For the second time, the European Innovation Academy is hosting young people from the Western Balkans in its entrepreneurship accelerator program. We asked Vera Strobachova Budway, the Economic Affairs Officer at OSCE, about the particularities of the local socio-economic environment and how developing entrepreneurial skills among the Balkan youth can advance regional growth.

Vera Strobachova-Budway, Economic Affairs Officer of OSCE
Vera Strobachova-Budway, Economic Affairs Officer of OSCE

1. Could you tell us a little about the OSCE’s mission and its role in supporting entrepreneurship and innovation, specifically in the Western Balkans?

With 57 participating States spanning from Vancouver to Vladivostok, the OSCE is the world’s largest regional security organisation. It has a comprehensive approach to security, focusing on three dimensions: political-military, economic and environmental, and human. 

Through the Office of the Co-ordinator of OSCE Economic and Environmental Activities (OCEEA), the OSCE works to address socio-economic disparities, which are the root cause of instability and conflict. It implements programs and projects that promote entrepreneurship and innovation and foster an eco-system to support inclusive economic development, and socially-impactful and green-businesses.

In the context of the Western Balkans, the OSCE has been actively involved in supporting entrepreneurship and innovation as part of its broader efforts to foster economic growth and stability in the region. The organisation acknowledges that promoting a vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystem and encouraging innovation can contribute to job creation, economic diversification, and overall social development, which are key to peace and security.

2. Why has the OSCE chosen to focus on entrepreneurship and innovation in the Western Balkans, and why is this particularly important in the context of emerging markets?

The Western Balkans is a region full of potential yet still economically and politically fragile and undergoing a complex transition process. The region faces high unemployment rates, especially among youth. According to a 2020 report by the Regional Cooperation Council, the youth unemployment rate was above 26% in all Western Balkan economies, compared to just 16.8% in the EU-27.  Some of the main barriers to employment are skills mismatch, lack of mobility and access to networks and lack of entrepreneurial skills. Women are also underrepresented in entrepreneurial activity due to cultural attitudes, stereotypes and difficulty accessing start up funding. That is why we also focus our attention particularly on women and promoting women’s entrepreneurship.

One concrete example of how the OSCE supports entrepreneurship and innovation in the Western Balkans is the YDEAS project (Young Developers and Entrepreneurs to Advance Start-ups). YDEAS aims at expanding opportunities for skills’ development and job creation, improving the employability of youth and women and promoting an enabling environment for innovative, socially impactful and green start-ups.  It has three key areas of focus: upskilling of young people aged 18-25 to improve their innovative entrepreneurial capacities; networking, access to market and investment to provide innovators and start-uppers a platform for interaction, networking and exchange of ideas; and policy dialogues to reduce skills mismatch and support a positive business climate for social and green enterprises in the Western Balkans.

3. How do you believe the OSCE’s partnership with the EIA will help address these challenges and tap into these opportunities?

OSCE scholarship owners at EIA Turin 2028
OSCE scholarship owners at EIA Turin 2018

The partnership with EIA has enabled the OSCE to provide a unique scholarship opportunity for 30 young women and men between the ages of 18-25 from the Western Balkans to attend the three-week entrepreneurship accelerator program in Porto. These young people are working to find ways to improve their communities through innovative solutions. They have great ideas yet lack specific skills and know-how, as well as access to mentors, networks and capital. Being able to participate in the EIA entrepreneurship program, these extremely talented young people will be able to learn from some of the best and brightest. They will develop and refine their entrepreneurial skills that will enable them to start and grow successful business, which will have a real impact in their communities and in the region. Some of the innovative business ideas that they have include developing technologies to address food insecurity, energy efficiency, sustainable tourism, eliminating food waste, 3-d printed housing, recycling coffee waste, mental health support, detecting toxic gasses in mines and so much more.  Thanks to the partnership with EIA, the OSCE can turn these ideas into a reality and contribute to inclusive, sustainable economic development and peace and stability in the Western Balkans.


4. Can you share any success stories or notable impacts from the OSCE’s work in fostering entrepreneurship and innovation in the region?

The OSCE has been working with young entrepreneurs and innovators in the region since 2019 when it supported 18 young women and men from the Western Balkans to attend EIA’s summer school in Turin. A follow up survey of those supported showed that 65% of the beneficiaries are currently involved in establishing a start-up. By targeting youth aged 18-25, the OSCE was able to foster an entrepreneurial mind-set and a “culture of entrepreneurship” among the youngest in the whole region. The OSCE’s focus on the social economy also kick-started a reflection on social enterprise and social innovation as means to promote sustainable economic development in the region, and the role of the OSCE in supporting ongoing efforts towards an ecosystem for social economy as a particularly effective tool to ensure economic participation of young people and women.

5. Can you highlight any unique challenges and opportunities in the Western Balkans that entrepreneurs might face compared to other regions?

Some of the most common challenges faced by entrepreneurs in the Western Balkans include bureaucratic hurdles when setting up business, regulatory frameworks, challenges related to corruption, red tape, and inconsistent implementation of laws and regulations, which can hinder business operations. Securing adequate financing can be a challenge for entrepreneurs in the Western Balkans. Traditional lending institutions may have stringent requirements, and venture capital and angel investor networks are still developing.  The brain drain also poses a challenge as the Western Balkans have experienced significant emigration in recent years, particularly among skilled workers and young talent.

In terms of opportunity, the Western Balkans is offers untapped market potential. With a population of over 20 million people, there are plenty of possibilities for entrepreneurs to introduce innovative products and services to meet local demand. Sectors such as technology, renewable energy, tourism, and agriculture have considerable growth potential. The Western Balkans’ geographical location also provides opportunities for entrepreneurs to access both European Union (EU) and non-EU markets and the EU accession process for some countries in the region offers the potential for increased trade and investment opportunities.

In spite of the brain drain, the Western Balkans still has a skilled workforce with competitive labor costs. Entrepreneurial ecosystems are growing rapidly in the region and governments, NGOs, and private organisations are actively promoting entrepreneurship and innovation through funding programs, incubators, accelerators, and networking events. Entrepreneurs can benefit from these support structures and connect with mentors, investors, and potential partners.

Finally, the Western Balkans boast a rich cultural heritage, natural beauty, and diverse tourism potential. Entrepreneurs in sectors such as hospitality, travel, and sustainable tourism can leverage these unique attractions to create innovative experiences and capitalise on the growing interest in agro and eco tourism.

6. How do you envision the future of entrepreneurship in the Western Balkans, and how does the OSCE intend to support this vision?

My vision for the future of entrepreneurship in the Western Balkans would be that the region can truly maximise its potential by fully implementing economic reforms and the necessary infrastructure conducive to attracting foreign investment. As technology continues to advance globally, the Western Balkans can become a European hub for innovative solutions and digital entrepreneurship.

Cooperation among the Western Balkan countries and regional and European integration efforts will foster a more favourable environment for entrepreneurship. Collaborative initiatives, such as joint trade agreements and simplified business regulations, will reduce barriers and encourage cross-border entrepreneurship and greater investment in education and skills development will contribute to a skilled workforce and entrepreneurial mindset.

The OSCE supports this by fostering regional cooperation and entrepreneurial activities through broader initiatives such as promoting transparent and efficient legal frameworks, which can contribute to a business-friendly environment and encourage entrepreneurship. The OSCE also supports initiatives such as trade and transport connectivity and good governance, and combatting crime and corruption, which will make the region more attractive to foreign direct investment.

Through projects such as YDEAS and cooperation with EIA, the OSCE will continue to provide and support training programs and capacity-building initiatives to strengthen the skills and knowledge of entrepreneurs, especially women and youth.  And by working with local, national and regional authorities, the OSCE will continue to strengthen capacity and develop normative frameworks for inclusive and sustainable entrepreneurial ecosystems.

And finally, the OSCE will continue to serve as a platform for dialogue and collaboration among governments, civil society, academia and business communities in the Western Balkans.