Small business support helps women in rural Azerbaijan to change their lives and transform their communities
Rashada, a 47-year-old mother of two, is a highly skilled seamstress living in the city of Masalli in the south of Azerbaijan. Despite decades of work experience, she has struggled to make a living from her craft. The quality linens and wedding trousseaus she sews are highly marketable in Masalli. But meeting this demand requires more even than hard work, determination and skills can supply.
“There are four of us living in one small room,” she explains. “There’s not enough space for my sewing-machine, let alone the fabrics.”
Without a proper workspace she had no hope of ever getting a business off the ground.
It’s an all-too-common story of skills gone to waste for want of opportunities and entrepreneurial know-how – especially in remote rural areas of Azerbaijan, and particularly among women raising families.
In Masalli, this lack of opportunities for women to make the most of their marketable skills is now being addressed head-on by a USAID and UNDP funded project helping women to gain the business skills and assistance they need to start up their own business ventures. Implemented by UNDP, in collaboration with the State Committee for Family, Women and Children’s Affairs, the project provides training workshops on how to turn business ideas into start-ups and how to expand existing businesses.
“If you have a good business idea the project will supply you with non-financial assistance like equipment, livestock or poultry, or help with renovating premises,” explains Gulara Humbatova, the manager of the Economic Empowerment for Entrepreneurship and Employment project. “We have free business training, life-skills training and computer literacy classes.”
The project ties the promotion of female entrepreneurship with support for women’s active involvement in public life. Five Women Resource Centres, established in the regions of Sabirabad, Bilasuvar, Neftchala, Salyan and Masalli, are helping to build and expand networks of rural women, providing free internet access, computer labs and libraries.
Rashada first learnt of this training opportunity from an old friend who called to tell her about the project she’d heard about at Masalli’s new Women’s Resource Centre.
“I went along the next day,” she says. “There were twenty of us listening carefully to the presentation – but when it was over and they asked us to come up with ideas we all fell silent! Then I thought to myself ‘Well I don’t have anything to lose!’ and so I put my hand up and told them my idea.”
Her idea was to restart and expand her sewing business by solving the problem of lack of workspace. With the training and help provided by the project, she proposed to convert an abandoned old shed in the yard of her apartment building into a workshop.
“It seemed so simple and I never really thought it would ever be a ‘business plan’. But they took me seriously and I started the training.”
Rashada and her fellow trainees found the classes not only interesting and useful but also great opportunities for building new friendships. Amongst Rashada’s new friends from the project are Guler and Leyla.
Guler’s idea for a business was to set up computer classes in her village, with courses for young schoolchildren and teenagers preparing for college.
Leyla’s proposal was to start a small dairy farm, and she was keen to learn how to make this business viable.
Together with the other project participants, Rashada, Guler and Leyla learnt how to develop a business plan, analyse market needs, organize production and build relations with customers and employees.
Since completing their training, the three classmates have gone on to make a success of their skills and new business know-how.
The project helped Rashada build a workshop and expand her business. With the money she saved she was able to start building walls for the workshop so she could keep her business running through the autumn and winter. Impressed by her effort and by the impact of the project on local women entrepreneurship, the regional government in Masalli has contributed funds to help finish the walls.
Guler got new computers, a printer and office furniture, while the skills she acquired have helped her identify potential customers and prepare a sound budget proposal. As well as running educational courses to make a living, Guler provides free classes for schoolchildren and teachers in the village school.
The project helped Leyla to buy cows and connected her to other dairy farmers for advice and mentorship. Her success has inspired many of her friends and relatives to consider taking up training to make a business form dairy and poultry farming.
By the end of 2017 the number of women-led businesses assisted by the project in five regions had reached 80 and the number of members of the Women Resource Center in Masalli had grown from 12 to 253.