Getting out of a jam: Supporting traditional farmers and small business owners during COVID-19
24 February 2022
Go to any dinner table in Azerbaijan and you’ll find dried fruits and jams. There are cherry, plum, pear, peach, raspberry and strawberry jams. And then there are the more exotic jams made from pomegranates, pumpkins, rose petals, walnuts, and watermelons.
In fact, Azerbaijanis are only half-joking when they say that jam can be made from anything — if you just add sugar.
Jam has an important place in Azerbaijani culture and economy.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, different aspects of the jam production chain, from farmers to distributors, were affected, contributing to socio-economical losses across communities.
To recover better together, the UN country team in Azerbaijan has been supporting local initiatives that contributed to bringing this key element of the local culture and economy back to the table, while protecting lives and livelihoods.
Turning a hobby into a business
A year before the COVID-19 outbreak, Tahmina Isayeva started a small business producing and selling dried fruits. She relied on a traditional but time-consuming method of drying the fruits naturally under the sun.
“In the beginning, it was my hobby,” says Tahmina. Her business “started quite well, and [her] acquaintances became [her] first consumers.” Within a year she produced close to “300 kilograms of dried fruits,” while doing all the harvesting or purchasing of her raw materials herself.
“The pandemic was a big challenge for my business”, recalls Tahmina, and to keep her enterprise going, she sought support by joining a project implemented by Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) to assist people like her.
She acquired technical knowledge to manage her business more effectively while receiving additional support from Women Resource Center, a women’s empowerment initiative established by the Azerbaijani State Committee for Family, Women and Children Affairs and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).
Tahmina succeeded and became the first commercial producer of dried fruits in her village.
But her goal was not simply to make more money for herself. She also wanted to support other women like her to earn additional income through small business initiatives.
“I kept searching for tips to improve my business and now I’ve begun involving other women,” Tahmina said.
Leveraging new farming techniques
Fruits and vegetables are also particularly important to another Azerbaijani farmer, Jalal Alakbarov. His family has been in the business for many years, mostly relying on traditional production methods. As part of a new generation of farmers, Jalal is regularly looking to innovate and improve the family business.
He was among those who attended one of FAO’s special training programmes, learning how to improve farming business, reach more markets, and ensure food and nutrition security.
“I’ve gained new experiences, from growing crops to pest control. For example, I have decided to use greenhouses instead of growing my produce in an open field. In 10 years, I achieved a significant increase in the yield and profitability of my farm,” says Jalal.
Jalal’s business also faced challenges following the COVID-19 outbreak. Quarantine measures to prevent the spread of the virus created a shock. As income decreased, so too did consumption, and market prices for fruits and vegetables went down.
But he leveraged knowledge acquired through the FAO trainings. And, as “doctors recommended [people] eat healthy food and include fruits and vegetables on [their diet during the pandemic],” Jalal had the know-how to leverage the opportunity and offset the lower market prices for his products.
Hard work pays off
Isa Aliyev is another successful local fruit and jam producer in Azerbaijan. His specialty is homemade jams extracted from strawberry, pear, cherry, and tea-rose petals. But it is his green walnut jam that customers are after.
Making walnut jam is a lengthy process that involves many different stages of preparation and meticulous timing. “This is our main business,” said Isa. “It is a really time-consuming complex process, which takes up to 15 days to get a product ready for sale.”
Although consumers’ purchasing power reduced almost five times over during the pandemic, Isa did not give up. Instead of thinking that the pandemic interrupted the lifestyle, he rather sees it as an opportunity for reflection.
“Tea in Azerbaijan is traditionally served with jams, so our products will definitely be in demand again,” Isa said, smiling.
With the desire to improve their practices and businesses, Tahmina, Jalal and Isa have been in touch with FAO. For more than a decade, FAO, together with the Government of Azerbaijan and other partners including the European Union, have been implementing programmes to boost the knowledge of farming communities in Azerbaijan.
Recently, UNDP implemented similar programmes to provide resilient livelihoods for vegetable and fruit farmers from the country.
These initiatives aim to support Azerbaijan in moving towards a more diversified and efficient economy that could accelerate progress towards the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.
This article draws on the previously published content by UN in Azerbaijan. The adapted version was produced with the editorial support from DCO’s editorial team with special thanks to our colleagues from the UN Country Team and FAO in Azerbaijan.
UN entities involved in this initiative
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations