To visit Armenia is to become rapidly aware of a strong sense of national identity and pride in being Armenian – tinged with a sense of that identity being under threat. The Armenian genocide of 1915 is a subject that crops up in conversation, and in the on-going conflict with Azerbaijan, fatalities amongst soldiers on both sides are reported on an almost daily basis. This rarely makes international news. A look at the map shows a small Christian country surrounded along most of its border by Islamic countries, although this is a simplistic divider. The complexities of regional politics should not be reduced to or fanned by religious differences – but the context is quite fragile.
Figs, persimmons and pomegranates
HELVETAS has no country programme in Armenia, but it does partner with the local NGO CARD (Centre for Agribusiness and Rural Development) in managing the Markets for Meghri (M4M) project, supported by the Swiss Agency for Development Cooperation. This project operates in the southernmost part of the country, right by the Iranian border. Here the climate in the valley bottoms allows for the cultivation of figs, persimmons and pomegranates. During Soviet times, the area employed many people in mining and other local factories (including agri-processing), but today most of the factories have closed and the mining industry is greatly reduced. In seeking to support the area’s future development, horticulture was identified as having the greatest potential, with the fresh fruit market being seen as particularly promising. Fruits ripen earlier in Meghri than in other parts of the country, and have a reputation for exceptional quality. The project was designed according to the M4P approach – now more commonly known as Markets Systems Development.
Employment for women
When I first visited Meghri in 2011, it was to see how women could be involved more actively in the project. Horticulture was seen as a predominately male activity, although women play an essential support to the industry – especially in fruit processing. Women lamented the lack of regular jobs in the area, and pointed to an exceptionally high women’s unemployment rate of over 70%. The second phase of the project therefore expanded support to the processing of local fruit and other products. The project now works with women producing dried fruits of improved quality using electric driers; pomegranate jam; fruit bars and fruit cereal bars; and a range of herbal teas. Two particularly dynamic in this regard whom I met are Lucine Poghosyan and Nane Sargsyan.
Lucine’s production of herbal teas
At 38, Lucine is a widowed mother of four children. She married on leaving school at the age of 18, and helped her husband in their persimmon orchards. But she had wider ambitions – and the death of her husband forced her into taking more entrepreneurial steps. “As a child, I dreamed of having my own business and I thought of herbal teas. Where I was born [in the village of Shvanidzor] we always went to the mountains to collect herbs to make our own mixes.” The project linked Lucine with an entrepreneur in Yerevan who specialises in teas and “tea condiments” and is keen to promote an ethnic element in his products. The Angel Tea and Adam’s Tea that Lucine supplies him are thus marketed as Meghri products, down to the use on the packaging of wall paintings from the local chapel. Apparently these are particularly popular amongst tourists visiting Yerevan. Lucine has been approached by others in the tea business who are interested in sourcing herbs from her.
Nane’s fruit bars
Nane is a university qualified vet, and is employed as such by the government on a demand basis. “Demand for veterinary services is limited and seasonal, so I can’t get by on this income alone. Of course I will keep my post, but I needed to find an additional source of income”. At 35, Nane (in the picture) is unmarried and lives with her parents, grandmother and sister. Working with the same Yerevan-based entrepreneur as Lucine, Nane has started making fruit bars as well as pomegranate jam. The bars are delicious, and come in different varieties: not only a mix of the Meghri valley fruits, but also apple, peach and plum from higher areas. So far Nane, her family members and a number of other local women have been producing them in the family kitchen and living room (when we visit, her home is full of tray after tray of bars). Demand outstrips supply; the Yerevan entrepreneur claims he could sell far more. Nane plans to convert the family basement and to move and expand production there.
To date, these are very small scale initiatives – but they have growth potential. As a first step, the project linked them to a specific USAID-supported grant mechanism for women entrepreneurs. Yet neither Lucine nor Nane would get very far in their expanision plans without access to credit. Here the project arranged for both women to attend a course on developing a business plan, and linked them to opportunities for credit at what are locally good rates of interest. The aim is of course that not only they gain income, but that they also employ many other women in the process. It is further hoped that many of those women will be ones living in poorer more remote villages – where the herbs grow, and where Nane sources some of her fruits.