Albania capitalizes on herbal medicine boom during pandemic

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Over 100,000 people are employed in the herb and aromatic plant industry in Albania. / Gent Shkullaku / AFP

Over 100,000 people are employed in the herb and aromatic plant industry in Albania. / Gent Shkullaku / AFP

Albania saw a 20% increase in demand for medicinal and aromatic herbs in the first quarter of 2021, fueled by the pandemic and by those looking for natural remedies to boost their immune systems.

Sage, lavender, and blueberries are some of the most popular products in Europe, the United States, and even Australia. These herbs are grown on the foothills of the mountain range that borders the border with North Macedonia.

The town of Shergas sits in the shadow of the Mali i Thate mountain and is the center of a thriving industry employing over 100,000 people, a welcome achievement in one of the poorest countries in Europe.

The first weeks of summer are the picking season for blueberries, a plant traditionally valued for its ability to boost metabolism and resistance to infections. From the first light of day, dozens of pickers wearing wide-brimmed hats sweep the field to harvest the bright blue flowers as they weave their way between swarms of bees and butterflies.

The headgear provides shelter from the sun and once their work is done, the blueberries are taken to dark rooms to preserve their color before being dried and shipped overseas.

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Demand has skyrocketed since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic – a “silver lining” for Altin Xhaja, who runs Albrut, a company that has been able to expand its fields to step up the wildflower harvest.

In 2020, Albania exported more than 14,000 tons of medicinal and aromatic herbs worth $ 59 million. This was 15% more than the previous year, according to official figures.

“It’s a race against time. We have to be quick,” said Xhaja. “Blueberries are the most expensive right now; a kilogram of dried flowers will cost around 30 euros ($ 35.39).”

Trade sanctions between the United States and China have benefited the 30 Albanian companies authorized to export the plants.

For Filip Gjoka, owner of a factory north of Tirana, the trade dispute “has forced many Western players to turn to the Albanian market”.

Video editor: Pedro Duarte


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