Albania has long been the poorest country in Europe, slow to recover from Communist dictatorship, corruption and distrust. It is currently experiencing what locals refer to as the “third exodus,” a mass migration of able workers looking for better opportunities elsewhere.
“One of my crew members — 60 years old — is emigrating,” she said. “This tells you how bad it is. But I don’t want to leave, I want to save something here. I don’t want Albania to disappear.”
Rexha, an architect, had devoted herself to several projects before creating her business. When she was still a student, she started a shelter for abandoned animals. Then she created an animal therapy programme, with the abandoned animals providing comfort to orphaned children.
“I wanted the orphans to learn that even when you are damaged — like these animals — you can still give love,” she said.
But in each case, she was frustrated that after raising or finding funds to run the programmes, eventually the money was gone and so was the programme.
Six years ago Rexha saw a notice on Facebook for a competition of “Green Ideas” and social entrepreneurship. She didn’t think she had a chance of winning, but she outlined her idea for Pana and entered it in the contest, which had a USD 10,000 prize. Her proposal was to use her training as an architect to design furniture and interiors using scrap wood from torn-down homes, pallets and other sources, saving trees. Further, she would hire and train disadvantaged people — orphans, returning migrants, older workers — to do the work. Much to her surprise she won the contest. She used the money to buy equipment and set up a workshop, at first on the ground floor of her home.
“That was six years ago,” she said. “Now we have 18 employees, plus 12 more helping on the Krujë project, at least temporarily, but I hope permanently, so that’s 30.”