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Ecosystem landscapes of the Western Balkan countries in 2020 — a review

We made a short analysis of the Western Balkans' entrepreneurial ecosystems in 2020. Please read it and find out how the Covid-19 pandemic affected Western Balkan countries where the Swiss EP program is active.

2020 was quite a challenging year. But today we won’t look at all the changes and disruptions that 2020 brought, we’ll look at the bigger picture.

We will analyze how this year affected the entrepreneurial ecosystem landscapes in the five Western Balkan countries where the Swiss Entrepreneurship Program is active: Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia, Kosovo, and Serbia.

First, let’s define the elements of the entrepreneurial ecosystems that we will be analyzing.

  • Media actively following the entrepreneurial and tech scene in the country
  • Meetups where communities are gathering around a specific goal or technology
  • Venture Capital funds investing in startups
  • Government offering support (financial and/or technical) to entrepreneurs and startups
  • Coworking spaces available to entrepreneurs
  • Accelerators and incubators with programs up and running
  • Angel networks that exist and investing in startups

Here are a few observations we can apply to all the countries we mentioned above:

  • Media who were already in the entrepreneurship space remain active. They are mainly covering local scenes, but occasionally also address regionally popular themes. We saw an opportunity here. Our team started the Swiss EP Western Balkans blog, where we promote startup actors, events and activities, share important news, highlight successful founders, and create closer connections between the countries in the region.
  • Meetups are one element in the entrepreneurial landscape that was heavily affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.Informal gatherings were the core activity of these communities w. With that component now absent, communities were left behind. Still, there are attempts to meet up online, but they do not attract the same amount of participants as live events. Some communities adapted faster to the "new normal", some failed, while others are still searching for the proper survival model.
  • Venture Capital funds are still active. It seems that the global pandemic had minimal effect on their presence in the Western Balkan countries.
  • The level of government support varies from one country to another. Not much has changed since the year before: Serbia and North Macedonia are leading the way here. The respective Innovation Funds in these countries are offering both financial instruments and technical assistance to startups. Governments in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo are still searching for the right way for their government policies and budgets to offer comprehensive support to startups.
  • Another component of each ecosystem that took a hit during the global pandemic was coworking spaces. Almost overnight, bringing people together in one room to work lost its appeal. Most coworking spaces across the Western Balkans are still operating to the best of their abilities within the current social distancing rules, and exploring new business models.
  • Acceleration and incubation programs moved online in 2020 or into a hybrid (online and offline) mode. In Albania, the number of programs even increased, from none in 2019 to five in 2020.
  • The limited number of Angel networks in the Western Balkans is holding back the overall development of all entrepreneurial ecosystems. This began to change in 2020. Thanks to Swiss EP's capacity-building efforts, a larger number of potential angels were trained on the fundamentals of startup investment. Hopefully, this is a first step to having more local angels making investments in startups, either on their own or as part of groups of angels, perhaps even cross-border throughout the region.

The landscape has changed compared to the pre-Covid time. While some organizations managed to adapt to the new circumstances, others did not. Overall, we can say that the Western Balkans' entrepreneurial ecosystems survived the first year of the global Covid-19 pandemic relatively well.

The real impact of the pandemic will be visible more clearly in the year to come. Our predictions remain cautiously optimistic. Here’s why:

  1. The Western Balkans entrepreneurial ecosystems are agile enough to adapt to new circumstances,
  2. These entrepreneurial ecosystems consist of natural bootstrapping founders who are capable of facing different challenges,
  3. For these countries, the pandemic is not the first disruption in recent memory.

However, time will tell if our optimism was justified.