Interview with Marika Olson, Economic Growth Office Director, USAID/Georgia

Speeches Shim

Thursday, November 5, 2020
Marika Olson, Economic Growth Office Director, USAID/Georgia

“Diplomat” Magazine

What are USAID’s main development priorities in Georgia?

Globally, USAID’s overarching goal is to help our partner countries advance toward self-reliance, meaning building their capacity to plan, finance, and implement their own solutions to development challenges. We call this the Journey to Self-Reliance, and that journey is adapted to each country’s specific needs. In Georgia, that means focusing on three pillars: building an economy that can support high value employment; supporting the development of a Western democracy that is responsive to the needs of its people; and building resilience against malign influence, be it from the Kremlin or within Georgia’s borders.

Taking that last point first, USAID fully acknowledges the challenges Georgia faces when it comes to malign actors, internal and external. That’s why, for the first time, USAID/Georgia’s new development strategy specifically targets malign influence. Our efforts are providing innovative tools to help Georgia combat the growing threats of disinformation and cyberattacks, expanding our work on energy security and economic diversification, and creating more opportunities in regions of the country that have been isolated from the national economy.

The second point, responsive democracy, goes hand in hand with that response to malign influence. Ultimately, it is the Georgian people who must actively shape the country’s future through political participation and by countering disinformation and malign influence. That cannot be done without a strong, informed citizenry partnered with a proactive, citizen-centered democracy. USAID/Georgia’s programs work with Georgian civil society to build a political system that meets the needs of all Georgians.

Last, but certainly not least, USAID/Georgia prioritizes work with the government and the private sector to drive inclusive economic growth, with the focus on creating high value employment opportunities across the country. We work in a variety of sectors to make Georgian enterprises more competitive, to attract innovative investment, and to support a business-enabling environment.

How does agriculture assistance help advance economic development in Georgia?

WIth over 8,000 years of documented agricultural development, agriculture remains a mainstay of the Georgian economy, and farming remains the most common Georgian profession. However, while agriculture puts food on Georgia’s tables, it does not currently provide high incomes, nor does it sufficiently support rural economies to share in the prosperity achieved across Georgia. And that is where USAID assistance comes in.

Our focus in the agricultural sector is on supporting the adoption of innovative, transformative technologies and practices that can boost Georgia’s yields, improve the quality of the goods produced, and ensure their proper management post-harvest to increase their value on the domestic and international market. Our programs work with the government and the private sector to spur investments across the sector, from innovative mobile apps and high quality inputs, from the farmer’s field to the processing facility. These investments drive growth and prosperity in the sector, and raise the incomes of producers, while providing even more employment opportunities throughout the value chain.

What are some recent success stories in agriculture to which USAID has contributed?

I first want to highlight our work in the hazelnut sector. In 2015, hazelnut production plummeted when a new pest arrived - the Brown Marmorated Stink Bug. Since then, USAID has worked closely with both the Ministry of Environmental Protection and Agriculture and our private sector partners, including Ferrero/AgriGeorgia, to reverse these losses. Together, we have raised the quality and quantity of hazelnut production beyond pre-BMSB levels, producing more than 50,000 tons of high-quality hazelnuts fit for the international market this year alone. As the hazelnut sector continues to prosper, we look forward to diversifying into the production of other nuts as well.

We’ve also doubled down on our private sector focus, putting it at the heart of our work. One recent success is our work with Smart Logistics, a vegetable grower in Mtskheta municipality, which achieved international quality certification standards with our help. With that certification, they are now supplying vegetables to McDonald’s Georgian restaurants, the first domestic company to do so. We expect Smart Logistics’ success to pave the way for other Georgian producers to sell their products to the world, creating more high value employment for Georgians in the process.

Finally, I’d like to talk about the innovative work we’ve been doing with technology, even more important in this physically-distanced era of COVID-19. USAID partners with the Georgian Farmers Association (GFA), the Georgian Farmers' Distribution Company (GFDC), and the Adjara Hospitality Group on the continual development of the Agronavti app. It started in 2018 as a mobile business-to-business app linking local producers to leading hotels and restaurants. Since then, it has expanded to provide additional services to farmers, including technical assistance for crops, and links to land auctions. Agronavti’s successes have won it lasting support beyond USAID; in September, Agronavti got an additional boost in the form of a GEL 100,000 grant from Georgia’s Innovation and Technology Agency (GITA). The grant from GITA allows GFA to integrate Artificial Intelligence into the platform, making it even more effective in meeting the needs of Georgia’s farmers and the hospitality industry.  So far, the app has helped more than 4,000 Georgian farmers to generate $4.4 million in sales, many of whom are based near the Administrative Boundary Lines in Samegrelo and Shida Kartli.

Across the sector, USAID/Georgia is dedicated to private sector engagement, supporting agricultural enterprises to increase quality, expand their businesses, and diversify. A prosperous agricultural sector is vital to an economy that delivers better employment opportunities across Georgia.

What’s next for U.S. assistance to Georgia’s agriculture sector?

I’ve been impressed with the progress of Georgia’s agriculture sector. I’ve visited state-of-the-art processing facilities and greenhouses producing the latest commercial varieties, and seen firsthand how Georgia’s agricultural sector is increasingly sophisticated, innovative, and market oriented. However, challenges remain, and the agriculture sector can still improve its capacity for high value employment and support for rural economies. USAID’s new development strategy addresses this by increasing the sophistication of our programs and increasing our focus on private sector-led engagement, working directly with businesses, business associations, and the Georgian government to build a robust agricultural sector in support of a more prosperous Georgia.

We will increasingly rely on the private sector to guide our strategy, partnering with enterprises to co-invest in new ventures rather than simply providing grants. We will also invest in the sectors that we believe have the capacity to support greater growth and employment. For example, we recently launched a program to help Georgia’s potato farmers produce a higher-quality commercial product in larger, more consistent quantities. Working in partnership with the International Potato Center (CIP), one of the world’s leading agricultural research and development organizations, we are helping Georgian farmers meet domestic needs, with an eye toward supplying Georgia’s substantial market for processed potato chips and fries.

Across the board, USAID/Georgia sees that the best and brightest way forward for Georgia’s agricultural sector is through partnership with the private sector, and close coordination with the Georgian government as it provides greater services and support to Georgian agribusinesses. As we continue to work together, and embrace the progress inherent in our new strategy, I look forward to seeing the cornucopia of Georgian agriculture take its rightful place in the global economy.