Photo: UNDP Azerbaijan/Elmar Mustafayev. Seymur Yusifov helps his imprisoned brother Taleh run the beekeeping family business, which they set up with funding from the European Union while Taleh was serving his term in prison. Shaki, Azerbaijan, 2019

Taleh is 31 years old. He’s been in prison for over 4 years and has yet another 1.5 years to go until his term in prison ends. Four years ago he was working as an auto mechanic in a car repair shop in Shaki. He was young and happy and had his whole life ahead of him. Taleh was in love and engaged with a woman of his dreams. They were planning their wedding party and thinking about their future together when a tragic car accident put their plans into perspective. Taleh is now serving his term in the Shaki penitentiary facility and counting his days to be reunited with his fiancée again and start a new life after a long and arduous journey of incarceration. His early months in prison were filled with an agony and depression. He was angry with himself and the entire world for what had happened.

“I had no idea what was going to happen in the future. In my eyes there was no hope for tomorrow” –says Taleh recalling his first year in prison. Gradually things started to change for the better for Taleh and more than 180 other prisoners in Shaki, who were able to master bankable skills to build a more sustainable living for themselves and their families –while serving their sentence. In 2016-2018, nine business ideas generated by prisoners received financial support from the EU and UNDP. Taleh’s business proposal on beekeeping was one of them and it all grew from there. That changed everything.

Beekeeping was something he’d had passion for since his childhood. Many years ago his family specialised in raising honey bees. For decades, his great grandparents and uncles kept beehives in their backyards producing honey for domestic use only. Over time, however, the tradition was lost, and there were days when Taleh couldn’t find a spoonful of honey in his home in Shaki. But not anymore. While Taleh is still in prison, UNDP, through its local civil society partner in Shaki –the “Uluchay” Social-Economic Innovation Centre has helped him establish a honey-making farm of his own.

Now, Taleh’s brother Seymur and their uncle operate Taleh’s honey bee farm togeteher, making it a full-time job for their smallholder family business. They sell honey—it sells by word of mouth faster than they could harvest it.  Neighbours in that area say it tastes amazing! They also manufacture and sell all sorts of beekeeping equipment, such as beehives, frames, straps and excluders. Moreover, Taleh’s newly established business sells bees to other local beekeepers in Shaki and in other nearby regions, thus, helping the community grow more bees while also rebuilding his family’s decades-long beekeeping tradition.

Taleh now sees the light at the end of the dark tunnel as he now has a purpose in life and a hope for a better and a more joyful future. He no longer fears that he will be unemployed after the discharge. His beekeeping business is thriving. It has already helped improve the livelihoods of Taleh’s extended family members now waiting for him to reunite with them and start a new life –dreaming big. 

How it all started

In 2016, UNDP, in close collaboration with the Shaki Regional Office of the Ministry of Justice of the Republic of Azerbaijan and together with a local NGO, the “Uluchay” Social-Economic Innovation Centre, launched a joint two-year project on the provision of legal aid, rehabilitation and reintegration support to prisoners in Azerbaijan.

In Azerbaijan, prisoners face many hardships as they re-enter society after their release from detention. UNDP’s joint project with Uluchay was tackling exactly this. Facing stigma and numerous societal barriers, it becomes increasingly difficult for the released ex-offenders to find employment, secure housing, re-connect with their families and community and basically to return to their normal life routine once they are allowed out of prison. Oftentimes they struggle trying to access legal and psychological support services that are otherwise available to those who do not have a prior criminal record. People with a history of conviction often lack an opportunity to get higher education and build a career as they are also regarded with suspicion when they go to job interviews with potential employers. All these barriers coupled with prejudice and stigma have a negative impact on mental and overall well-being of people with a history of offensive behaviour and may even result in recidivism. According to official data released by Azerbaijan’s Justice Ministry, the rate of repeated criminal offences tended to hijack every year between 2012 and 2014, with a 13.5% increase in 2012, a 13.8% increase in 2013 and a 15.7% increase in the following year. Tapping on an unmet demand, this project sought to reduce the likelihood of repeated criminal behaviours by providing support services to inmates and, more specifically, addressing an acute shortage of vocational skills among the prisoners of the Shaki prison.

From Darkness to Light

In less than two years, the project had a positive impact on the lives of inmates, by giving them hope for a better future. Most importantly, it taught them business skills necessary for income generation and helped them build a sustainable living for their families. The result of this unique initiative was that close to 500 inmates of the Shaki prison in Azerbaijan received legal aid, while more than 70 women in the Shaki community benefited from the legal aid which had been provided to their core family members –husbands, fathers and brothers serving their term in prison. Overall, 443 inmates benefitted from psychological support, and more than a hundred learned the essentials of business start-up and development that will help them to re-integrate into society after their release. Nine business ideas generated by prisoners received financial support from the EU and UNDP, including a sewing workshop, a carwash, 3 workshops for woodwork handicrafts, a woodcutting workshop for vegetable containers, 2 woodcutting workshops for furniture and a bee-keeping business.

The project was part of a broader initiative led by UNDP with financial support from the European Union and aimed at enabling civil society to play a greater role in promoting socio-economic rights of vulnerable population groups.  Uluchay was one of the total of 12 not-for-profits who received funding from the EU under this framework project. Each of the 12 organisations under this partnership framework has led their specific sub-projects aimed at improving the lives of vulnerable population groups, from social, economic, legal and/or policy perspectives.

This partnership with 12 select civil society organisations brought a broad range of human-centric projects to life in 17 locations across Azerbaijan, including Baku, Sumgayit, Shirvan, Salyan, Lankaran, Khachmaz, Guba, Balakan, Zaqatala, Gakh, Shaki, Mingachevir, Oguz, Gabala, Goychay, Samukh and Ganja.

Results at a glance

During the two years of the project implementation period, close to half a million people improved their knowledge of social, economic and political rights, existing national policies (specifically those pertaining to the wellbeing of vulnerable population, such as people with disabilities, women, prisoners, etc), employment strategies for the most deprived, business development techniques and practices, organisational management, campaigning and advocacy tools, communications, monitoring and evaluations, social work and fundamentals of social services to population, data visualisation and data journalism. All in all, 32 community-based initiatives received small grants from the European Union, through UNDP’s facilitation. Over 220 people, including their family members, were able to improve their livelihoods as a result of joint EU-UNDP support.

Living conditions and household support were improved for around 6000 individuals. Around 3000 individuals benefitted from free legal aid and psychological counselling. This included people with disabilities and development challenges, women and girls, prison inmates and their extended family members. Over 2000 people passed the EU and UNDP-provided training of trainers.

Together with a broad range of partners from amidst the country's civil society organisations, UNDP has developed 84 knowledge products, including manuals, toolkits, training resources, monitoring and evaluation standards and additionally a collection of 35 policy papers and analytical resources pertaining to various aspects of socio-economic and legal provisions for vulnerable groups of population. 

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