Tech upstarts power hope for Kosovo
It’s hard to be both young and optimistic in Kosovo. But instead of making a life elsewhere, Rron Cena returned after college and launched a business that he hopes will create jobs and help provide a future at home for people like himself.
Two-thirds of this small Balkan country’s 1.8 million people are under age 30, making it one of the youngest nations in Europe. Faced with a lack of prospects, roughly half of those young people say they would leave if they could.
The thousands of Kosovars who have left in recent years represent one large stream in the flood of would-be migrants causing so much political turmoil in European Union countries. Wars in Syria and Iraq still are the big drivers of migration, but EU officials say Kosovars make up the fourth-biggest number.
So, while the efforts of Cena and other young entrepreneurs are important for Kosovo, they also could have implications far beyond the Balkans.
Cena had a choice to make after graduating in 2012 from Eastern Mediterranean University in Cyprus, an EU member. Instead of starting a career in architecture in another country, he was eager to return home.
“I started thinking how can we bring back some new things ... in order to put Kosovo on the contemporary track,” he said. “Being in Kosovo was a very tough choice to make, but at the same time I have the belief that this is the place to be.”
Five years later, cigarettes and espresso at hand, he looks much like any other young Kosovar seated at one of the cafes along the capital Pristina’s central Mother Theresa Boulevard. Unlike the others, Cena is the founder and CEO of his own company, a hardware design firm specializing in desktop 3-D printers.
“Their initial reaction would be like, ‘Are you crazy?’ ” he recalled. “You can go from nine to five, and just forget about your job. In entrepreneurship, that’s not the reality.” Instead, he sees friends and family briefly, once a month. There are sleepless nights, and some nights when he does sleep, it’s in the office.
Cena said he and his associates at Formon 3D worked two years without salaries to develop their printers; a pot of seed money was too small to pay anyone. But today the company employs 10 people, is making sales and has ambitions to reach markets beyond Kosovo’s borders.
The printers could be used by architects, engineers and students to build models of their designs, he said. The largest model costs about 800 euros ($850), and the company aims to break into the European market through distribution partnerships with large retailers.
It’s a path that two young women, Albiona Berisha and Liza Gashi, also hope to follow.
When Berisha, a 21-year-old computer engineer, returned from studying in Norway, she realized that Kosovo was far behind in providing the kind of information that helps people navigate their cities and find out about events taking place.
She, a cousin and six friends founded a software development company called devICE that aims to solve the problem through websites and mobile apps.
Gashi, who studied at Arizona State University, founded the Germin project, which aims to connect experts in the diaspora with entrepreneurs in Kosovo who need technology and business expertise.
“We are so upset about how things are happening in our country,” Berisha said. “But we should change them. I think only the youth can change them.”
There is plenty that could use changing. The United Nations Development Program estimated youth unemployment in the country last year at 60 percent. And jobs that do exist pay an average monthly wage of about 360 euros ($380), according to the Ministry of Trade and Industry, making Kosovo one of the poorest countries in Europe.
Corruption also is an ongoing problem. Kosovo tied at No. 95 of 176 countries and territories in the 2016 Transparency International Corruption Perception Index.
“Kosovo’s economy grows nominally every year, mainly due to consumption and imports fueled by public sector jobs and remittances,” said independent policy analyst Besa Shahini. “This is not growth that produces jobs.”
Formerly a province of Serbia, Kosovo in the last two decades was the site of a war in which 13,000 people died and hundreds of thousands fled, followed by a period of U.N. administration before gaining independence in 2008.
But political tensions remain. Although it has been recognized by 112 countries, it still is not a member of the United Nations.
Predominantly ethnic Albanian and Muslim, the country is a crossroads where Turkish sweets shops coexist with burger and other fast-food restaurants on Boulevard Bill Clinton, named after the U.S. president who launched a bombing campaign to pressure Serbian forces to leave Kosovo.
Now, it’s Kosovars who are leaving Kosovo — more than 100,000 of them in 2014 and 2015, slightly less than half of them between 18 and 34 years old. The Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, a German pro-democracy organization, estimated that as many as half of Kosovo’s young people would emigrate if they could. Their prospects in Western Europe, however, are not good. Almost all are considered economic migrants, whose applications to stay in Germany or another EU country are turned down.
Eraldi Fazliu, a journalist who covers politics at independent media outlet Kosovo 2.0, said many Kosovo medical students have taken up studying German, believing that Germany needs doctors.
“Why do you think they leave?” he asked. “Not everyone is ready to sacrifice all their lives just believing hopelessly that something will change.”
Some things actually are improving in Kosovo. Starting a business is becoming easier. According to the World Bank’s Doing Business Report, Kosovo moved up five places last year and now stands at No. 13 of 190 economies in the ease of starting a business.
But Cena would have liked to see tax breaks available to help his startup import production materials. And the young entrepreneurs bemoaned the lack of business education.
“We didn’t know what the laws of the companies were, how to make a business plan or other things that are needed in the creation of a company,” said Florend Berisha, 21, the cousin who serves as CEO of devICE. “We had to do that on our own.”
The founders of devICE also had to rely on themselves to dig out information. They’re not getting any help from governments or organizations. Instead, they are working with business and relying on social media.
Youth is an impediment, but youthful enthusiasm and the startup spirit might prove to be the keys to success.
“I wanted to change the way almost all the young people in Kosovo think,” said Albiona Berisha, “but it’s very hard to make people believe that we can do something because we’re young.”
Still, only six months after starting devICE, she foresees a day when the company provides jobs for other Kosovars.
Gashi, 26, lauds the startup urge to launch first and work out the details on the fly. “I’ve seen growing companies in that style, and they basically fake it till they make it,” she said.
Kosovo’s youthful population has a lot of potential, she added. What it needs is a stronger sense of urgency.
“The system needs more rebels,” she said. “If young people would stand up more, perhaps things can change here.”
Bernardo Reyes Facio is an alumnus of the School of International Training (SIT) Study Abroad program in the Balkans, where he produced this report in association with Round Earth Media, a nonprofit organization that supports the next generation of global journalists.
Kosovo is a disputed territory landlocked in the central Balkan Peninsula in southeastern Europe. The country declared independence from Serbia in February 2008 as the Republic of Kosovo.
1,907,592 Total population (2016)
0.64 Growth rate percentage (2015 estimate)
17.09 Birth rate
per 1000 people
7.0 Death rate
per 1000 people
71.3 Life expectancy