Small Business Development in Southern Azerbaijan
That title sounds like it should be fancier that what you’re going to read, like it should be a short chapter in a World Bank report or something. The highlights, though, are fairly intriguing. They are two Peace Corps Volunteer-led projects that are burgeoning here in the southern finger of Azerbaijan, focusing on cottage industry and community-based tourism. Yes, this is a shameless advertisement for their impeccable services.
First, let’s talk about Mason’s project going on in Lerik. The Azerbaijani government claims that tourism is one of the main industries they want to focus on for development in their country over the next few years:
The Government of Azerbaijan has set the development of Azerbaijan as an elite tourist destination a top priority. It is a national strategy to make tourism a major, if not the single largest, contributor to the Azerbaijani economy.
So why not have a PCV do it? I don’t think they really know what a goldmine Mason is building here. First, Lerik is gorgeous. A beautiful, mountainous region, an hour taxi ride away from the sea in Lənkəran. You can move from below sea level to 1000m up in half an hour. Lerik is a sleepy mountain town that has excellent views and great hiking in the surrounding peaks and valleys of the Talysh mountains. Mason is looking to take advantage of these assets and giving access to tourists. In his hours of scaling mountains, he’s created a small network of villages where individual families have agreed to host tourists for a small payment, as well as provide those tourists with the opportunity to do some ‘living like the locals,’ making tandir bread, hiking, or horseback riding. The homestay family provides the experience and the tourists get the benefits of gaining some insight into village life. It’s also taking place up in Qusar, in the north, with Micah and Mason coordinating efforts up there, vetting potential home-stay families and mapping out the network. Check out the website and the beautiful pictures here. I especially enjoy the gallery.
Second, we have the Talysh Sock business. This one is a Peace Corps darling of the Lənkəran region. Started a few years ago with PCVs, they hooked up with a man at the bazaar and a woman who knits beautiful wool Talysh socks. Until now, it’s mainly been an export business for Peace Corps Volunteers and their families back home. Hiba and a local woman, Nurana, had the run of the business before. While I help out a little, Eli has really taken up the reins here. He’s ramped up the service with an online store. You can order the socks online and have them at your doorstep in a matter of weeks. The designs are beautiful Talysh patterns, and there’s very little that’s warmer than a pair of plush Talysh socks in the winter. And who doesn’t want warm, hand-made socks from the women of the Talysh mountains? Eli continues to work with our man from the bazaar, and he’s also enlisted the help of a few local Azeris, Elnur and Vüsal, who could potentially take the business off the hands of the PCVs, which is one of the big goals. We like sustainability. This project is also community-oriented. Not only providing some development opportunities for individuals, profits from the activities, after paying for the socks and paying the links in the chain (PCVs get zero money from this venture), the accumulated money goes into a Peace Corps community project fund.
Check ’em out. I think you’ll dig what we’ve got moving down here in southern Azerbaijan.