to produce and export three tonnes of coriander to Russia in March despite the logistical challenges and transportation restrictions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Heavy snowstorms further complicated the situation. An avalanche just prior to this health crisis closed parts of Georgia’s border with Russia for about a week. Keti’s feat was that much more impressive.

Although she earned less than she had hoped, she still made enough to continue paying the four women who work in her greenhouse, but was unable to increase their salaries to compensate for rising food prices and a devalued currency. So Keti decided to let them use one of her five greenhouses to grow cucumbers.

“The harvest in this greenhouse will come in three weeks, and I will help them sell it,” she says, adding that the women will keep the profits, cushioning their salaries a little. 

“These women and their families have had a hard time, and I can afford to go without this profit for several months," she explains.

New reality

To date, the FAO-EBRD initiative has supported more than 20 market-oriented activities for fruit and vegetable growers in the four countries, sparking new investment interest in modern horticultural production.  

With the COVID-19 crisis creating uncertainty and hardship, FAO and the EBRD are trying to provide the most up-to-date market information possible, through widely used platforms, to help producers and agribusinesses navigate this new reality. These difficult times have also inspired countless acts of kindness and solidarity, like Keti’s to her employees, or the Georgian Dairy Association’s regular donation of dairy products to the infectious disease hospital in Tbilisi to support COVID-19 patients who are treated there.

“We have to help each other,” Keti says. “I believe kindness is contagious.”

Photo credit ©FAO/ Vladi Nikuradze