Big interest from small businesses for EU support in the Western Balkans
“Made in the Western Balkans – supported by the EU” was the tagline of the first Open4Business event that took place in Skopje on 5 October 2023, gathering nearly 500 participants. Organised by the European Commission, in cooperation with the Economic Chamber of North Macedonia and Western Balkans 6 Chamber Investment Forum, the event was dedicated to helping micro, small, and medium-sized businesses learn more about the support offered to them through the Western Balkans Investment Framework (WBIF).
250 companies took part in Skopje, or followed online, and were impressed with the level of support on offer. “We really like what we see here”, said Igor Madžov, President of Startup Ecosystem in North Macedonia and investment director in NEST Group, “there are a lot of opportunities for financing start-ups.”
Boosting the innovation and resilience of the private sector was the key message delivered in the opening session. North Macedonia’s Minister for Finance, Fatmir Besimi, opened the event emphasising that European integration is key for the sustainable development of not only his country, but the Western Balkans region. EU support for the private sector as presented during the event adds significant value to his country’s efforts to move the accession process forward.
David Geer, EU Ambassador to North Macedonia, underlined the EU’s aim to help companies develop by bringing together more than €600 million in EU grant financing together with international and local financing to support innovation and resilience. European Commission’s DG NEAR Head of Unit for Western Balkans Regional Programmes, Holger Schröder, gave the keynote address, where he emphasised the importance of a resilient private sector. “MSMEs account for almost half of private sector jobs in the Western Balkans, and around 60% of the added value created there,” he stated. “A thriving private sector is needed to fight against brain drain, create sustainable jobs and ensure people have the best opportunities to stay in the region,” he continued.
Photo gallery here
In practice, this means increasing support through financial instruments together with financial institutions. The €600 million invested since 2009 has leveraged more than €6 billion in investments, supporting 5,000 MSMEs. The WBIF platform offers access to finance for MSMEs through grants, loans, guarantees and equity, while also facilitating the green and digital transitions. But more than supporting individual companies, the goal is to promote the economies of the entire Western Balkans and move step by step closer to the EU Single Market.
Branko Azeski, President of the Economic Chamber of North Macedonia, and Deputy President of WB6 CIF, stressed that all levels have their part to play. From European and international financial institutions providing more favourable schemes, to local banks making sure businesses access the opportunities, to MSMEs increasing their technical expertise in preparing and launching projects, especially in green energy and innovation.
The panel discussions for the rest of the morning detailed the specific programmes offered by EIB, EBRD and KfW, giving the floor to small businesses to share how they have benefitted from the international financial institutions’ support.
The afternoon was dedicated to one-on-one sessions between businesses and local banks to discover what could interest them specifically. These meetings were held in each of the Western Balkan’s capitals, and over 80 conversations took place. Sashka Mamućevska, one of the attendees, is a founder of a female-led start-up. “This kind of event is rarely organised in our country,” she said, “although it is very important for us to get information on better access to financing for SMEs”.
Anna Barone, European Investment Bank, Head of Office: “EIB is very active in promoting access to finance for SMEs. We already deployed €4 billion in the past 10 years and access to finance for SMEs represents 40% of our current portfolio. We stand ready to support them even more in the future with new products for SMEs.”
Matteo Colangeli, European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, Regional Director for the Western Balkans: “EBRD works on two fronts with SMEs. One is access to finance, including targeted programmes for underserved niches, like women-led or youth-led SMEs. It is not only about money. We also support smaller companies through our advisory programme, matching local businesses with experts from the region to help them grow based on individual needs.”
Robert Šarlamanov, KfW, Sector Specialist: “KfW is aligned with the priorities of the EU with the aim to become carbon-neutral by 2050. We use EU grant funds and blending instruments to provide support to private sector. One such vehicle is the Green for Growth fund (GGF), established in 2009, and has produced remarkable results. We have reduced approximately 416,000 tonnes of CO2 and saved 1.4m MWh electricity.”
Marco Giuliani, European Investment Fund, Mandate Manager: “We hope that this event is useful for creating a bridge between the institutions, the partner banks, and small and medium enterprises. Our ultimate goal in supporting these economies is to create jobs and improve prosperity in the region.”
Online platform https://open4business-made-in-western-balkans.b2match.io/
Watch promo video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=17_k6mrK1Sw&t=1s
Factsheet with executive summaries here