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Masahiro Ueki, JICA Balkan Office Chief Representative

Sharing Japan’s Rich Development Experience

While JICA’s renowned and respected work in supporting small businesses in Serbia continues, its efforts aimed at promoting green transition, innovation and knowledge transfers are gaining increased interest from the state, businesses and the general public

The Japan International Cooperation Agency, JICA, is an incorporated administrative agency that was established on the basis of Japanese law and is responsible for administering Japan’s Official Development Assistance (ODA). As one of the world’s largest comprehensive bilateral development assistance agencies, JICA implements cooperation in 139 countries and regions worldwide, including the Western Balkan. Here Masahiro Ueki, Chief Representative of the JICA Balkan Office, guides us through the work of JICA around the region.

How would you assess the progress of cooperation with Serbia in the environmental sector, including when it comes to green transition?

— Within the scope of bilateral cooperation with Serbia, one of the priorities of the Japanese government is environmental protection. JICA is aligning with this policy and has been implementing various projects in the environmental sector.

The solid waste management project currently being implemented in the Municipality of Šid focuses on waste reduction and recycling activities that serve to improve the current situation in Šid. Based on results to date, our aim is to create an efficient and sustainable model of solid waste management that can be applied to other small and medium-sized municipalities in Serbia. By focusing on various activities, such as the introduction of composting to reduce household waste and the implementation of separate collection to facilitate recycling, we are also utilising our experiences of solid waste management in Japan. Moreover, we have also provided a compactor truck in an effort to improve waste collection capacities.

JICA is also putting a lot of effort into cooperation related to the green transition. Although the introduction of renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar energy, is expanding worldwide, its power generation is unstable due to changeable weather and sunlight. Various measures have been implemented in Japan to stabilise the country’s grid and ensure the reliability of the power supply, and this experience will certainly prove useful in Serbia. That’s why JICA has invited 11 engineers from the Ministry of Mining and Energy, EPS and EMS to Japan for three weeks from January this year. We have organised similar study visits annually since 2022.

What specific impact or success stories can be highlighted from JICA’s efforts to support small businesses in the region?

— JICA and the Development Agency of Serbia (RAS) have been collaborating for over 15 years on the establishing of a mentoring service based on the Japanese model. This is a professional service, with an emphasis on realising growth potential and with the aim of helping micro companies and SMEs. Mentoring represents the process of joint work between certified mentors and entrepreneurs in analysing current positioning and defining further activities to promote future growth, which includes assisting with the implementation of KAIZEN business, consulting and coordination for access to funds and new technologies, assistance in finding business partners, training and other valuable services.

A total of 54 qualified JICA mentors have been active in Serbia to date. Those mentors have amassed valuable experience in supporting the SME sector over the many years of their professional work. As for the recipient side, more than 4,000 companies in Serbia have taken advantage of this mentoring service, resulting in concrete results such as increased sales, an improved presence on the market, improved company organisation, increased customers satisfaction and other positive results.

By utilising the knowledge and experience accumulated in Serbia, we are dispatching our official counterpart of Serbia to the Western Balkans. We want to develop this mentoring service as a regional brand across the Western Balkan region.

How has collaboration between JICA and the NINJA (Next Innovation with Japan) accelerator programme facilitated the identifying and exploring of opportunities for participating entities on the Asian market?

— NINJA is a project intended for local start-ups that is implemented by JICA worldwide. Within the scope of NINJA in Serbia, which was launched in 2022, we have implemented an accelerator programme to provide corporate management capacity building and mentoring services to seven selected IT start-ups in Serbia. In February 2023, each of these start-ups held a pitch event to explain their business plans to investors from Japan and elsewhere. More than 80 people participated, including online participation, and it was a great success, with each start-up receiving offers to hold business talks with investors. Furthermore, it also served to trigger the overseas expansion of each of these start-ups.

As a new project, we will dispatch a tourism promotion expert to Serbia for the next two years, with the idea of this expert covering the entire Western Balkan region

In January 2023, we held a seminar entitled “How to Make It in Asia from Serbia” for Serbian start-ups, in order to provide a broad introduction of how attractive the Asian market is. We were able to show the Serbian start-up community the Asian market as an option that had not previously received much attention in Serbia.

As a result of these efforts, Serbian start-ups participated in start-up events held in Singapore, while one of the Serbian start-ups entered the Philippine market. In addition to accelerator programmes and pitch events, we are also considering providing training opportunities in Japan. Speaking to Serbian start-ups interested in the Asian market, I would say that we expect your participation in the next NINJA.

How has the JICA Chair Programme with the University of Belgrade contributed to academic and research collaboration between Japan and Serbia?

— Japan is the very first country, and still one of the rare countries, to have modernised from a non-Western background. Based on this recognition, JICA launched the JICA Chair (JICA Programme for Japanese studies) in 2020, in an effort to provide an opportunity for future leaders at top universities to learn about Japan’s modernisation and development experiences, which differ from those of Western countries. The JICA Chair has so far been introduced at leading universities in 62 countries, including the University of Belgrade.

The JICA Chair in Serbia was officially launched in March 2022, in cooperation with the University of Belgrade. Until last year, the lectures covered topics like Japanese diplomacy, Japanese education, Japan and Southeast Asia, and Japanese intellectuals. Moreover, we also donated literature that contribute to improving research on Japan, as well as DVD teaching material of JICA Chair lectures, with Serbian subtitles, to the Faculty of Philology, Department of Japanese language and literature. Through these activities, we support studies on Japan at the University of Belgrade.

What specific initiatives or projects is JICA planning to implement in 2024?

— We would like to this year revitalise more exchanges of people, which leads to the strengthening of trust in our relationship with the Serbian Government, thereby further promoting our cooperation on the basis of Japan’s rich experiences in development.

Since our office covers the Western Balkan region that includes Serbia, this year we would like to further strengthen regional cooperation by expanding our projects targeting the entire region.

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