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Sometimes a really good idea can turn a profit in less than a year. With EU support, Rafael Sulkhayev’s family has not only managed to open a dried fruit business in 2020, just as the coronavirus pandemic raged, but to even export hundreds of tonnes of its product to both local and foreign markets.

Natural treasures make dollar sense

Favourable natural conditions, such as are enjoyed by the city of Zagatala in northwestern Azerbaijan, offer excellent opportunities for the development of both farming and ecotourism. Indeed, Zagatala is famous not only for its extraordinary forests and fields, but also for original culinary recipes. Today, a number of plants employ some of the local population harvesting magnificent forest nuts and unparalleled persimmons. Persimmons have been grown in Azerbaijan for centuries and residents of the region know all about its healthful properties.

Zagatala native Rafael Sulkhayev is executive director of Magic Food, a family business engaged in fruit drying. The idea of setting up his own business has been a long-time dream of his. Today, the family firm is run by Rafael’s wife and some of his closest relatives.

People in the districts are mainly involved in farming,” says Sulkhayev. “I often watched how a good part of the fruit harvest spoiled on the trees. That’s when the idea came to me of buying fruit from locals in order to can or dry it afterwards.”

The Magic Food founder also believes that implementing this business idea has benefitted not only him, but many others.

“First of all, this allows villagers to sell their products,” says Sulkhayev. “When a new enterprise is set up, new jobs appear. New products are made that enter both domestic and foreign markets. And new opportunities for profit appear, too.”

From thought to business in less than a year

At one point, Sulkhayev got information about a project called “Accelerating the development of sustainable micro-entrepreneurship in the rural regions of Azerbaijan,” which is being implemented by the Azerbaijan Micro-Finance Association under the EU4Business umbrella.

“I learned that it was being implemented in our district,” recalls Sulkhayev. “I then took part in a workshop and mentioned my business idea. The project chose my idea. Through the knowledge, interest and financial assistance of this project, we established the Magic Food cooperative.”

Sulkhayev says he found the project workshops very useful and motivating. “We still use the knowledge that we gained during the training,” he asserts. “They did a great job.”

The project wanted original ideas in order to provide entrepreneurs both moral and financial support. After his business idea was approved and he attended a specialized workshop, Sulkhayev and his cooperative’s members were given a grant through Azerbaijan Micro-finance Association (AMFA), which helped him to buy the necessary equipment and set up a small enterprise. This was his first experience working with the EU. Sulkhayev has found cooperation very positive and notes that he was able to receive the support in a short period of time. In the end, it took less than a year to implement his concept.

Doing business in the midst of a pandemic

Magic Food was set up in 2020, just as the coronavirus pandemic raged. The company is now making ecologically pure products and exports hundreds of tonnes to foreign markets, in addition to selling domestically. Last year, Magic Food exported 5,500 t of dried persimmons to Russian markets. Many supermarket chains in Baku also sell the company's products.

During the phase of strict COVID-19 measures, Magic Food faced serious challenges, like many other businesses. Still, Sulkhayev is optimistic. He plans to increase sales and expand production by entering new markets.