Business "Salt and Light" in Kyrgyzstan
In 1998 I was surprised by the tremendous level of interest among church leaders in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, in a presentation I gave on starting small businesses. Afterwards they pleaded with me, saying, “Please help us to provide work for our people.” I was reminded of Matthew 25:35 (NIV): “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat.” I might also add: “I was unemployed and you gave me a job.”
Profile of Kyrgyzstan
Kyrgyzstan, an eastern Central Asian state founded in 1991 following the collapse of the Soviet Union, has had basic democratic structures and a trustworthy president. Although about 80 ethnic groups live in Kyrgyzstan, the country is known for its comparatively high social stability, respect for human rights, and advanced process of democratization. Thus, Kyrgyzstan is a promising place to invest in aid projects.
Much of the economy, however, is based on bartering and the old Soviet infrastructure is in decay. Sixty-five percent of the potential workforce is unemployed, creating poverty and robbing young people of a vision for the future. The country’s 70-year experience with Soviet Communism has also robbed people of practical knowledge concerning business management. In spite of their poor social conditions, many of Kyrgyzstan’s people have a good education, though influenced by the Communist system. By and large, they do not know how to take advantage of the new economic environment.
High tax rates make it hard for fledgling entrepreneurs to start businesses. The government also is little help in providing start-up capital. State loans are available only for a short time and with unrealistically high interest rates. It is not surprising, then, that Kyrgyz entrepreneurs often get involved with elements of the mafia. Thankfully, inconspicuous small businesses are not usually their targets of interest.
The Business Professional Network
It is in this milieu of opportunities and challenges that the Swiss-based Business Professional Network (BPN) has been trying to make a difference. So far, we have been encouraged. We facilitate, stimulate, and empower individuals, existing businesses, marketplace ministries, churches, parachurch organizations, missionary societies, and service groups of all kinds to provide self-sustaining business development and job creation. BPN brings together donors, investors, consultants, trainers, and participants qualified to receive financial and technical aid. In a nutshell, we seek to provide loans to new entrepreneurs so that they can start their own businesses, provide for their families, and strengthen their churches. We also seek to provide training in business management as well as Christian business ethics.
Our Work in Kyrgyzstan
At the outset, the goal of BPN in Kyrgyzstan, our first country of operation, was to establish 60 to 80 small businesses in the first three years and then to multiply the project in other countries. To date (2004) BPN has supported 104 enterprises, creating 2,200 jobs in Kyrgyzstan, and has begun work in the African country of Benin. Participants do not receive cash. We loan equipment worth no more than $20,000 and expect repayment with interest within four to five years. But participants, in addition to loans, receive training in management, business ethics, technical assistance, and individual on-site counseling and coaching. We have translated La Red, an excellent small-group teaching curriculum that addresses specific business problems from a Christian perspective. We also have laid the groundwork for a Christian trade association and make available local Christian lawyers and tax advisors. By God’s grace, most of our participants are developing big hearts to reach their nation with the gospel.
After disappointment with disloyal business partners, Veronika, a trained dressmaker, decided to set up her own studio. Her loyal customers, for the most part, provide the sewing materials. Starting with 20 employees, Veronika’s goal is to produce her own line of clothes in a business with 100 workers. Despite four other similar enterprises in the market, Veronika is convinced that the quality of her work will give her a competitive advantage. But she needs $20,000 to purchase additional sewing machines and other equipment. She also needs instruction in basic business economics, so she is grateful for training provided by BPN.
However, Veronika faces more business uncertainty than does the average entrepreneur in the West. Seeking to buy a building to house her production facilities, Veronika’s best efforts have come up short. Once she lost a building to someone who offered slightly more than she did—despite the seller’s previous verbal commitment in her lawyer’s presence to sell it to her. A guarantee in Kyrgyzstan means nothing if someone else makes a better offer. Yet by trusting in God and persisting, this petite lady eventually found a suitable building. Veronika quickly learned how to totally trust in Jesus despite being a relatively new Christian. She has committed her life to Jesus and is constantly surprised at what Jesus does for her. Formerly an object of discrimination because of her small frame and “insignificant” profession, Veronika has developed a healthy self-image. Different situations and setbacks do not stop her.
With 62 employees at two locations, Olga and her son make men’s pants and uniforms. They export to Russia some of the 60,000 trousers produced annually. Because of contacts they have made at trade fairs and exhibitions, they also have open doors to sell to Europe. First, however, they need to unite two production locations, modernize and obtain more machinery, expand the product line into ladies’ wear, and increase the number of employees to 100. To do all that, they received a loan of $20,000 from BPN in June 2000. Since that time, the number of employees has grown from 64 to 80.
However, this business, too, faces many obstacles. Corruption is an ever-present problem. On route through Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Russia, company representatives face blackmail and harassment by customs officers and police. They also must pay protective duties on transit goods. Olga has joined forces with others who face similar situations. Together they have written an open letter to the government, describing the situation and asking that the nation’s customs laws be enforced. Seeing how corruption has harmed their country, this group is facing it squarely according to the ethical instruction they have received from BPN. They seek to bring injustice into the open and make it a subject for discussion. Olga and other BPN participants have already taken their injustices to a daily newspaper several times.
Meanwhile, Russian Kyrgyz are strongly discriminated against in Kyrgyzstan, due to a history of Russian and Soviet domination of the country. Most Russian Kyrgyz have emigrated to Russia. While Olga, who is Russian Kyrgyz, suffers discrimination, she remains in Kyrgyzstan, which she regards as her home, so that she can use her business to help the country’s economy and witness for Christ through her lifestyle.
Another obstacle is the presence in the market of cheap clothes from China. Although homemade products are of better quality, they are also more expensive. However, BPN participants are beginning to see that customer satisfaction is an important key to success and that they do not have to measure success by price alone. However, there is much to be done in addressing the subject of quality. Overall, their business success is a result of God’s grace as well as their perseverance and determination. They have learned that when they walk in God’s ways, God will always be with them.
For several years, Nurlan led a state-owned business that registered and circulated economic data. His goal was to build up an independent printing and photocopy center. As part of the business plan, one of his employees completed an apprenticeship with a printer in Bishkek. With plenty of orders, the business developed very well. Starting in November 1999 with two employees, Nurlan now has six. However, he needed a loan of $18,000 for the photocopier and printing machine. One of the Network’s conditions for participation is that businesses have their own premises. This was difficult for Nurlan, but through determination and hard work he turned a dilapidated house into a sizeable production plant. He and his family did without personal comforts to raise the necessary funds. Nurlan is one of those people who lives for his goal and is totally absorbed in his assignment.
Of course, building in Kyrgyzstan is always difficult, requiring permission from ten to 20 different government departments. Not surprisingly, corruption is a problem and it can take months or years to receive necessary approvals. The process goes considerably faster when the officials are “appeased” in some way. Nurlan, however, knew that although corruption may produce results in the short term, in the long term it is destructive. As a Christian, he also seeks to be a good example to others by opposing corruption as best he can.
BPN participants believe we are a blessing to them, which is good. But we tell them again and again, “Now you must bless your church and your family. As a child of God, it is good to have a successful business. But this is not enough. Create eternal values by helping the poor and needy, by standing up against unrighteousness, and by establishing social justice.” Nurlan, for example, wanted to impact the public schools. His marketing manager happens to be the niece of a famous Kyrgyz writer. This opened the door to the Ministry of Education. Eventually he received permission to print and distribute a special edition of the book of Proverbs in all public schools of Kyrgyzstan as part of an ethics study program. This is the kind of massive influence we can have if we are patient.
Juerg Opprecht is founder and president of Business Professional Network (www.bpn.ch). The owner of a real estate company and a resort hotel, he lives in Faoug, Switzerland.
Edited excerpt reprinted with permission from Juerg Opprecht, “Business in Kyrgyzstan” in On Kingdom Business, Transforming Missions Through Entrepreneurial Strategies, ed. by Tetsunao Yamamori and Kenneth A. Eldred (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossways Books, 2003).
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© 2004 East-West Church and Ministry Report