Yoleni’s Online Greek Deli

Writing about a product that’s not readily available for the audience you largely write for seems to be a doron adoron—a gift that isn’t useful or can’t be used. One of the greatest challenges for young entrepreneurs and producers in Greece today is how to broaden the distribution of their innovative products within Greece and enter markets abroad. The difficulties involved in building this distribution network are particularly steep for a young company on its own.

Screen-shot from the Yoleni website
Screen-shot from the Yoleni website

For Greek food and beverage firms, the growing popularity of online groceries offers a solution. Getting your organic woodland honey or high-quality extra-virgin oil placed in delicatessens in Rome and Berlin, not to mention in ethnic food stores in smaller towns and cities, is daunting. Getting the same products placed in a successful e-deli is much easier. Strength in numbers.

And Yoleni is offering precisely that. According to Fortune Greek, the company is the largest online delicatessen in Greece, with over 1,200 products from 110 Greek producers and ships to the EU and the United States.  As Kathimerini reports, 60% of Yoleni’s sales are delivered abroad.

Together the products in this e-deli make up a panorama of some of the best regional Greek foods on the market today, from Kozani saffron and Cretan snails to wild capers from the Cyclades and the intensely flavorful tomato paste from Santorini. They include familiar items, such as organic and extra-virgin olive oils, spoon sweets and ouzo and tsipouro, as well as more unfamiliar ones, such as pickled vine sprouts and Dirfis’ sheep butter with white truffles. I was pleased to discover that Yoleni carries some of the products featured in this blog: Velouitinos’ organic Thasos olives, Agreco Farm’s sun-dried cherry tomatoes, Trikalinos’ bottarga and lasagna chips from the Chiotiko Kellari.

Yoleni , which won a Hellenic Entrepreneurship Award in 2015, is more than an online deli. Or rather, it’s the way an online deli ought to operate. First, there’s a refreshing depth and breadth of information on the products. The items are accompanied by texts that give background on the producer and the region in which the item is cultivated and produced. Thus, for example, the visitor to the site will learn about the Sinoni brothers’ eel farm in Halkidiki, and Christos Stremmenos, a former Ambassador to Rome and professor of chemistry at Bologna who developed a Greek prosciutto, which he produces in the village of Proussos in the region of Evrytania. The site is indeed, as Yoleni claims in one of its well-made corporate videos, “a journey of delicious stories.” Product details go beyond ingredients to include ways to prepare or serve the food—quite useful for more esoteric items such as buffalo milk frumenty (trachanas).  Many of the products are accompanied by a suggested recipe, some of which with video demonstration!

Overall the website is user-friendly, easy to navigate and supplemented with a good deal of on-line help (including videos) on ordering, product safety, returns, packaging and the like. Ordering is straightforward

A good number of filters are available to browse through the products, including the region in which the item is produced. Registering with the site, ordering, editing your basket and checking out conform to industry standards on e-commerce usability.  On the downside, the site isn’t (yet) responsive and a few of the texts, including the Terms and Conditions, are set in a small, light italic font that is not very legible.

Yoleni works directly with producers and without the intervention of wholesalers and re-sellers, which the company claims enables them to keep their prices competitive. I did some—admittedly limited—comparison shopping with identical items in my local supermarket and wine shop and found that Yoleni’s prices (for the products I could locate) indeed are as good as or better than prices at mortar-and-brick delis in the city. Factoring in shipping costs, however, raises the unit cost. This is obviously not an issue for consumers outside the largest Greek cities, who can’t find these products in their home town markets. For those who can, it makes sense to buy in bulk. Orders over €70 for destinations within Greece are shipped free of charge (over €40 for the Athens metropolitan area).

Yoleni is clearly a firm that pays attention to details. It’s evident in the care taken in the selection of the quality products it carries and the functionality of the website, right down to the photographs of the products (which Yoleni does on its own, rather than relying on a producer’s press kit) and the packaging.  The order is put together in a shrink-wrapped cardboard tray sandwiched in lays of protective bubble wrap and packaged in an attractive minimalist wrapping of recycled paper and natural twine. It makes for a great gift idea on its own, but the site also offers a variety of gift baskets packaged in homemade wooden crates or cachepots.

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Schinousa Yellow Split-Peas

Schinousa is a 9.5-m2 island in the “Little Cyclades”, home to 200 permanent residents, most of whom are engaged in farming, fishing, livestock and tourism. Ten of the residents cultivate the Schinousa fava bean, a type of yellow split pea found only on the island. (The Greek fava is almost always mistranslated on menus and food sites with the similar-sounding English term fava bean; the latter, however, is in fact only another name for the thumbnail-sized green broad bean). It’s traditionally boiled with onion, the deep cornmeal gold of the legume turning a creamy pale yellow as it thickens into a velvety puree, which is then served dressed with a generous amount of olive oil and sprinkled with capers and finely sliced onion.

Schinousa-fava

Until recently, the only way to taste this remarkably flavorful legume was to travel to the island itself, a reward in itself, of course, the ultimate chill-out island, with pristine beaches fronting bays of translucent turquoise waters and a charming hilltop village that seems to have emerged untouched from the 1950s.

I tasted my first Schinousa fava, however, on another island in the Cyclades archipelago, Sifnos,  at the Tselementia, an annual three-day festival of Aegean island cooking named after the early 20th-century Sifnos-born chef and author of the first comprehensive cookbook in Greek, Nikolaos Tselementes. There in the small flagstone-paved square of the village of Artemonas, one of the most beautiful traditional settlements in the Aegean, representatives from a dozen and a half islands man kiosks where they offer visitors tidbits of local delicacies and take turns ascending a wooden platform at the end of the square to give cooking demonstrations of their island’s dishes. At the Schinousa kiosk, a trio of islanders, all sporting identical bright blue t-shirts emblazoned with the name of their homeland, were serving guests thin rounds of bread topped with a puree of their fava. The nutty puree was delicious, with its undertones of chestnut and black pepper. Who’d have thought a legume could taste this good?

Later that evening I met Manolis Koveos, the farmer whose beans I had sampled. He’s a handsome, dark-haired young man with a winning smile and a deep sense of responsibility for the legacy he had been entrusted with. The seeds he sows have been handed down from his grandfather, as one might a family heirloom. (I am told that fava has been cultivated on the island for the last 250 years.). His contagious enthusiasm for his product and his island is evident as he describes how the seeds are sown and harvested. He tells me that no more than half the seeds at hand are sown in December, the rest saved in case the harvest fails. “The seeds can’t be found in the market,” he explains. The plants are cultivated without the use of fertilizers and pesticides—“only what nature provides,” Koveos says. The peas are harvested in June in the early morning hours and by hand as the plants, he explains, are too delicate for machines.

Machines there are, however. In an admirable case of community solidarity, he and other farmers got together to bring sorting and packaging machines to the island. Koveos’ split-peas are cleverly packaged in a minimalist brown-paper bag or, for smaller packages, in a clear bag slipped into a burlap-like diaper that recalls the sacks that corner grocery stores in earlier decades used to keep legumes and rice (traditionally these items were sold loose in bulk).

I bought packages for friends in Athens, but I hope the Schinousa fava finds the broader audience it deserves and that its more famous cousin—the Santorini fava—has acquired. For the time being, Koveos travels to food fairs across the country to promote and sell his product, winning prizes for his fava along the way. He has plans, however, to begin distributing his split peas to select delicatessens and food stores in Athens. I can’t wait.

Salty Bag’s Gear from Upcycled Sails

Everything we buy has a story, though for most products the tale is but a few words long and unrecorded, the characters shrouded in anonymity, at most a number on an inspection tag. But someone had a hand in making at least a part of it, someone who might have been falling in or out of love as they grilled our fish or sewed the lasts on our running shoe.

Salty Bag's Cassiopi Duffel

There’s no inspection tag in Salty Bag’s products. “This world does not need another bag,” the company says in one of the “Salty Rules” that make up its corporate vision. “We make sure that you buy much more than that.”  That “more” is a story, though not of the person who made it, but of its previous life. The canvas for Salty Bag’s clutches, tote bags, knapsacks and shopper’s bags comes from used sails. Inside each bag is a booklet that tells the story of the boat on which the sail that was used to make the bag once was raised. “Upcycled sails. Stories that live on,” is the company’s motto.

I had never thought of what happened to a blown-out sail when the owner was obliged to replace it. I imagined most used sails found new owners on e-bay. Boat owners, I’ve since learned, recycle old sails to serve as a sunshade for the garden patio or to make awnings or a cover for a box trailer. Some, too, give them to organizations such as Sails for Sustenance, which sends the donated sails to Haiti to be used in local fishing boats.

Still others make something out of it and sell it. It sounds like one of those ideas that in retrospect seems such a no-brainer. Without discounting the entrepreneurial vision of the Salty Bag’s founders there are precedents for upcycling sailcloth. Companies in the US, Canada and France have done this before. Seabags, for example, buys old sails—or donates the equivalent to a Maine scholarship fund—and turns them into gear bags and canvas totes. However, until Salty Bag no one in Greece had thought of doing something similar, which is surprising for a country whose culture, society and economy are so intimately linked to the sea.

Salty Bag’s upcycled bags are handsomely designed by Chryssa Calikiopoulou, a civil engineer by training with design studies at the Domus Academy in Milan. She is one of the company’s co-founders, along with Spiros Daikos and Stratis Andreadis. The three met in January 2013 at a competitive sailing seminar in Corfu. Two months later, they launched the company. In less than a year, as the Greek Reporter notes, the sailcloth in the bags Salty Bag makes—yes, in Corfu!—and sells could have covered an area of 3.5 acres.

The product line ranges from clutches and totes to oversized lunch bags and skipper and duffel bags, and includes accessories such as laptop and smartphone cases. The bags are all hand-made. Raw materials, such as thread and leather, are locally sourced wherever possible.

In an interview with the online magazine Andro, Andreadis talks about launching the firm in a time of crisis. “We’re surrounded by negative thinking,” he says. “We wanted to show that Greece is defying this pessimism. There’s innovation and creativity here, and Greece is producing quality products.”  He uses the Greek word meraki, a term that has no direct equivalent in English but signifies the pleasure—indeed passion—that craftsmen and enthusiasts alike feel when making something. “We want the world to come to know the spirit of today’s new Greek meraki.

Some of the more intriguing—and inspiring—of Salty Bag’s stories must come from the boats that raced in regattas. In a similarly inspiring act of corporate responsibility, the Salty Bag team is donating all the profits from their new “Road to Rio” line to support Greek sailing teams training to compete in the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. The bags in the line are made from the decommissioned sails that the teams have donated to Salty Bag.

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Salty Bag’s products can be found in selected shops in Athens, Thessaloniki, Hania and elsewhere in Greece, or ordered online from the company’s website.

Anassa’s Organic Herbal Teas

When I opened my first tin of Anassa’s “Pure Defense” herbal tea, I wasn’t sure whether I should prepare a cup of tea or set the herbs out in a glass bowl on the living room end-table, as one might potpourri. The mix of water mint, rosehip and dittany had a surprisingly brilliant color and fragrance.

Anassa Herbal Tea

There must be something in the way that they are dried that preserves their essential oils, color and fragrance, and I suspect (though I am no chemist), their antioxidants as well. The herbs for Anassa’s line of whole-leaf loose teas are picked and cleaned by hand. Though the herbs are certified to be organically cultivated, the firm carries out its own analyses. Samples are sent to labs at the Benaki Phytopathological Institute for quality tests. Co-founder Afroditi Florou notes: “Despite the extra cost, we want to be sure of the quality of the herbs and that none has a trace of agrochemicals.”

Florou started the firm with Yanna Matthaiou in 2012. Both had successful careers as marketing executives in the financial sector, where they first met. In an interview with Katerina Bakogianni for Kathimerini, Florou was asked why they chose to start a business on their own, and indeed in the food sector. Florou said they wanted to do something they could be proud of, and they wanted a product with the scent of Greece. They have every reason to be proud: four of their products won a “Great Taste Award” in London last year.

Matthaiou and Florou started out with their own capital, no state subsidies, and limited production. Their first point of sale was a kiosk in an upscale shopping mall in the northern suburbs of Athens. Now their teas are to be found on the shelves of select supermarkets in England, Denmark, France, Italy and Belgium. In 2014, the firm was one of four to be honored with the Hellenic Entrepreneurship Award.

With the funding, mentoring and business support that come with the award and the experience garnered over the last two years, Anassa is looking to expand. Plans include the creation of its own production unit and entry into additional markets abroad. Florou notes, though, that further development is constrained, at least for the time being, by the relative scarcity of high-quality, organically cultivated—and 100% Greek—herbs.

Aromatic and medicinal herbs figure in both Greek mythology and the writings of ancient botanists, pharmacologists and physician-philosophers, such as Hippocrates, Theophrastus and Dioscorides, whose encyclopedic compendium of medicinal plants remained a standard reference work until the 19th century. It is fitting then that Anassa’s packaging concept, designed by MNP Design, pairs each tea with the playful iconic depiction of a figure from Greek mythology: Talos, a bronze giant who circled the island of Crete daily to safeguard it from incursions of pirates and foreign invaders, is featured on the “Pure Defence” tea, and Hypnos, the Greek god of sleep, on the “Pure Peace” blend of chamomile, lavender, tisane and lemon balm. The Temeussian fox adorns the tin for the mint tea, the Athenian owl, the mountain tea.

The tin comes with accessories to prepare the tea without the need for a strainer or teapot—chlorine-free, biodegradable filters, with which you fill with tea and then thread through a thin wooden stick, creating a kind of tea bag: the stick rests on the lip of the cup while the suspended filter is immersed in the water. Not quite the Japanese tea ceremony, but a ritual nonetheless, not to mention a convenience at the office.The packaging design won a gold prize in the 2014 European Design Awards.

Anassa is a model of entrepreneurial talent, commitment to quality, and strong branding that showcases Greece at its finest. The tea is a pleasure in itself.

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In writing this post, I’ve drawn on interviews that Matthaiou and Florou have given to Myrsini Tsadarou in lifo and Katerina Bakogianni in Kathemerini (both in Greek). There’s also a corporate video, captioned in English, which is worth viewing. The beautifully designed Anassa website also deserves browsing, not only for the product details but also for its gorgeous photos of the teas.

Sardines in Extra-Virgin Olive Oil from Th!nkgreen

With a range of a few quality products, anchored in tradition but produced with a commitment to environmental responsibility, Th!inkgreen is another example of a successful, young Greek firm that has found its way into markets beyond the borders of the country.

Thinkgreen_sardines

Founded in 2003, the ISO- and Bio Hellas-certified company focuses on organic products associated with the traditional Greek diet such as extra-virgin olive oil and blackhead Throumba olives, and canned fish; along with smoked yellow-fin tuna and anchovies in cold-pressed olive oil, Th!nkgreen also produces canned sardines.

Whether fresh or preserved in salt, brine or olive oil, sardines have formed part of the Mediterranean diet since antiquity. For centuries the humble pilchard was a cheap and relatively abundant source of protein. While it remains a great nutritional deal, stocks are at risk because of poor fishery management and overfishing. It’s not because of the sardine’s popularity, at least not directly. The vast majority of the world’s catch winds up as fish meal for animal feed or aquaculture. A staggering 80% – 90% of the landings of pelagic forage fish such as sardines and anchovies goes into fish meal. Of this about two-thirds is used to feed farmed fish. Most of us eat our sardines in food like chicken and farmed salmon.

The Marine Conservation Society has classified the European pilchard within a range of “mostly sustainable” to “under pressure”. The Monterrey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch recommends that sardines caught in the Mediterranean generally be avoided. Although there is some evidence to suggest a slight recovery in the sardine stock in the Aegean, it makes sense to reap the benefits of this heart-healthy fish from products of companies committed to sustainable fishing.

Th!nkgreen is one of those firms. The company was the first in Greece to receive Friend of the Earth (FOE) certification for sustainable agriculture and is involved in projects to improve the sustainability of fishing and to designate zones of sustainable fishing in the Northern Aegean. Its yellow-fin tuna already comes from certified sustainable fisheries.

As you may know, sardines are a nutritional powerhouse, rich in protein, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D, selenium and calcium. Just 90 grams of this wonder fish provides over 300% of the daily recommended allowance of vitamin B12. Since it’s low on the food chain—the fish feeds on zooplankton—the sardine is also low in the toxic organic compound of mercury, methylmercury, which bioaccumulates in larger fish higher up the chain. To get an idea of how much lower, consider that gram for gram, swordfish have 75 times the amount of mercury that is found in sardines; even the staple canned albacore tuna has 35 times the mercury in the sardine.

What a shame, then, that one of the most inexpensive marine sources of omega-3 fatty acids often comes packed in a bland unnamed vegetable oil. Th!nkgreen, however, preserves their North Aegean sardines in organic, heart-healthy extra-virgin olive oil. I found the fish had a firm flesh and was less salty and a bit more fragrant of the sea than others. A good choice for a mezes, simply dressed with a little lemon juice and sprinkling of parsley, or tossed with pasta in a sauce of lightly sauteed grape tomatoes, capers, and a bit of garlic.

Ideally I should have tasted the fish without the influence of politics—or design (for which I have a particular weakness). Eschewing the retro aesthetic that seems de riguer for such traditional products as anchovies and sardines, Th!nkgreen has opted for a strikingly minimalist packaging that substitutes a palette of dark blue and deep orange (and a few fish) for the green in its name. It’s a bold but fitting choice for a company that is trying to make a difference, and not only in its balance sheet.

Cookisto Home-Cooked Food Network

The studio apartment I had in graduate school shared a lightwell with another three apartments. None of my neighbors were particularly noisy but man, could they cook! Sunday afternoons as I was tied to my desk finishing up a paper or preparing for the next day’s seminar, my apartment would fill with the aroma of meatballs being fried or lamb roasting in the oven. I still remember late afternoons in the fall when my concentration was completely broken by the smell of an apple pie baking in a neighbor’s oven.

Cookisto’s co-founders Michalis Gkontas and Petros Pitsilis, photo by Thomas Gravanis
Cookisto’s co-founders Michalis Gkontas and Petros Pitsilis, photo by Thomas Gravanis

As a single and relatively poor student I relied heavily on take-out, salads and the university cafeteria. My cooking, if you can call it that, was confined to things like macaroni ‘n cheese, tuna casserole and now and then a pan-fried pork chop.

Of course I never dared ask for a portion of my neighbors’ cooking, though I was on friendly terms with most of them, and I imagine they would have cut me a piece of lasagna had I asked. The irony is that they probably had a few servings left over anyway. I would have paid. And at least one of my neighbors, a retired unmarried woman trying to make ends meet on a small pension, would have been glad for the extra cash. If only Cookisto had been around then.

Cookisto is an online community that connects amateur cooks and hungry city residents. The idea is diabolically simple. Like me at graduate school, there are lots of people who can’t or don’t want to cook, but would love an inexpensive home-cooked meal. And there are people, like my pensioner neighbor, who are cooking anyway—and usually more than they can eat—and might be interested in selling the extra portions. Connect the two and let them exchange food for cash.

Home page of the Cookisto website

Cookisto says its “gourmets”—the order placers, as it were—are people who don’t have the time, energy or talent to cook. Or people who are tired of take-out or simply can’t afford it anymore. We are in the middle of a protracted and deep recession after all. And the cooks? Talented enthusiasts who are glad of the public recognition of their skills or who just want to earn a little extra cash.

Cooks list the dish, number of servings available and cost per serving, as well as a time frame within which the user can pick up the order. As a user, you begin by entering your location and then are presented with a list of the day’s menu offerings in their area, as well as a map of the cooks in your area. You find what you want to eat, contact the cook and arrange the pick up (the site rightfully recommends that this not happen in the cook’s home). Many of the cooks registered with Cookisto even deliver, within a 1 km radius of their homes. Most of the dishes are down-to-earth and relatively healthy Greek home cooking, things like braised chicken with okra, zucchini and cheese pie, baked elephant beans. Prices seem very reasonable. The cooks in my neighborhood are offering dishes like stuffed peppers and tomatoes with rice and minced beef for €4, chicken and mushroom pie for €2, and chickpea stew for €2.

Cookisto has no way of knowing how scrupulously its cooks observe the rules of hygiene or of determining the quality and freshness of ingredients they use. One security gateway, admittedly very basic, is provided by linking the cooks’ profiles to their Facebook and Twitter accounts and even telephone numbers, but this is in itself no guarantee against tasteless food or food-borne pathogens. No, the most important quality check naturally comes from users’ reviews and you can bet a case of chicken fricassee staph would get reported quickly (and no, there hasn’t been a single case reported. .On the contrary, the overwhelming majority of reviews have been very favorable.). In fact, given the immediacy and reach of social-networking feedback, you probably have more information on the quality of the food that Cookisto cooks prepare than you would for the food you eat in restaurants. By the way, users rate not only the quality of the dish itself but also the quantity or size of the portion and the reliability of the cook.

Cookisto was founded by two long-time friends, Mihalis Gkontas and Petros Pitsilis,  with Master’s degrees in Global Entrepreneurship and Management, respectively. The idea for the platform grew out of the business plan that Gkontas completed for his thesis project. The rest of the team includes Yannis Asimakopoulos and the duo responsible for the technical side of the project, Panayiotis Paradellis, and Dimosthenes Nikoudis.

Since the launch of the beta platform at the end of July this year, Cookisto has registered 285 cooks and 2155 ‘gourmets’, who’ve placed more than 400 orders. An auspicious start which, with the introduction of new features such as the ability to pre-order a dish in the cook’s repertory, is poised to make Cookisto a very visible feature on the city’s budget-range gastronomic map.

Bio-Insecta Biological Pest Management

In Greece the ladybug (paschalitsa) is considered gouriko, a sign of good luck, as it is in Russia and Italy. As a child I was aware there were bugs you could kill without compunction and a few you shouldn’t. And squashing a ladybug was tantamount to sin. There was a reason for this, one that was not particularly relevant for a kid in the city, but of great importance to his great-great-grandparent farmers. Ladybugs eat the aphids that feed on—and destroy—crops.

Bio-Insecta predatory and parasitic insects
Bio-Insecta predatory and parasitic insects

Of course, bugs and worms that prey on or parasitize pests have been a part of agriculture for centuries, before they were displaced in large part by chemical pesticides. The emergence and growth of organic farming has led to a rediscovery—and further development—of biological pest management.

Organic farmers, who eschew the use of chemical pesticides, have an array of alternatives to controlling the pests that feed on their crops: crop rotation, physical barriers, natural fungicides, plant extracts and bacterial toxins. They can also make changes to the habitat of the beneficial insects that are already present in their fields and that prey on or parasitize pests, changes that help enhance their survival and reproduction. But they can also boost the size of the population of these beneficial insects by buying more such bugs and releasing them at critical periods during the season.

Buying bugs is not as odd as it sounds. As early as 300 CE, nests of weaver ants were sold in Asia to control infestations of the deservedly grossly named lychee giant stink bug. And yes, there are companies that do just this.

Bio-Insecta is one of them, and a rare and inspiring instance in Greece in which a government-funded research project spun off a robust, rapidly growing company with sales not only in Greece but abroad. In 2005 Pavlos Skenteridis, an entomologist with a doctoral degree from ImperialCollege, joined a two-year project funded by the General Secretariat for Research and Technology to explore ways to exploit the range of native beneficial insects in Greece. In 2007 Skenteridis established Bio-Insecta, the first company of its kind in Greece, and began to supply farms in Crete, the Peloponnese, Macedonia and other areas of Greece with the predatory and parasitoid insects mass-produced in the company’s laboratories in Thermi outside Thessaloniki. Ladybugs, of course, but also tiny wasps that parasitize the larvae of the leaf-miner, nematode worms that feed on vine weevils and cabbage maggots, mites that prey on fungus gnats and thrips.

Skenteridis says his company is still small in comparison to the other 30 firms in Europe that produce biological control agents. Still, with 25% of his production being exported to Spain, Italy, the UK and elsewhere, the four-year old firm is already making its mark, and plans are underway to expand the range of beneficial indigenous insects that the company produces. The firm won the Hellenic Entrepreneurship Association’s “Green Dream Competition” in 2011.

One of the greatest challenges the firm faces is the widespread lack of knowledge among local farmers. Whereas over 95% of cucumber crop in the Netherlands, for example, is grown with the help of biological pest management, only 2% of the crop in Greece is cultivated in this way. To its credit, the company has created and trained a network of local technical advisors. This support complements a range of (distributed) products such as pherome traps and biopesticides, which, in addition to the helpful bugs it produces, enable cultivators to adopt an integrated eco-friendly and in the end more economical approach to pest management.