A resilient Bosnia makes up for lost time

July 7, 2006

SARAJEVO Entering the doorway of the bright yellow building that is soon to be her textile factory, Narcisa Kavazovic points proudly to the new showroom for the collection of pillows and bedcovers sold by her company, Kana. The sunny and modern two-story building on the outskirts of Sarajevo is near a war’s former frontlines and a far cry from the floor of an abandoned garage where Kavazovic sewed linens for local markets only 10 years ago.

In 1996, Kavazovic returned to Bosnia and Herzegovina from Spain, where she worked as a cook while living as a refugee. Desperate to earn money for her ailing husband and two children after having lost her home and businesses to three years of war, Kavazovic said she was determined to succeed once more. Along the way her work supported more than a dozen in her family.

Today, Kavazovic’s entrepreneurial activity is supporting even more. She and her sister preside over a growing business whose clients include the country’s leading hotels. With 25 employees, most of them women, the company is stepping into exporting, including shipping coffin liners to Sweden. Last year Kana brought in €350,000, or $447,000, in revenue, and made roughly 25 percent in profit.

“There are two things I love: One is to work with textiles, the other is to give these women a chance and to help them support their families,” Kavazovic said. Building Kana has allowed her to enjoy both.

A decade ago, Kavazovic said, no banks were willing to help her get her business started in a country brought to its knees by war. In 1998, with her property out of reach, banks unwilling to lend even with promises of 200 percent interest and all other options exhausted, she turned to a friend in Spain for €20,000 to purchase the materials to get started.

By 2004 Kavazovic had earned enough to purchase the property housing Kana’s factory and this year she secured a €90,000 loan to build a site next door.

Though their contributions go largely unheralded, a small but growing network of female entrepreneurs is helping Bosnia emerge from “the most devastating economic collapse of any economy in Central and Eastern Europe since World War II,” according to the World Bank. A decade into peace, roughly 20 percent of Bosnians live in poverty, with joblessness of around 40 percent.

Officials say the work of these women is critical as the country fights to catch up with faster-growing neighbors and gain European Union membership. Accession talks started in November, behind Slovenia, which joined in 2004, and Croatia, which is in line to enter.

“There is no chance for economic development without entrepreneurship,” said Franjo Galic, assistant to the Federal Minister for Entrepreneurship in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Women head a quarter of Bosnian households, with unemployment in these homes 77 percent higher than those led by men. With women poorer and less likely to be in the labor force, their economic independence would mean greater productivity and a higher standard of living for themselves and their country.

While no statistics track the number of entrepreneurs who are women, STAR Network, a nongovernmental organization, recently interviewed more than 250 women business-owners nationwide. The survey showed that despite obstacles like lack of skills and property ownership, entrepreneurship was becoming increasingly attractive among Bosnian women. From 1998 to 2002, STAR research showed, the number of respondents who said they would start their own business jumped to 60 percent from 18 percent.

For all people who start businesses here, though, the challenges are formidable. The country is undergoing transitions from war to peace, socialism to capitalism, and authoritarianism to multiparty democracy all at once, under a complex governing structure created by the Dayton peace accord, and the pace of change has been sluggish.

Many formerly state-owned companies have yet to be privatized, and government spending still accounts for roughly half of gross domestic product. Business owners complain of government corruption and an entangled bureaucracy that consumes their time and money. A 2005 World Bank business climate survey ranked Bosnia and Herzegovina 123rd out of 155 nations for ease of starting a business.

Officials acknowledge the tough terrain. They point to a new law promoting small and midsize enterprises, a part of efforts to create a friendlier environment for this important segment. “More than 95 percent of all the country’s businesses fall under the category of SME,” Galic said.

Many of the women said their work was part of enabling the change. “When our daughters decide to go to college, we hope our business will be much larger and we will be able to afford it,” said Milanka Jovanovic, who raises about 600 hens with her husband. “The most important thing in life is to provide as much as you can for your children and to make their future better.”

For some of Bosnia’s new entrepreneurs, the leap from idea to enterprise was a question of survival under the worst of circumstances.

Vesna Beganovic’s husband was killed during the war, leaving her with inconsolable grief and two children under the age of 3. Finishing her university studies, she took a job with the advertising agency McCann-Erickson, later helping to open its office in Sarajevo. Realizing that she wanted more than a paycheck for her family’s future, she decided to venture out on her own.

In 1997, at the age of 27, she took €25,000 gained from the sale of a student apartment in Zagreb purchased by her parents and started the advertising agency Via Media – a bold move in this formerly socialist country where peace had just begun to take hold.

Now one of Bosnia’s leading strategic communications companies, Via Media’s clients include BH Telecom, the nation’s biggest telephone company, and the country’s biggest tobacco concern. With 22 full-time and 20 contract employees, Via Media earned €750,000 last year in profit on €1.8 million in revenue.

The energetic and plain-speaking Beganovic said the going had been difficult. She and others said that while women enjoy equal protection under the law, working around stereotypes has become part of their business plan in this traditional society.

Some of Beganovic’s first clients preferred to work with her male employees, uncertain whether they should trust their business to someone both young and female. For Beganovic’s contemporaries, the pressure to remain within the confines of customary roles was even more overt.

When Aida Zubcevic wanted to start her company, Faveda, in 1993, her doctoral professor discouraged her, saying the only time for a woman to start a career was when her husband was older and her children were grown. Pregnant with her second son in wartime Sarajevo, Zubcevic decided to leave the safety of her state-owned job and used her savings to open a store selling medicinal herbal products.

Foraging around the city then under siege, she and her husband created makeshift shelves from their own closets and cord found in a bookstore. Zubcevic knitted decorations for the walls.

“There was shooting all around the place and here I am trying to furnish my pharmacy,” she said. “I was afraid that if I waited until everything else was O.K., it would be too late.”

Zubcevic’s risk-taking has paid off. When her husband’s job with a state- owned company ended in 2000, he joined his wife at Faveda, which now sells as much in Kosovo as in Bosnia. With revenue of €250,000, the company supports their family of four along with eight employees and is beginning to export to New Zealand and the Middle East.

Improvements in the business environment cannot come quickly enough for Lejla Radoncic, chief executive and founder of Bosnia Handicrafts. The local mill from which she obtains yarn went on strike two weeks ago and unfilled orders are accumulating. Radoncic is talking with the strike board to find a resolution for her company, which produces high-end handmade goods.

Radoncic, who studied economics at university in Sarajevo and was a travel agent before the war, began thinking of handicrafts as a business in 1995 when working for a Norwegian aid agency in Tuzla helping refugees, most of whom were women left on their own.

“We knew grants would stop and that everyone in the country was too addicted to humanitarian aid,” she said. “I thought it was much better to start a business and make it a long- term venture.”

Bosnia Handicrafts, which originally provided work for 50 women, now employs as many as 700 at a time, with waiting lists of women seeking to enter the program. Promoted by an American board member who helped secure clients like Sundance Catalog, a mail- order business run by the actor Robert Redford as part of his Sundance independent film group, the company’s sales have reached €250,000, with profit poured back into the business.


Looking to the future, Radoncic, who frequently travels to the United States and Europe to seek markets, said her goal was a space in the upscale department store Saks Fifth Avenue – and sales of €1 million.

“I am quite sure we are getting there,” she said.