Saadat Dibirova’s story of fortitude as strong as black tea
A resident of Yukhari Tala, a rural settlement in Azerbaijan’s northwestern administrative district of Zagatala, and a beneficiary of an EU initiative, Saadat Dibirova speaks of the women who founded Çinar, the country’s first women’s cooperative.
We named it Çinar…
“There is a majestic plane (Çinar) tree, 850 years of age, standing in the center of Zagatala. When we were forming our group in the spring of 2021, we named it Çinar after the town’s prominent landmark. We wanted our business to look like its namesake, long lasting, and uniting people under its umbrella. Being a group of 12 women, with a mean age of 50 , we made a very interesting journey that involved twenty-one months of very intensive work, and eventually led us to a logical destination – a decision we made recently to found the first women’s cooperative in Azerbaijan.
When you called me, we all were in the tax department to register our cooperative. I was looking at those women with pride. They looked determined. When we were asked to pay the registration cost of 35 manats (roughly 19 euros), I saw how they all slid their hands quickly into their pockets or purses. That was a major change from how we started…
There were many women around me – each of them jobless, restless, and hopeless. Some suffered from poverty, the others were either widowed or divorced. They looked like that in 2021 when I was forming a group upon joining an initiative of the Azerbaijan Rural Women’s Association. However, the experience I had gained as a teacher and training instructor from all over Azerbaijan was central to understanding people, their life concerns, and what they feared most for their future. Do you know what the younger generation fears most? To be out of a job. Now try to conceive the extent to which the fear of losing a job spreads through rural women above 40 years of age. I was determined to reach out and help them. I nurtured positive beliefs and thought about how to identify and unite them. Rural people know and trust me as a person who is just and honest. So, I chose 12 women, with knowledge and skills in a multitude of areas, from Yukhari Tala and Ashaghi Tala villages. My ultimate goal was to have each of those selected form and build up their groups. Kalimat Dibirova and Kamala Hamzayeva are good at making dried persimmons, while Gulbahar Shabanova is our jack of all trades, for she can make 23 different kinds of vinegar. Adalat Kalashova’s bread-baking skills are second to none, and you cannot get enough of the sweets prepared by Nazakat Dibirova. Meanwhile, you can hardly find a person who can match Hagigat Dibirova in making pickles. Sevinj Muslimova and Sevda Sheikhaliyeva are not just sisters – they are celebrated masters of cooking fruit jams. For her part, Shahla Yusifova is acclaimed for her pekmez (molasses) products, and Rahmey Musayeva and Ilhama Musayeva excel in quality dairy products. Finally, Ilaha Mahmudova is our youngest member, but she is an ICT specialist and makes arrangements for our visibility and business on social networking sites. To be honest, it was not difficult to select the members of such a wonderful team. We were lucky that things came easily. In April, we joined the EU-funded, FAO-implemented project Promoting local food production and agrı-business owners through advisory services, the creation of new value chain models, and agrı-tourism development, whereupon our training courses started.
It is never too late to study…
Training, the cornerstone of our project, was a major test for our group to withstand since it was not an easy task to accomplish. In any case, attendance was necessary. In the beginning, when we just started, group members were warned about their failure to attend. Some were not allowed by their husbands, while others prioritised their only source of income over learning. Before securing our participation in the class, we went through long-lasting discussions often arguing with each other. I talked to the husbands of our group members and ensured consent from everyone. I did not give up and arrived at a pleasing outcome with them – every female member of our group was present during the first training session. We did our best to preserve that status quo until the end of the course. During those 18 months, we learned what we did not know about beekeeping, hazelnut cultivation and production, business, taxation systems, code of ethics, agritourism, and food safety. On the latter topic, we go to know what food safety was about, ways and methods to defrost meat, the guidelines on sanitation and health, disease-causing bacteria, packing methods, and penalties. To make a long story short, we were equipped with all the knowledge about production. On top of everything, women realised that training was a key to success. Learning is an absolute must, and we have to learn standards and how to comply with them. On the other side, training propels us, prompting changes to improve what we are doing. Let me cite a mere example. Once our group members could not attend just one – but surprisingly crucial – training session. As ill luck would have it, I was not available either. As a result, those attending were later able to write a business plan to apply for the necessary equipment and appliances. We missed that opportunity. Later our group continued the business module, but we still remember that remorseful experience leading to our inability to qualify for the equipment in question.
The training was a decisive factor in women’s development. They never left their rural community for some time and all of a sudden, they travel to the capital city, Baku, stay at one of the downtown hotels and attend a three-day training course. They combine learning with a social program, socialise, and enjoy being treated with dignity and respect. Believe me, that lived experience will always leave an imprint on your mind. When I look at our Çinar women, I feel so proud of them – they stand firmly on their feet and are ready to build up the others…
A lot changed during these twenty-one months. We watched how they transformed themselves from unemployed to businesswoman. They learned because they were and remained open to learning. Training sessions and fairs brought their undetected capacity to light. Once immobile and shy, their self-confidence gained currency to openly express their views and ideas, come up with proposals or criticise. Gulbahar used to get shy away from microphones – now she is unlikely to miss any opportunity to have her say. Ilhama Musayeva pursues another goal of becoming like Mina Nazirova, the labour hero and most prominent female resident of Kebeloba, a rural settlement in Zagatala.
Even our families changed their attitudes towards us. My uncle who held a skeptical view of our initiative could not restrain himself from hugging me and kissing my eyes when he saw us at a fair last summer. My husband, son and daughter praise me in unison saying, ‘It is great that you have started this business. Well done!’ We started off by believing in ourselves but now people around us, our nearest and dearest believe in us too. Now others have started replicating our experience. Elmira Hajiyeva, principal of the secondary school named after Shikhali Gurbanov [Azerbaijani writer, philologist, and statesman], has decided to form a women’s group when she retires. So we are not just a group but a model for others to follow. On the other side, we are evolving too and have already decided to continue our operations as a cooperative. That decision, however, is a different story to tell.
From a group to an established cooperative: it is possible to come before all others
When we were presenting our products at a meeting with entrepreneurs, we realised that production must be sustainable to access the market first and then remain in it. The turnout of 10 to 15, even 100 kilos was not enough to be a successful business. We had to develop our products into a brand. So we had to combine our efforts and produce on a continuous basis. That is how our cooperative idea was conceived.
Çinar will ve Azerbaijan’s first women’s cooperative. Being first instills a feeling of pride in us. Our village – Yukhari Tala – is the birthplace of Sevil Gaziyeva, Azerbaijan’s first female agricultural machinery operator. I used to say that nobody could be a groundbreaker anymore. But it turns out that it is still possible. Now we have set up something as a first for our country, and we have a nice opportunity to lead it to success.
My biggest desire is to open a tea house. That will be something unique – tea will be served with local sweets to be cooked by us in that house. That will be a complementary combination of production and service. Above all, the house will be a single showcase of the outcomes of what members of our cooperative will be doing.
Furthermore, I believe that our case will change the minds of rural people. Not everybody will pursue higher education, and families will invest in assisting their children to learn a skilled trade by spending what they would otherwise have saved for higher education. In some rural areas it may be better to set up your own business that will pay your bills rather than getting a higher education diploma but remaining jobless. A mother’s success will inspire her children to follow her steps in a family-owned business. That could be a start of a great return to the land. Is there anything better than that?”