That the world is orange shaped you learn in the first grades. Same is valid for Saranda of this mid-December with the only exception that locals here tend to relate more to mandarins which they keep in higher regard. Only 20 kilometers adrift of a quiet Saranda where not few live but no one is heard, your whole senses feel the mandarins. Only 20 minutes further on from one of Albania’s most wanted summer touristic spots, you realize easily that you have crossed the Land Of Mandarins. That strong is the aroma outpouring and keeps getting more intense as you approach the heart of such land.

You leave behind the many buildings out skirting Saranda and ride along fields and smooth-rising hills. While driving, your right eye catches glimpses of large swaths of Butrint Lake, Ksamil roof-hills and you cannot miss to notice the sea of citrus plantations spreading regularly in the valley.

You know you are heading to the right destination when from an enormous billboard; USAID and local government welcome you to the Land of Mandarins. It encloses simply everything in between of a triangle of Xarra, Mursi and Konispol, where the best Albanian mandarins are cultivated. So good and tasty those mandarins are that the local myth is they fly from the trees to hit foreign markets. That is why you may have not tasted them as yet. The good side of the trip is that today the golden mandarins still lie on their trees even not for long. The sheer number of trucks waiting to get them on board suggests that they are ready for harvest time. It is December 12, 2015 and whole population living in these lands, celebrate the Festival of Mandarin, basically their first harvest. USAID, AAC Lushnja and local government for the 4th year on a run, organize the event that draws crowds from the residents, citrus cultivators, agriculture specialists, bank representatives, government officials, but above all big numbers of children, whose DNA may well be mandarin tinted.

AgroWeb is as well here in the center of what the locals call the new Mursi. We are here for the Festival, but definitely after the mandarins, too. While kids and animators have lit up the big stage, lines of folk dancers show off their flashy traditional costumes in elegant dances from old times. If you manage to take your eyes off the stage, you get to see large groups of people walking along the fair stands while trying the sweet taste of mandarins.

Festival of Mandarin, Mursi, Konispol. Photo: AgroWeb

There are cultivators sampling each other’s harvest, merchants seeking mandarin deals, consolidators and exporters, executives from major banks such Raiffeissen, IntesaSanpaolo, American Bank of Investment, NOA – all involved in supporting agribusiness and other products of the area. USAID Albania officials tell AgroWeb that back in 2006, the citrus cultivated area was only a mere 100 hectares. USAID has been running projects to support the area from 2007 and fast forward to 2015 the change is enormous. “Today, there are more than 724 hectares, of which account for 12,000 metric tons of mandarins. Since 50 percent of trees are producing, in the coming years production levels could double.” This region has significant citrus production which is exported to Kosovo, Czech Republic, Lithuania, and Serbia. USAID has worked with the growers and community since 2007 to revitalize citrus production after the collapse of the industry in the 1990's. Currently, USAID support is focused on improving yield, quality, and safety through training and assistance to growers, as well as improving market infrastructure and linkages.
The mandarin cultivators continue to be restless. They are feverish about harvesting, uploading trucks with mandarin crates to hit the shelves of foreign markets. Dhimo Kote, one the biggest cultivators and mandarin consolidators in the area, bearing a big smile states for AgroWeb – “The mandarin yield has been very good this year, but the big challenges are still ahead of us, there are new trees to come in production and new spaces to cultivate because all these orchards that you can see did not just grow by themselves overnight”. Dhimo Kote says it is important for the cultivators to stay united as a strong community – “It is time to rally together in order to better benefit from our own experiences and to speak with the same voice in order to grow our sales and keep investing in more orchards. For the moment let’s enjoy the fruit of our hard labor” states Dhimo Kote.

Speaking from Xarra, the Minister of Agriculture Edmond Panariti calls this year’s yield as historic and beams of optimism. “The mandarin yield is on a record high, reaching 17 thousand metric tons. We aim to put to production some 1,000 more hectares of citrus to reach 40 thousand tons of annual yield” – declares Minister Panariti.

The head of a big bank branch present in the event, Ardit Cikuli of ABI Bank says that the Konispol area has an even greater potential to fulfill. “There are opportunities to further increase the production, but the cultivators need to grow more the sense of community. The term ‘cooperative’ has a negative connotation in these lands due to past negative experiences, yet the cultivators can benefit more from projects like the USAID’s SAVs one. If united, the cultivators can better negotiate prices from exporters” – he states for AgroWeb.

“Last year the sense of community made it possible for mandarin prices to keep at 50 ALL per kilo, while this years, some cracks have happened inside that community making ways for mandarin deals of 40 ALL/kg in some isolated cases. If the cultivators lose ground, it will be the exporters gain. The whole area serves only 20 per cent of the entire Albanian market, the majority of produce goes to foreign markets. One can simply see the potential for growth” – Ardit Cikuli adds. Other bank representatives declare that the banking system is very much involved to support plans to expand cultivation in order to see a financially sound Konispol.

Still, mandarin cultivators are not over the moon. Persistent and tireless, definitely they are indeed. Steps adrift the awesome Mursi Lake, they well know what to improve and keep their issues to themselves, while sharing their yield celebration with us, the mandarin lovers. May be not over the moon, but under the gazing sunshine these mandarins twinkle like gold./