Rahila Mirzamammadova can hardly believe the changes she has recently made in her life.
“I’m fifty-seven years old and I’ve never been happier than I am today,” she says, “What about that!”
Born in a remote village in north-eastern Azerbaijan, Rahila grew up in a poor farming family. She cannot remember a single day when she hasn’t been busy just trying to get by from one day to the next.
Together with her brother and four sisters, Rahila started working from an early age, helping her parents in their daily struggle to scrape a living from crops and cattle on a small plot of rented land on the slopes of Mount Shahdag in the Greater Caucasus range.
Like many children from remote regions of Azerbaijan – especially girls in large families – Rahila never had a chance to continue her education after high school. Since childhood, all of her time and energy have been devoted to sustaining her family – working in the fields, cooking and cleaning and caring for the young and elderly.
Even today, living in the village of Khuray with her two sons now raising children of their own, Rahila devotes most of her time to caring for the nine people living under her roof.
For all her hard work, Rahila has never been able to earn her own income; and for all her devotion to others, she has been frustrated by not being able to make her own financial contributions.
This frustration came to a head recently when one of her grandchildren had to undergo major brain surgery and all of the family’s savings were spent on the operation. Rahila even had to sell the three cows that had helped keep the family going in hard times.
“That’s when I knew I had to earn some money myself to get us out of the situation,” she says, “But it’s next to impossible to find a job with a wage in this village, especially as a woman.“
The socio-economic challenges faced by Rahila are common in many remote areas of Azerbaijan, and overcoming them by empowering women is the key aim of a network of Women’s Resource Centres established by the State Committee for Family, Women and Children Affairs and UNDP.
The Center in Rahila’s region was funded with the generous support of the Swiss Agency for Cooperation and Development, in partnership with UN Women.
For Rahila, the new Centre in Qusar became a beacon of hope and she applied for the women’s empowerment programme as soon as the opportunity arose. “I didn’t have a specific idea for a business when I applied,” she admits, “I just knew I had to take this chance.”
Thinking up a feasible business proposal is difficult in most contexts, let alone in the constrained market of a remote village. The secret, Rahila says, is to be as realistic as possible:
“I thought hard about it and I decided the one thing every village needs is bread, and their favourite bread is tandoor bread but no one has a tandoor oven.”
Rahila’s business plan was approved and she successfully applied for a full range of professional bread-making equipment, including a dough-making machine, mixers and a fridge. Today she is the proud owner of the only bakery in the village selling tandoor bread, with demand rapidly increasing.
“It wasn’t always easy. I know how to make tandoor the way the locals want,” she says, “but it’s a small market and it was hard to break even at first. Then the summer tourists started coming and the bread was selling faster than I could make it.”
Adapting to new tastes and opportunities, Rahila has been experimenting with different kinds of bread, including qutab, a flatbread made of thinly rolled dough and stuffed with herbs, mashed potato, mincemeat, pumpkin, cheese or chestnuts.
Rahila’s dream is to open a cosy local restaurant that also attracts tourists to experience the magnificent hospitality and cuisine of the old Quba-Qusar region.