Tajikistan? If you are like many of my friends, you’re probably saying to yourself right now, “Oh, that’s one of the ‘stans”. It is, and, do you know where it is? It is a country that the Silk Road went through, shares borders with Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and China, and where only 25% of businesses are led by women. In September 2017, Miller Center partnered with the Aga Khan Foundation on a USAID PACE funded project, Central Asia Accelerate Prosperity (CA-AP). The goal of the three-year program is to catalyze small and growing businesses in Tajikistan, particularly women-owned, women-operated and/or having significant impact on women’s employment. Measures of success are the number of women-led businesses accelerated, the number of jobs created for women, and the amount of capital invested into the organizations. Specifically, at the end of the three years, 23 businesses must be funded with AP’s investments leveraging private investments. Our role is to support the Accelerate Prosperity (AP) team, an on-the-ground partner, to accelerate businesses and to work with local finance institutions to create women-friendly financial products so women-leaders can get the capital they need to grow their businesses.
In early December 2018, Anastasiya Litvinova, a Miller Center GSBI mentor and all-star investment facilitation consultant, and I went to Dushanbe (the capital of Tajikistan) to kick off the project. Through 2019 we continued to support the AP team virtually and returned to Dushanbe a year later. During the first year, the AP team has been busy offering acceleration service with many companies, including running its first women-only cohort of incubation services. That has resulted in investing in eight businesses for a total of $73K with two investments pending.
Miller Center Support Provided
Over the last year and a quarter, Anastasiya and I have supported AP by:
Sharing our GSBI curriculum and financial models
Reviewing AP’s curriculum to ensure it is gender-neutral
Supporting AP in building a mentor network
Meeting with local financial institutions to introduce women-friendly financial products
Training the AP team on investment structuring and alternative forms of financing
Creating an investment process that works for the team
What we have learned, and it isn’t a surprise, is the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Tajikistan is very, very nascent, with little support for women-led organizations. It is a challenge to build a strong mentor network and attract new investors because of the perceived risks in early-stage businesses, currency fluctuations, and the political environment, to name a few. There are no angel networks and if you look at the impact investing community, not many funds are focused on Central Asia. Our role is helping all the stakeholders create tools and techniques to get more comfortable with the risks in order to invest and get more businesses to the next stage.
Banks in Tajikistan, like everywhere else, are risk averse. Trying to get them to adopt financial products that don’t require collateral for instance, is very, very difficult. One of the banks we have been engaged with, MLO, will get board approval this month on a financial product for women-led businesses and pilot it January – March 2020. The other, First Microfinance Bank (FMFB) is still reticent.
On the other hand, we met some powerful women leaders. Last year when we were in Dushanbe, we met Mrs. Mirazorova, founder of a “healthy” candy company. She had experience in the confectionary business but had just started her own company. On the day we went to visit her factory this year, she received the permit she needed to sell her candy. As you can see from the pictures, she had lots of boxes ready to go to stores that had agreed to sell her products.
We got to hear her plans for scaling both in volume and in products. Her plans and passion sounded like many Silicon Valley entrepreneurs.
At the beginning of the article, I mentioned that Tajikistan was on the Silk Road and it is also a post-Soviet country. As we walked through the city and into buildings, we saw all of the cultural aspects come together. Looking at a building it looks like it could be in Russia— heavy, imposing—but then you walk in and it is so ornately decorated, you’d swear you’re in Turkey. I love how seemingly mismatched aspects all come together and create a beautiful new connection with place and time.
Miller Center will support AP through September 2020, knowing that they will continue to accelerate women-led businesses in Tajikistan, increasing the percentage of women-led businesses nationally.