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Repatriot: Bringing Romania together

It's no secret that home is where the heart is and that thousands of Romanians who have left the country in pursuit of prosperity would love to come back, but corruption and low standards of life are their arguments for not doing so

2016-04-10 13:17:05 - From the Print Edition

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Repatriot, a project founded by the Minister of Communications and Information Society, Marius Bostan, and another 30 entrepreneurs, is trying to rebuild the trust and convince the diaspora to return through entrepreneurship. Learn how Repatriot managed to set the diaspora as a national priority, courtesy of Alexandra Cioboata (Lopotaru).

In the last 70 years, Romania has witnessed several emigration waves, where over four million people have left the country for a better life. Before 1989, most of them chose to live abroad far from the communist regime, in pursuit of freedom and Western prosperity. Another massive wave started after the 1991 "expedition" of the mineworkers, caused again by lack of democracy and poor life standards. But despite these, the emigration peak of the last 26 years was actually reached in 2007, according to the National Institute of Statistics (INS), when more than half a million went abroad.

According to the same source, the resident population of the country on 1 January 2013 was roughly equal to that of 1969, hovering around 20.01 million inhabitants. During the period of 1989-2012, the resident (stable) population of Romania was reduced by more than 3.1 million inhabitants and more than 77 per cent of the negative growth of the stable population from this period was caused by emigration. In addition, if in 2002 the number of emigrants per 1,000 inhabitants from the resident population of Romania was 48.6, in 2012 this indicator increased to 116.5, mostly represented by people in the age range of 25-64 years.

Although not physically present in Romania, the diaspora has always been an economic stimulator, one of Romania's main investors, as it sends back home around 1.5 billion Euro per year, according to Romania's Prime Minister Dacian Ciolos. Moreover, in late February, Romania's President Klaus Iohannis, along with the Prime Minister, declared the diaspora as a national priority, meaning that the state will undertake policies to support Romanians working abroad. The necessity of this endeavour has been stressed by the private and non-profit organisation Romanian Business Leaders (RBL) since a year ago, when in February 2015 it launched a project called Repatriot, aiming to convince the Romanian diaspora to come back to Romania and put their experience, knowledge, network and money into new business. The initiator of the project was businessman Marius Bostan, member of RBL and the current Minister of Communications and Information Society within the Cabinet of Ciolos.

"Romania suffered from several emigration waves in the last 70 years," Bostan tells The Diplomat - Bucharest. "Too many and too worthy Romanians left... over four million souls. They left for prosperity and freedom. Most of them because of burdens. Families were divided, children were left without a mother, broken-hearted. This is how Romania was split in two countries: one here and one abroad. We, who started this project, want only one Romania (...) Repatriot aims to support all Romanians who want to return with information and advice in order to get fast access to business opportunities."

Bostan goes on to add that Romanians have chosen to leave for a free world, a world of competition, of low corruption, of ethical values, and to emigrate in countries with a functional economy. Many of them will return if Romania can prove less corruption, a predictable business environment, a better health system and a better education for their children, he says. "Romania should consider as a top priority all of those who want to return," says the Minister of Communications and Information Society. "Romanians from abroad can invest in their home country and, once returned, they may bring other potential investors and associates from the countries in which they previously lived."

In its first year of activity, Repatriot held several conferences in key countries such as Italy (Milano and Turin), Spain (Madrid and Valencia), Great Britain (London), Ireland (Dublin) and Germany (Munich), where over 1,500 Romanians were present. This year, the Romanian entrepreneurs plan to continue the project in other cities like Paris and Rome. According to Dragos Anastasiu, the founder of the long-distance coach organization Eurolines and member of the Board of RBL - a repatriated person himself as he left Romania at the age of 18 together with his mother and returned in 1995 - says that the return of the diaspora could improve the national economy by up to five per cent.

"We have just closed our first year of activity, with great results," Anastasiu tells The Diplomat - Bucharest. "We have met more than 1,000 Romanians from five countries, and some of them are already back in Romania with a new business. Our Repatriot project is based on informing Romanians about the business opportunities in Romania and on rebuilding the trust in this country. We have a dedicated volunteer team, with over 30 successful entrepreneurs, who dedicate their precious time and money just to make things happen in Romania. We consider the diaspora a national priority because their return to Romania could produce an annual economic raise of five per cent."

Romania's corruption and low standard of life, main obstacles for coming back

According to the findings of the Romanian migrants' study, commissioned by the Romanian Business Leaders and conducted by Open-I Research, Romanians working abroad who left the country for a better job would like to come back or even invest in Romania, but corruption and economic environment hinder their plans. The survey indicated that the main reason for the latest immigration waves was the high living standards in the destination countries. Around 70 per cent of the emigrants questioned until late February (up to 500) want to return and almost 40 per cent want to come in no later than three years, while 20 per cent even this year. Furthermore, 49 per cent of them are positive about Romania′s future. However, the main obstacle in their decision is corruption, with the low standard of life coming in second.

"We certainly cannot know the real reasons for leaving Romania, but we found out what keeps them there," Bianca Dancila, founder of digital marketing agency Grip Ads and member of RBL, tells The Diplomat - Bucharest. "Romanians living abroad are still afraid of corruption, poverty, old-regime mentality and the lack of well-paid jobs. Certainly they would return for emotional reasons such as being close to family and friends, to spend their retirement at home or just because they miss their country. (...) Romania is a great market for any product or service and we have big faith in our expatriates′ talent, expertise, international experience and network. We want the diaspora to start new business because they already saw in other countries how things need to be done."

Dancila went on to add that the first year was a huge success for the entrepreneurs, because they found the diaspora without trust and faith and they managed to convince them to open their eyes and look for the real Romania. "It is difficult for them to stay connected to the real country when media is promoting only good rating subjects, most of them regarding negative subjects," says Dancila. "In 2016, we want to do more and build more, so we have already started to discuss with the authorities to improve the public system. We will continue to put our expertise and good will to help both the authorities and expats, so we will soon announce the official dates for the international conferences."

Great opportunities to be found in an emerging market

Felix Patrascanu, another successful entrepreneur and one of the three founders of the Romanian-based express courier services leader FAN Courier, with a 2015 turnover of more than 86 million Euro and 4,500 employees including collaborators, is also a member of RBL and an actively involved advocate of Repatriot. According to him, Romania offers great investment opportunities for expatriates in sectors such as organic food, agriculture, textile or IT as the market is still emerging.

"If Andrian, Neculai [the other two co-founders] and I had opened our business in Germany, France or USA, in countries which are not emerging anymore, we wouldn't have gotten where we are," Patrascanu tells The Diplomat - Bucharest. "We would have remained a small company, with maximum 100 employees. We would have had a decent business, maybe as a subcontractor of FedEx, UPS or DHL, but never more than that. Here, in Romania, one can witness an extraordinary liberality. The market offers many opportunities. For instance, if in Western Europe the e-commerce market grows by three to five per cent - fantastic for them - here, we grow by 30 per cent. Moreover, I think there is a lot of potential in the organic food segment, especially in terms of honey. Germany massively imports honey from us."

Patrascanu goes on to add that the diaspora can "change things" and the most eloquent example can be found in the 2014 presidential elections when around 90 per cent of people working abroad voted with the current President, helping him win the elections. "Personally, I did not pay much attention in the past to our expats, but the election explosion made me change my attitude," says Patrascanu. "When I saw the power of those people, I realized that they can change things literally. They are Romania's main investor as more than ten billion Euro came from them. They can positively influence Romania's economic perspectives due to their civic spirit. They have money to invest, but they lack confidence and trust in Romania."

According to the data delivered by Deloitte, Romania is still one of the most attractive business destinations, and for the next three years, the markets in the region count the highest per cent of start-up intents. The number of Romanian companies in Central Europe′s Top 500 grew from 42 to 46 compared to 2014, Romania ranking now in fourth place. Marius Bostan, Minister of Communications and Information Society echoes the same view as Patrascanu, telling The Diplomat - Bucharest that the scant competition in several domains can create opportunities one cannot find in other countries. First of all, according to him, Romanians who return have the advantage of speaking a foreign language; they know the market and can adapt easier. They also have a better understanding of the local mentalities.

"There are still many things to be done, but Romania is able to offer a solid business environment," says Bostan. "Romania is very attractive for the Hi-Tech sector. We have bright and well-trained people in the IT&C field. Our internet speed is among the highest in the world. Opening an online company is an opportunity. Only by economic development can we keep or bring back doctors, professors, experts in computer science. We noticed that agricultural land is still cheap in Romania. For example, the demand for agricultural products is only partly covered by Romanian products, although there are enough resources. Besides agriculture, tourism has also great growing opportunities."

The Romanian migrants' study, conducted by Open-I Research, revealed the diaspora′s high interest for segments such as tourism, agriculture, food and bar, energy and bio. Moreover, according to the same source, more than 60 per cent of the responders are planning to invest in Romania, but some of them are still afraid. Over the years, however, hundreds of Romanians have returned and started a business here or built companies together with foreign investors from their foster countries. Helene Hildegard Brandl, member of RBL and part of the Repatriot project, left the country when she was five and, after 30 years of living in Germany, she returned to Romania and now runs an architecture company.

Voicu Oprean is another Romanian who returned to be an entrepreneur, introducing in Romania the Traffic Message Channel, a system that shows the driver which traffic areas have problems and can help avoid congestion. Dorel Capatana, a small entrepreneur from Vrancea, returned from England after 15 years and plans to invest in the agricultural sector. In addition, Dana and Cornel Beldie returned after ten years in Italy and invested in a small business after they participated in the Repatriot Conference held in Turin.

"Many of our members are ′repatriates′ because they came back to Romania and started a business that today is healthy and solid," says Dragos Anastasiu, the founder of Eurolines. "We already have several diaspora participants who decided to come back home and are in their early stages of business. We help them with mentorship and advice in order to adapt easier. New business is very difficult for them, but less difficult than to live far from family and friends."

He adds that the biggest challenges to invest in Romania would be to understand and respect the bureaucracy, to have faith in the future of one's business and to reconnect with the Romanian culture. "We all know it is difficult to adapt from a simple public system to a complicated one, but we can assure you the effort will be worth it."

Objectives for 2016

The Romanian Business Leaders, through the Repatriot project, organized a portal - www.repatriot.ro - meant to be a support for those who intend to open a business in Romania. The content is about opportunities, financing programmes and the steps necessary to start-up and develop a business. The entrepreneurs also created an online communication platform - www.forum.repatriot.ro - and also grew their social media presence to be closer to the diaspora. Thus, information came fast to any Romanians abroad, reporting over two million viewers so far.

In 2016, Repatriot will continue to organize conferences, both in Romania and abroad, in order to bridge the gap between the citizens. According to Marius Bostan, Minister of Communications and Information Society and the initiator of the project, the top priority will be to attract entrepreneurs, those who create jobs and who bring added value. "The migration and return theme should become a priority for all institutions and we should be aware that we have four million citizens abroad," adds Bostan. "We all know that Romanian citizens from abroad are the main investors in our economy via sending their money back to Romania. This infusion of capital occurs every year, but we also noticed that these people still feel that their souls belong to their homeland," he adds.

Other 2016 objectives of the project include advertising all opportunities of European projects, bank offers, investment funds, consultancy for start-ups and business development, continuing the Repatriot campaign - "One country for Romanians". Additional goals include creating local groups, both in-country and abroad, requesting the municipalities to demand support in advertising local investment opportunities, petitioning associations of Romanians abroad, crowdfunding platforms for touristic products and further expansion of the platform. Furthermore, Repatriot wants to open several international branches in countries where large Romanian communities can be found, according to Felix Patrascanu, co-founder of FAN Courier.

"The first thing the diaspora should do is to stop making malicious statements about their country and gain more confidence in Romania," says Patrascanu. "Through our platform, we show to those people all the opportunities they could have and the fact that they could invest in Romania even from abroad. Many of them have established there a family of their own and it's pretty hard to come back in this condition. However, if they start there a business, they can bring the production to Romania, which - eventually - will be exported abroad. Furthermore, many of them hold important positions within the companies they work for, and they could convince their superiors to open a local branch due to the opportunities Romania offers. And maybe - why not? - to be themselves the representatives of the companies locally."

Patrascanu also reveals that Repatriot plans to apply for European funds, saying that the project could take up to 200,000 Euro. The first stage of this project will close in 2018, when Romania reaches its 100th anniversary celebration of the Big Union - Centenary Project.

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