International Center for Intercultural Research, Learning and Dialogue (ICIRLD) got the idea of a special programme dedicated to social entrepreneurship when working with people in rural communities who wanted to enliven their region, while also making a profit.
Suren Mkhitaryan, the Project Manager of the programme, recalls being surprised by the wide response the EU-funded “Community Development Through Social Entrepreneurship” (CODE-SE)’s call for applications received.
“There were so many great ideas, that we decided to take on 7 more cases than the originally planned 20,” he says. “A lot of the times the ideas for region development were repeating in applications, making it clear they arise naturally from existing issues. We tried to give preference to the NGOs and teams that we knew had the combination of resources, the entrepreneurial mindset, and the desire to do good.”
The programme consisted of three sets of week-long intensive trainings that first off defined the term “social entrepreneurship,” and then went on to teach the writing of a business plan, the development of the marketing strategy, and the execution process of the participants’ ideas in more detail. The online educational resource that supplemented the trainings has been growing to include people besides the programme participants and has around five or six hundred active users.
“Though we initially had doubts about the CODE-SE’s success in Armenia’s business scene, knowing of both negative and positive experiences with social entrepreneurship, we came to realise just how much the scene has changed in the last two years,” Suren says. “There is definitely more interest SE and a welcoming environment for it.”
The NGOs received guidance and advice from experts throughout the programme with the opportunity to call for consultation up to a year after the end of the programme.
“I receive calls, requests and questions every day from different regions that also have social entrepreneurship ideas they want to realize. One example of a successful case was the village Vardenik in Gegharkunik region where “Pulse of Community” Youth NGO came up with the idea to gather herbs and other organic foods from the mountains and introduce them to the bigger market. “Mountain goods” provides jobs for more than 70 families in the village and received a gratitude diploma from the President of RA. They called me today from Ashtarak wanting advice on starting something similar. These small cases seem trivial to the bigger picture. We’ve been told many times that the amount of our sub-grants, 7000 euros, is too little to start anything but experience shows these small scale initiatives solve the local problems and then they spread across the country.”
ICIRLD sees the next step for social entrepreneurship development in Armenia in defining the concept on the legislative level so social enterprises can enjoy certain advantages, for example get preferential treatments when it comes to the country’s public needs. Another advantage currently in the process of negotiation is to get banks to give zero-percent loans to social entrepreneurs, taking into account the benefits their business brings to the society.
CODE-SE also aimed to break stereotypes about the many challenges of starting a business in Armenia.
“There are usually more perceived setbacks than real ones, especially where it concerns small and medium-sized businesses. Besides, we are there to advise which fields are more open to new-comers. There’s a system of support, a network of institutions open for cooperation – from a lawyers’ association to Kolba Lab and Impact Hub.”
“Sevan” Youth Club” NGO, one of the CODE-SE’s participants, is working on breaking stereotypes in its own right. Their workshop-teahouse “Bohem” is an exceptional project that brings together young artists and wannabe bohemians in Sevan for events, handmade purchases, and a cup of tea that is somehow never just a cup of tea.
“It’s not about the tea,” says Gohar Mnatsakanyan, the café’s Director and President of Sevan Youth Club, “It’s about the mood, the atmosphere we try to create.”
“We did a survey recently that showed that people in Sevan major in arts despite the uncertainty and difficulties a degree like that offers. We wanted to provide a unique platform in Sevan for cultural events and interesting conversations. It has turned into a good meeting spot. The other day an architect met a khachqar-maker in Bohem, and now they’re collaborating on mini-khachqar souvenirs that will be on sale in the café and elsewhere.”
ICIRLD was key at every stage of Bohem’s creation: inception to business plan and branding consultation to shaping the future direction.
The EU-funded CODE-SE project, which officially closed in December, has a number of exciting projects under its belt: 2 eco camps, the recycling of plastic, souvenir-packaging of desserts, 3D modelling of traditional Armenian cartoon characters by people with disabilities, curtains with Armenian ornaments, a bohemian café, and many more. Social entrepreneurship in Armenia, it seems, has reached a point of certain maturity. We’ll be waiting you in Bohem for live music and mountain herbs’ tea!