Like many other participants of the EU-funded Biz4all "Social Entrepreneurship Incubator" programme, Yelena Strakh and her team came to the project with a big idea in mind. The enterprising ladies were planning to open a café which would serve dried herbs, natural herbal teas and sweet treats made according to old grandma’s recipes, such as fritters, sugared cranberries or baked honey glazed apples. After going through a number of Biz4all training modules, the team switched to a local concept, even though "Phytochaynik" still has some big plans.
Yelena Strakh lives in the town of Zhytkavichy in Gomel region. The region is home to Zhytkavichy Biological Reserve, with “Pripyat” National Park lying to the south. More than half of the region is covered with coniferous forests, which have a lot of medicinal herbs that were well known to and carefully studied by our ancestors. Villagers used these easy-to-get organic materials to treat people, improve and restore their health. Herbal therapy remains a popular immunity-boosting method in the modern society, and herbal teas are regaining popularity as environmentally clean and tasty drinks. The team of “Phytochaynik” aims to restore and preserve the traditions of herborists of the region and promote the natural potential of their country. Their additional social goal is to employ people with disabilities.
|Yelena Strakh, Head of "Phytochaynik" social enterprise|
Photo: personal archive
It all began with collection of herbs
Yelena says that she has been going in this direction with her team for a long time. It all started two years ago, when they organized the “Reviving Traditions” project within the framework of the US Embassy Small Grant Programme. During this project, the team collected medicinal herbs, as well as organized practical and theoretical classes on how to prepare, process and preserve them. Team members Mariya Kanapatskaya, Zhanna Savchits and Olga Zhukouskaya interviewed with dozens of herborists of the region, shared their personal knowledge and experiences. They have been gathering herbs since they were children, they know the ancient traditions, but they need to transfer their skills to the next generations to revive the practice. The project resulted in an "Electronic Catalogue of Herbs of Zhytkavichy Region” which is now available on their website and is still being updated.
|Olga Zhukouskaya (on the left), Lyudmila Puparevich (in the middle), Zhanna Savchits (on the right), team members of "Phytochaynik" social enterprise|
"We interviewed many prominent local herborists in order to get first-hand information about the herbs”, remembers Yelena. “Many of them have such unique and precise knowledge that you would not be able to find such information anywhere else. The catalogue is still being updated. Our students used the standard procedure to prepare willowherb flowers, and I shared this with Lyudmila Katvitskaya, headmistress of our local gymnasium. She has said that she knows other, more practical ways to prepare the raw material. We are planning to have a detailed interview with her in the near future and research the matter thoroughly, because the willowherb is at the peak of its popularity now: people don’t just buy it in Belarus, they also order it from abroad”.
|Collection of medicinal herbs within the framework of "Reviving Traditions" |
Photo: official website
Collecting and selling herbs as a business
“Reviving Traditions” proved that local people take a real interest in herbs. However, business skills are needed to scale the production. By a lucky coincidence, right after this project finished, Yelena Strakh saw an ad for the Social Entrepreneurship Incubator in an email from ODB Brussels and got down to writing the application right away: the whole training programme is focused on improving business skills of social entrepreneurs.
Thanks to the Biz4all programme, the team learnt about the documents they needed to continue their work, how to do it properly, and how to apply for additional project funding. At the moment, Yelena Strakh has three teachers on her team who gather and preserve herbs – Mariya Kanapatskaya, Zhanna Savchits and Olga Zhukouskaya, and Lyudmila Puparevich, a girl with a disability, gives them technical support by taking photos.
|Herborist Zinaida Marchanka from the village of Kolno, Zhytkavichy District|
Photo: official website
According to Yelena, “Phytochaynik” has yet to overcome a number of challenges, suck as the lack of resources to maintain the website and social media presence. They have tried employing people with disabilities several times, but they were poorly motivated so it did not yield any results. At the moment it is also difficult to store the prepared herbs correctly. They use cardboard boxes to prevent the herbs from getting damp, but ideally, they would need to purchase special medical refrigerators so they don’t have to worry about their raw materials. They are now planning to go on study visits to similar enterprises in Poland.
Sample products of “Phytochaynik” Photo: official website
They have already applied for their new project and received approval to register documents. Passing through the first stage of the selection process means that the budget for the next year has already been partially planned. The team continue to collect herbs, and “Phytochaynik” will be able to officially sell products and expand their business as early as the next year. At the moment, they have samples of future products: canvas and paper bags with 50-100 grams of natural dried raw material. Yelena has already made an arrangement to prepack their organic herbs in stylish bags up for sale on the website of “Art Idea” social enterprise, which employs young people with disabilities.
Text by: Valerya Nikalaychyk
|The goal of the programme is to develop a package of social entrepreneurship training programmes in Russian using innovative international practices, as well as the experience of Belarusian diaspora representatives who have become successful entrepreneurs in European Union countries and the USA.|
The publication was prepared within the framework of the "Social Entrepreneurship Incubator", implemented by ODB Brussels in partnership with TNU Network University (Netherlands), Belarusian Youth Public Union "New Faces" and International Civil Association "Union of Belarusian of the world “Motherland", with the fiancial support from the European Union.