From Sweets to Riches – The Business of Cookies
Pre-Story: Hollywood Comes to Kyrgyzstan
Last week, our MFI was visited by a pair of filmmakers from Brazil who were shooting a documentary on microfinance and the impact it has on the lives of clients. Their plan was to travel the globe for 10 months and record customers, loan officers, and other microfinance specialists in different parts of the world. After shooting in Brazil and Russia, they were coming to Kyrgyzstan and turned to our organization to help them with the logistics.
We arranged for them to meet and interview several of our clients and staff members in the Issyk-Kul region (about 4 hours away from the capital of Kyrgyzstan – Bishkek – where our headquarters are) and I had an opportunity to come with them to translate the interviews.
As a Kiva Fellow, we typically get to talk to clients frequently to learn more about their lives, businesses and the impact that credit has had on them. However, those conversations are typically brief, since the clients, and often the loan officers that accompany us, are on a tight schedule.
This time around, however, the interviews lasted for more than an hour and were in a relaxed, non-rushed setting. As a result, it offered fascinating insights into the lives of these inspiring business owners and showed many more dimensions to the clients.
I’d like to share with you a story of a husband and wife who have created a successful bakery and how they’ve come to this point.
And That’s the Way the Cookie Crumbles…
Zhanna and her husband run a small bakery in Balyckhi, a small town in the Issyk-Kul region. They produce several varieties of home-made cookies using the old-fashioned recipes from her childhood that her parents used. She believes that people like to buy the sweets they enjoyed so much when they were younger, so they base their products on that.
When you look at their small, but thriving business and everything they accomplished so far, it may be easy to overlook the challenges and obstacles they had to overcome to get there.
This is actually their second business. Years ago, while working as a bookkeeper, Zhanna decided to branch out on her own and open a small cafe on the Issyk-Kul lake. However, she overestimated the demand and how slow it would be during the off-season, so the business folded up shortly.
She took out a loan to start the business, so she still faced her loan repayments, even though she wasn’t generating any income anymore. To pay off the debt, she and her husband had to sell their car and other possessions. As she recalls, it was one of her darkest periods in life.
The “Sweet” Road to Success
About a year ago, Zhanna and her husband took out another loan from Mol Bulak to start a bakery. They were initially thinking of producing bread, but after researching the market, decided to focus on sweets – which turned out to be the right choice.
Currently, they work about 18 hours a day, as most of the production is done during the night. Although they have a staff of employees that help run the operation, there is still a lot of things they have to do themselves to make sure that the business is flourishing.
For example, every two days, they have to make an 8 hour trip to Bishkek (the capital) and back in order to sell their goods to the local market vendors and purchase new supplies, such as boxes and ingredients, to bring them back.
The trip is lengthy and expensive, but they don’t have much of a choice. The town they live in – Balychki – has lost most of its economic base after the collapse of the Soviet Union, so they have to look for markets further out.
A Group Effort
Their bakery currently employs 7 people. Most of them are young people, primarily females, although there is also a young husband and wife pair that work together side by side. Everybody’s salary is about 3,000 – 4,000 soms per month ($70-95), which is not much, but more than they can get elsewhere in the town.
Moreover, the owners go above and beyond to make sure that the employees are happy. They provide them with free meals, give them free rides to the capital if they need to go and visit their relatives, and pay them quickly and on-time.
As a result, the whole team is usually smiling, in a good mood and everybody seem committed to working as a team.
Plans for The Future
Zhanna and her husband managed to accomplish quite a bit over the last year, but they have no intentions of stopping here. Their long-term goal is to replace their old and inefficient cooking ovens with a specialized baking machine. Powered by electricity instead of gas, it would allow them to bake quicker and use up less energy. However, the machine costs over $1,500 – so it will have to wait just a little bit longer.
There was something special about this particular business. Although you could see that it was hard work for everybody involved, people seemed happy and optimistic about the future. The owners were brimming with energy, so you couldn’t help but get infected with it.
This is just one example of the kind of people you support when lending on Kiva.
Boris Mordkovich is currently doing his 2nd Kiva Fellowship serving with Mol Bulak Finance, the first Kiva Partner in Kyrgyzstan. Previously having completed his first placement in Tajikistan, he is getting used to life and work in Central Asia.
If you’d like to learn more about Kyrgyzstan and support entrepreneurs in that region, please check out and join our new lending team – Supporters of Kyrgyzstan – http://kiva.org/team/kyrgyzstan. Team members will get special updates and information from the Kiva Fellow and the MFI./>