A new generation of innovative young people in Kosovo, including young women, is embracing the idea of ‘technology for good’ to tackle the big issues facing society.
Excellent hospitality, a plethora of international pop stars and athletes, a great coffee culture and buzzing nightlife. Such things Kosovo is already known for.
However, in more recent years, the young people of Europe’s youngest country have also begun to place Kosovo on the map for innovation with a growing number of tech start-ups emerging into the spotlight, such as Gjirafa, and, more recently, Crossplag.
Kosovo has one of the highest internet penetration rates in the world, at almost 100 per cent, and waves of young people learning to code from an early age make it the perfect arena as a start-up haven.
Young people around the world are considered both more digitally literate and socially conscious than older generations, with a growing interest in doing business better than before ensuring that businesses have a positive societal impact, as well as a private economic one.
This thirst for creating social impact and passion for technology mean that Kosovo’s youth are pursuing new ways of using tech for good.
Recently, I was privileged to travel to the country for a month, both as part of my PhD research and a fellowship program with the Kosovo Foundation for Open Society, to explore the work being done by Kosovo’s young people in the “tech for good” space.
Tech For Good is a new movement in the business world, defined as the conscious use of technology for social good, and it is growing in popularity in the start-up space.
I met many inspiring young people and supporting organisations to discuss the work they are doing to build a better Kosovo for themselves and left with my eyes wide open at the endless possibilities.
I was particularly intrigued by the young women paving the way in this area, as tech has historically been a male-dominated sector and entrepreneurship a male-dominated pursuit, so I was curious to know who was doing what, and how the journey was for them.
Evidence suggests that most women entrepreneurs in Kosovo run smaller businesses, typically in sectors such as retail, services and hospitality.
However, a new group of young women is stepping into the tech industry to use tech for good, innovating to tackle problems such as climate change and poor education.
Doing business better – Trailblazers
Before flying out to Kosovo, I met Rita Zhubi over the phone, as she is currently studying in Italy while relaunching her cutting-edge edu-tech business, Neuron.
Neuron is an educational app designed for Albanian-speaking children between 5 and 9 that aims to develop their cognitive skills through interactive mini games and an engaging avatar, and is the first of its kind in the Albanian market.
She launched Neuron at the age of only 15, went on to win the Social Impact Award Kosovo in 2018, and, after taking a short pause due to the pandemic, has now begun to redevelop and relaunch Neuron.
When I first got to Kosovo, I had coffee with Diora Binxhiu, who co-founded the Polar Bear Agency – the first Green marketing agency in Kosovo, changing the way we think about marketing and sustainability.
She and her team work with companies from all over to make their marketing greener, while also working to generate more funding for environmentally conscious initiatives and strategizing with clients to make their overall business model more sustainable.
She is a trailblazer of digital marketing in Kosovo, advocating for women-owned businesses and training hundreds of young professionals in digital marketing and sustainable business practice.
I headed across to Prizren to meet Primesa Arapi, who is working with her sister in the area of sustainable architecture with their company, Spectra.
Spectra is a multi-disciplinary organisation that focuses on sustainability through architecture, engineering, circular economy, and business consultancy.
Primesa and her sister founded Spectra during their studies, after noticing a gap in the market for sustainable consulting – and whilst founding Spectra, dedicated hours of their time to learning more about sustainability in their own chosen fields. Now, Spectra is operating out of ITP Prizren, and Primesa and her sister also offer training and consultancy services to local organisations.
Towards the end of my trip, I got to meet Gentiana Alija, CEO of Alfa Solar Energy, and Co-Founder of Kosovo Women in Energy and Mining. Gentiana shared her story about leading the way on the energy transition in Kosovo, installing high-quality solar energy panels into businesses across the country, and educating fellow industry professionals on the benefits of solar energy.
Beside her work at Alfa Solar Energy, she is also a vital component of the Kosovo Women in Energy and Mining network. Gentiana is working tirelessly to increase women’s participation in decision-making in the sector, empower more young women to join the sector and promote gender diversity and inclusion.
Supportive environment for change
Innovators do not exist in a vacuum but are the result of a variety of contributing factors – such as a supportive environment.
Innovation Centre Kosovo is one of the biggest names of the start-up scene in Kosovo, having incubated over 470 businesses and created over 3,100 jobs in the tech industry; they have run various tech for good events such as their Green Startup Fair and supported projects such as the “Boost x Kosovo” Kosovo Green Challenge.
Venture Up is the University of Prishtina’s official business incubator, supporting thousands of students to develop entrepreneurial skills and knowledge whilst running projects such as its Green Hub Programme and Social Impact Programme.
Both organisations also provide training and events focused on women entrepreneurs, celebrating the achievements of Kosovo’s women entrepreneurs and empowering their next generation.
Moreover, incubators such as Makers Space Prizren and Gjakova Innovation Centre offer social impact training activities alongside their traditional activities, raising awareness about the work that businesses can do to improve their local communities and tackle societal issues.
Challenges facing women entrepreneurs
As we mostly talked about the impact of the businesses that they have created, naturally, discussions about the specific challenges facing young women entrepreneurs arose.
Access to finance, family support and challenges being taken seriously by more senior industry and government officials were all themes that cropped up in my interviews, with the double-edged sword of being young and being a woman becoming very apparent.
Banks are hesitant to lend to young people, especially young women, due to a lack of trust, whilst families often prefer their younger generations to pursue “stable” careers rather than entrepreneurship, although this attitude is slowly changing.
Joining the fight for change
Most young women I spoke to were overwhelmingly positive about their experience and were excited to be part of the next generation, shaping Kosovo into a more sustainable and equitable country.
I flew home re-energised, excited by the stories that I had heard and the people that I had met, and eagerly awaiting my next trip back to see how much more the tech for good scene will have developed, and how more young women would be joining the fight for change.
Geena Whiteman is a PhD Researcher at Cardiff University and conducted this research within the framework of Kosovo Research and Analysis Fellowship, supported by the Kosovo Foundation for Open Society.