Symbio began in Poland in 1998 as a start-up organic produce distributor. Symbio now distributes organically grown fruits, vegetables, grains and herbs from contracted local small-holder farmers. Under the company’s contract, these farms are managed as individual franchises, providing Symbio with a reliable source of quality produce. In return, Symbio trains its farmers in organic farming, assists them in obtaining organic certification, provides them with a dependable buyer and provides access to international markets.
Poland is the only European Union Accession country with a majority of family-owned farms with indigenous knowledge of organic methods of cultivation. Therefore, the conditions of Poland’s farms are favorable for organic farming. However, as Steve Sperelakis, one of Symbio’s principals, said in an interview with the Financial Times in October 2002, “Polish agriculture is so far behind the West, that in many ways it’s ahead of it.” After Symbio was founded, the company was in need of essential financing to recover initial overhead expenses and meet new working capital needs. In the years following, the company needed funds for its new product line marketing strategy, machinery for production expansion, and multiple-use boxes for collecting the new harvests.
SEAF first invested in Symbio in 1998 through the Emerging Europe Capital Partners I fund. In addition to providing the needed capital, SEAF invested business assistance to support Symbio’s rapid expansion, helping to develop Symbio’s accounting systems and assisting Symbio with price negotiations with European buyers for several of its products.
With SEAF’s help, Symbio expanded its customer base in Europe and the U.S. and transformed from a mere buyer and seller of produce into a full-service business partner for small farmers who would otherwise be unable to access international organic produce value chains. In addition, SEAF’s help in negotiating supply contracts with local and international customers set minimum purchases and prices, providing the company and its farmers with a reliable market and a steady value for their crops.
Through SEAF’s financial and technical support, Symbio’s growth has had a direct impact on the incomes of a growing number of local farms. Symbio has expanded its network from 25 farms to 350 farms and has provided training and certification to 100% of these producers. As a result of this shift from traditional crop production to organic farming, these farmers are now earning between 5 and 10 times more per hectare over a period of three years.
In 2003, Aleksander Kwasniewski, the President of Poland, hosted the annual “Eco-Festival” in the gardens of his palace. Symbio, together with some of its farmers, was invited to this gathering. In 2012, the company also participated in the Organic Food Fair and donated 10% of the fair’s sales to the Grand Orchestra of Christmas Charity, which raised funds to support saving the lives of newborns.