Transforming the future of agri-business in Uzbekistan by empowering women entrepreneurs

December 18, 2023

Dildora Olimova (right), owner and founder of ADOMAX, and Rakhmanova Ziyoda (left), her advisor and assistant, inspects in an agricultural field the yielded vigna radiata, commonly known as green mung bean. Being green-colored beans belonging to the legume family and rich in fibers, vitamins, proteins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytoestrogens, mung bean exports from Uzbekistan have increased remarkably over the last years. The export increase is primarily driven by Asian markets, countries such as China, Korea, and Japan, where it is a regular ingredient within the culinary tradition. These nations increasingly recognize the superior quality and value of Uzbekistan’s mung beans, accelerating Uzbekistan’s emerging role as a supplier.

Photo: UNDP Uzbekistan

When Dildora Olimova came across the mentoring programme targeting women entrepreneurs initiated by UNDP and the Association for Businesswomen in Uzbekistan (Tadbirkor Ayol), she intuitively recognized an opportunity just tailored for her. The mentoring programme convened a cohort of aspiring women entrepreneurs from Ferghana Valley to unlock their potential, strengthen their capabilities, and encourage participation in business and trade. It channels women’s entrepreneurship as an enabler of sustainable growth by focusing on green value chains through prioritized value-added niche products with high export and job creation potential.

For Dildora, now one of the 6 business owners supported within the programme’s first cycle, the focus on export-oriented agricultural goods intimated a convergence of two things she knew through her business career and her personal history. Trained in information technologies with a considerable business experience, she also came from a family whose livelihood was in agriculture. She had learnt to work with plants hands-on as a small child growing up in the Ferghana Valley. The family used to produce vegetables and greens in greenhouses and sell the produce afterward in local markets themselves or at times, through other intermediaries.

But her educational background also led her to follow other career tracks. Not only had she worked as a teacher and a private tutor, but she had also been a business owner for some time, running a learning center on information technologies in the country. The covid-19 pandemic was a blow to the center, however, dimming its prospects for the future. So, she sold it while also starting to nurture ideas for what is next.

Photo: UNDP Uzbekistan

The answer to this question materialized through her membership to the Businesswomen Association. There, she further learnt about a fresh mentorship opportunity offered by a collaboration between the Association’s and UNDP’s Aid for Trade in Central Asia project. The programme brought together women entrepreneurs in a mentoring program to incubate ideas and the business knowledge to realize them, with a specific focus on agricultural products that could generate value-added export products. This required the entrepreneurs to bridge between their understanding of local agricultural production, building relations and making contracts with small local farmers for their produce. But it also meant that they actively engage with external markets and their demands.

Thus, for Dildora, it meant harmonizing agricultural knowledge with business acumen. The programme provided an environment where she would equip herself with new skills, but also iterate her ideas and build on them. And as a result, her learning journey with the programme culminated in the business plans of her new company ADOMAX. It is a small enterprise specializing on processing and packaging mung beans, one of the green and niche value-added products prioritized by the mentoring programme. For her, the decision to market mung beans was rather strategic. In Namangan region, there was a higher chance of making contracts with the local farmers and assuring that the supply is not disrupted.

There was a lot of work to do to put ADOMAX on its foot. But DIldora remarks that the mentoring programme added on substantially to her existing business knowledge, refining it with more nuanced skills. Comparing what she was capable of before and after the programme, she considers it an impressive progress.

Photo: UNDP Uzbekistan

After having acquired a small land in an industrial zone, infrastructure for a facility was to be put together. A hangar was built for a workshop, as well as a social space for the employees. Until now, the company created jobs for 3 people, but more are sure to come as the business thrives. Putting together the machinery for mung bean processing was when UNDP’s Aid for Trade in Central Asia project, funded by the Government of Finland, stepped in following Dildora’s success during the mentoring program. The equipment supported by UNDP sorts, cleans, and packages the mung beans, facilitating a process from the procurement of mung beans from farmers to its reach to consumers. Already, ADOMAX concluded agreements with 10 farmers in the region, with future aspirations to grow and harvest its own mung beans.

Electricity was another key issue, and ADOMAX chose a more environmentally conscious option and had solar panels installed. Panels provide substantial amount of the energy required to run the facility. Computers, coolers, packaging machines, and many other electronic equipment use solar energy. Some other utensils still require electricity from the grid due to technical necessities, such as the sorting machine. Nevertheless, renewable energy is now integral to the facility’s infrastructure.

For sure, the programme’s mentoring or the following material support by Aid for Trade project did not only prompt Dildora to acquire business skills. “I am much more motivated and have faith in myself,” she shares while reflecting on the programme’s contribution. The knowledge- and experience-sharing fostered by the programme for women entrepreneurs to enhance their skills and establish dialogue intends to create a lasting impact and institutionalize. Dildora, too, is an avid participant. If she was a beneficiary last year, she became a mentor in the latest iteration, harnessing this as a chance to disseminate her practical and theoretical business knowledge and guide aspiring women entrepreneurs of Uzbekistan. “It is overall a very positive experience, and participating in such programmes is definitely a good opportunity to promote gender equality.”

Photo: UNDP Uzbekistan

In the last round of the mentorship programme, Dildora found the chance to connect with and mentor 25 participants (mentees) from the new cohort, one of whom recently became one of the programme's beneficiaries, like Dildora, with a project to process and export mung beans. Mentorship offered by the programme promises a multiplier effect to kindle women entrepreneurship and further contribute to women’s economic empowerment.

The road ahead of Dildora’s mung beans may seem long, but she is optimistic and determined to cover the distance quickly. Even though her products are currently sold in the local markets, she is willing to realize her initial idea to expand into external markets. There are already plans to make the production on par with international quality standards and certifications, a requisite for many export markets. Mung bean value chains have high potential to create sustainable income/livelihoods through exports, part of a growing portfolio of value-added agricultural products in Uzbekistan. Women entrepreneurs’ heartening persistence, continuously supported by Aid for Trade project, is key to fully harness these value chain opportunities.

Mung bean cultivation in Uzbekistan is primarily concentrated in regions with suitable agro-climatic conditions for pulse crops. In Uzbekistan, Jizzakh, Tashkent, and Namangan have the most favourable conditions for mung bean cultivation. Uzbekistan exported around 127 thousand tonnes of mung beans in 2022, valued at over $98.5 million. You can learn more about the export potential of Uzbekistan’s mung beans through Quantitative Export Sheet (QEF) published on CATI Portal, an open information platform for priority value-added products with export potential in Central Asia launched by UNDP’s Aid for Trade in Central Asia project and ITC (International Trade Center) in 2021.

Photo: UNDP Uzbekistan

Aid for Trade in Central Asia project, funded by the Government of Finland, has been implemented in Uzbekistan since 2012. The project's phase IV focusses on four selected value chains: mixes of dried fruits and nuts; peanut and peanut butter; mung beans; jams, jellies, and fruit purees. These prioritized value chains were selected as their production can harness Uzbekistan's natural and ecological resources sustainably while growing in size, improving quality, increasing exports, and creating decent new jobs for all, especially women. The main objective of the AfT project is to support Central Asian countries in promoting inclusive and sustainable growth by developing green value chains, making economies more competitive, and enabling more resilient, secure and gender-responsive economic structures through economic diversification and adaptation to new trends brought about by COVID-19 and other external shocks.

“It is overall a very positive experience, and participating in such programmes is definitely a good opportunity to promote gender equality.”
Dildora Olimova