Her love for her homeland and determination to create a pioneering business on her native island of Chios in Greece have opened the doors to unimaginable international potential for young Greek farmer Argyro Koutsouradi and her rapidly growing, organic aromatic herb business, Myrovolos Organics.
A shining example of start-up agricultural entrepreneurship, Koutsouradi launched her produce and processing business from scratch, without much family tradition in farming, immediately after graduating as an Agronomist with a masters degree in Plant Production and Agricultural Experimentation.
Within just two years of going into business, she is not only an acclaimed entrepreneur selling across Europe and in the US, but a volunteer mentor to aspiring young farmers in Greece as well as worldwide.
“It was a risk for me when I started. As I approached graduation year, I realized that my potential would be limited either in the public sector, or as an owner of an agronomist office in Chios, since there are already plenty, for such a small island in Greece.
“I told my family that I had decided to grow my own aromatic herbs and launch a vertical processing unit to create added value, as the business would make very little profit if focused solely on production.”
Farmer receives help from Greece, EU
With a small amount of capital from her parents and eight acres of fallow farmland that was owned by her grandmother, Koutsouradi put her business plan into motion in 2015, while still studying for her masters, to get a head start in the lengthy process required to obtain the organic certifications that she was aiming for.
A small state grant from the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) as a young farmer was also approved by the Greek state, 70% of which she has received upfront, as per European Union regulations.
Although this start-up capital was indispensable for her launch, it was quickly spent on preparing a small part of her land for cultivation by setting up irrigation, buying seeds and paying for certifications, as well as getting the necessary heavy farming work completed.
Financing limitations have prevented the young farmer from scaling up as fast as she would have wished to, since she still can’t afford machinery or staff and does all the work manually, with the help of her father.
Nonetheless, Koutsouradi has invested everything she earns into expanding the business by adding more acres of land and more types of herbs since opening for business in 2018.
“The Young Farmers’ funding provided by the government is not enough for creating a vertical processing unit. I understand that financing programs might not have been used correctly by some beneficiaries in the past, but new applicants trying to invest the funding appropriately should not have to “carry the can,” she states.
“The government’s terms and conditions for the finance scheme have been raised to a level where it doesn’t acknowledge the business risk being undertaken anymore, whereas officials would be able to control the fair use of the funding through implementing stricter checks or criteria instead of ruling out certain options for us,” Koutsouradi explains.
Her long-term goal is to introduce her own breakthrough agro-food products, based on her professional knowledge of the healing properties of aromatic herbs.
The Greek woman’s latest attempt to get one of these products into production was stalled when the designated funds for her local authority area ran out before she received approval.
“The banks wouldn’t help either,” she recalls. “They saw us as a new business which just breaks even and wouldn’t approve even a small loan. Therefore, I am building it up little by little myself and keep applying for any improvement funding schemes available from the CAP, such as the Leader scheme, which would help me modernize my cottage industry,” she adds.
Obstacles for farmers in Greece
Another obstacle, which she says most young farmers in Greece recognize, is the lack of organized networking infrastructure to help them reach out to retailers effectively.
The lists available from local Chambers of Commerce or foreign Embassies are neither up-to-date nor categorized, which makes wholesale efforts chaotic.
“That ends up being both costly and time-consuming,” Koutsouradi says. “For someone like me, for example, who runs the entire business themselves, they need to abandon their day-to-day operations for several days and go door-to-door to retailers in every new city, on foot or by public transportation, often finding stores listed as potential clients being out of business.”
“Of course you are going to knock on doors — it goes without saying — because nobody can talk about your product like you do. But if it was better organized by the respective institutions, my efforts would have been more targeted and more effective,” she says.
Local Greeks support endeavor
In contrast, her home island of Chios has offered the new entrepreneur crucial support since day one.
Shop-owners and consumers on the island were the first to embrace and support the start-up before its products became available in another 15 cities across Greece.
Koutsouradi also feels grateful to the prefecture, the municipality and the local Chamber of Commerce, which helped greatly by financing exhibitions and enabling her to show her products in Milan, Cyprus, and at the Zappeion in Athens.
“If it wasn’t for their financing, I couldn’t have traveled to these exhibitions as a small business. The Chamber of Commerce of Chios in particular, is currently creating an agro-food network and gastronomic categories to try and boost its local producers further,” she says.
Always focused on making dreams happen, not just for herself but also for the community, Koutsouradi has become one of 100 volunteer mentors for a program called “The Tipping Point,” which aims to encourage young people into entrepreneurship.
So far, she has initiated inspiring discussions with hundreds of school pupils not only across Greece but also in parts of the world as far away as the Maldives.
“I was invited to speak to primary school students in the Maldives via internet, and I was impressed by how active and interested they were in learning about growing plants and farming entrepreneurship, despite their young age.
“Greek pupils are also interested in reviving farming, but I see them as more skeptical of how to do it, in terms of funding as well as sales funnels and production,” she states.
In all of her capacities, Koutsouradi continues to advocate that the primary sector has much to give to young entrepreneurs, and that the end result is worth every hardship.
“If you are lucky and love what you want to do, you will definitely succeed, no matter what may stand in your way,” she affirms, with a reassuring nod and smile.