Parvana Rasulova, local farmer and mother of four boys, is 43 years old. She was born and raised in Arkivan, a settlement around the Masalli region in the south of Azerbaijan, where, to this day, Parvana lives with her family. She never had a formal job before, but in the land plot that they own in Arkivan, Parvana and her family had cultivated herbs and vegetables for more than 20 years. Sometimes she used a small bit of the land plot to also grow rice there. This was her family’s only source of income. One thing she learned early in life was that growing food meant money that her family and small kids needed so badly. Parvana’s biggest dream in life is to see her children happy, prosperous, content.
For Parvana, her family means everything. “I wanted to give my kids good education and see them live a good life,” Parvana said. “My husband and I married in 1995 when I was only 19. The land plot where we all worked belonged to my in-laws. Several years into our marriage, after our second child was born, it became ever more difficult to provide for our family.” Parvana’s second boy was born with a congestive heart failure and needed a surgery that cost more than Parvana could ever afford. As time went and their family grew bigger and bigger with every newborn, so did the financial problems intensify within their household. Since they really didn’t have any other means of finance than the land that helped them feed their family, Parvana decided to really focus on her farming skills and make the best of this opportunity.
Sometime in 2016 Parvana heard about a newly opened Women’s Resource Centre in Masalli. At first, her husband would not let her join the Centre or even visit it from time to time. Once when she was at the training in the Women’s Resource Centre, her husband came in and asked Parvana to leave the training. He was convinced that it was not a serious training programme and that Parvana was simply wasting her time there. But after a while the coordinator of the Women’s Resource Centre in Masalli and a project manager at UNDP decided to talk to Parvana’s husband and what they told him was that through the programmes and various activities that the Women’s Resource Centre was providing, their family would see no harm but help. Eventually, Parvana’s husband let his guard down and she started taking an intensive series of training courses at the Masalli WRC –on everything from business management to accounting, computer courses and many more. All of these learning toolkits gave Parvana a different perspective on how to chart a new life for herself and for her family. They also helped her improve her business acumen and learn things they had never been taught before. The result of Parvana’s hard work paid off and she won the Business Development competition organized by the UN Development Programme (UNDP) with financial support from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Her business idea was to expand her farmland and specialise on the fragrant rice crops, for which the southern regions of Azerbaijan are especially famous.
Cultivating rice is extremely sensitive to irrigation standards. In Masalli, farmers oftentimes suffered from draught due to water scarcity although the area is known for its high humidity all year long, especially in summer times. Parvana says that for several years in a row, her rice crops died, with only few of them surviving and it caused the entire family a lot of damage and a huge financial burden, too. But even with the little harvest that survived Parvana had to take the rice for milling to the nearby Astara region 80 km and an hour-drive away from Masalli, because the nearest mill was only in Astara. On top of the logistical difficulties associated with transporting the rice crops from one city to another, for Parvana’s family it also meant additional commuting expenses, which neither Parvana nor her family were ready to pay.
But with the new project, thanks to financial support from USAID, Parvana’s rice farm in Arkivan was granted a high pressure water tank. Now her rice plants were receiving just enough water to keep the soil saturated. Additionally, the project helped her hire more people to provide her with field work assistance she needed on her farmland as well as to increase her crop seed supply. With this support, Parvana even managed to rent a rice combiner for harvesting, which was a significant change for her business. Before, Parvana and members of her household were all heavily involved in manual harvesting –a condition that put her in a lot of difficulties, first because of the excessive human labour involved, and secondly, for a simple reason that manual harvesting is actually far costlier for a farmer than when rice is harvested with the help of a rice combine harvester. Parvana was able to expand her rice farm and increase the overall production, as a result of these interventions.
A few years later, in 2018, Parvana applied for seed grants again –now that her business was showing good results. This time, USAID and UNDP supported her with new workforce and more seeds, but –most importantly –the project offered her a small rice milling machine, which was a great relief and it significantly eased her financial situation. Parvana no longer has to take a long route all the way down to Astara to mill the rice crops. She can now do it herself –from the comfort of her home in Arkivan. Parvana’s organic rice farm has now seen a considerable spike in crop yields and as such she now can sell more rice and other rice-based products. Not only that, but also the fact that Parvana is now well known in the region and beyond for the high quality rice crops, free from pesticides and chemicals that her farmland has to offer –all this has made her believe in herself and also showed that with just a little bit of support women like Parvana can do what they never let themselves believe they could.
Parvana’s rice crops have been displayed and won admiration of many at numerous agricultural fairs and business exhibitions. This fragrant plant and the delicious dish that comes from rice will leave no one indifferent. “Once you taste the pilaf made of the rice from my farmland you will want to eat more and more of it,” says Parvana taking pride in leading the food business that both feeds people and also opens up a lot of employment opportunities for other people in her community.
Reflecting on these transformative changes, Parvana recalls: “Life got a lot better and easier all at once after I joined the Women’s Resource Centre. Financial problems of our family that we couldn’t manage to solve for such a long time started to ease now. My sons are setting themselves on the path to their own independence while we are always here to support them. My two youngest sons are serving in the army right now. I feel utterly humbled but also enormously proud for being a mother of 2 sons in the army. My eldest one works a night shift at the nearest bread factory. My second boy had a heart surgery a couple years ago and is much better now. He has successfully graduated from school, with Bachelor’s Diploma in Business Development and Business Administration.”
For Parvana, her farmland is yet full of untapped opportunities, and she has broad prospects for expanding that potential.
“I have a lot of plans for the future”, says Parvana. “I am happy that I have a business of my own but rice farming is a multilayered process and needs a lot of work, but also more solid agricultural equipment. Right now, after we harvest the rice crops, I bring them home and do the further processing and milling myself. That includes removing the husk, bran layers and any other impurity from the paddy rice. Since I don’t have special equipment for that installed right near the rice farm itself, I have to carry all of this work back home.”
Parvana hopes that in the near future she will be able to rise to the point when she can build her own small rice factory near the farmland where her family cultivates rice and right across from it she wants to open a shop where she can sell a big variety of rice-based products made of this highly nutritious cereal grain from the black soils of southern Azerbaijan.
Parvana Rasulova is a recipient of the joint UNDP and USAID project on Economic Empowerment for Entrepreneurship and Employment (E4), which supports women and girls in rural areas of Azerbaijan, including Masalli in the south and Zaqatala in the north-west of the country, in improving their financial maturity, economic activity and business acumen through substantive capacity development support and network building. Up to present, the project has helped over 60 women establish businesses of their own.
More than 600 women in Masalli and Zaqatala have joined various awareness raising campaigns on women’s economic and social rights and gender mainstreaming. Women’s Resource Centres in Masalli and Zaqatala now have an impressive network of 463 members, and this number is growing fast. Recently, the project has received an additional award from the US Government worth USD 1,000,000 for the next 3 years. With this new funding, the UNDP and Government of Azerbaijan will establish a new Women’s Resource Centre in Khachmaz, 170 km north of Baku, providing support to at least 100 women in starting businesses of their own.
Funded by the USAID, with partial co-financing from the UNDP, the E4 project is implemented by the UNDP, in close partnership with the State Committee for Family, Women and Children’s Affairs.
Story by Arzu Jafarli