My time in Azerbaijan has been a surprise. The buildings, culture, food and people have exceeded all expectations. However, I was not expecting to meet a 22 year social entrepreneur with bold, impactful plans!
I had the opportunity to meet with Sara Rajabli, a 22 year old social entrepreneur in Baku, Azerbaijan. Her experience is incredibly impressive with achievements of starting an award winning social enterprise, speaking about social enterprises at the UN level and drafting a proposal for social entrepreneurship policy with the Azerbaijani government. Her unstoppable passionate energy made for an inspiring conversation.
Finding the Social Challenge To Solve
Sara studied Tourism Management at a local university in Baku. After some travel around Europe she decided she wanted to dedicate her life to having a positive impact and helping those in need. This was a challenging time because her desire to create a social enterprise did not align with traditional views of business or women in Azerbaijan. ‘When I started I didn’t have any social entrepreneur role models from my country, let alone a female business woman. I started alone and was determined to show that it is possible to create a profitable business that solves social issues.’ Sara shared.
Sara started researching social issues in Azerbaijan and found that there are over 250 000 women living with physical and/or mental disabilities. 90 percent of these women are unemployed. In a country where gender equality is still a struggle and participation of women in the workforce is limited, she found a worthy social problem to solve. Providing employment to women with disabilities would empower them financially as well as increase their quality of life.
Buta Arts and Sweets
In order to provide employment, Sara needed to find a product that would be relatively easy to make with a strong market. ‘Local people are our target market as the tourism market is seasonal and not strong enough yet.’ Sara explained. ‘So we looked at the things that people love and use on a regular basis. After some market research we decided to make sweets including traditional cakes and cookies. As the Business to Business market is more profitable, we took the product to local corporates.’ The corporates loved the product and they delivered their first order in 2017. Buta Arts and Sweets was born. The term ‘Buta’ is an Azerbaijani cultural term and signifies beauty, authenticity and expression of potential.
Within 6 months of operation they had broken even. The business has also grown organically without any grants or support from NGOs or Government bodies.
They have since diversified into the consumer market and sell birthday and wedding cakes as well as cupcakes and healthy protein balls. All of their products are handmade using the finest local ingredients. They have also moved away from plastic and now use paper in their operations to ensure they reduce their environmental impact.
Today Buta Arts and Sweets employs 17 women who make the sweets in their house. ‘In the beginning it was difficult for many of our workers to leave their house due to physical and mental challenges. So we would go around to their houses and show them how to make the food and allow them to be in a comfortable space.’ Sara shared. However, after a year of the women working consistently, growing their skills and being more financially independent, the women were more confident to leave their house. Providing employment that empowers and grows confidence is the true impact of Buta Arts and Sweets. The work has helped to change the mindsets of these women who have been told that cannot add any value to society. Instead now they are providing high quality sweets to corporate partners and learning new skills.
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Look at these wonderful women learning new and delicious skills!! @buta_art_sweets is an awesome social enterprise that employs women with disabilities which is important because there are over 250k women living with disabilities in Azerbaijan. 90 percent of them are unemployed. Buta Arts and Sweets doesn’t just offer employment, they also create independence and financial empowerment for women who need it most. One of the amazing things they do is work with one of the best local pastry makers who provides masterclasses so the women can refine their skills and grow the product line. This local partnership has been amazing for both Buta’s business but also the women. They absolutely love learning new skills as well as telling their story. When one woman found out I was from Australia she said ‘I’m ready to be famous in Australia!’ 💚 what a legend! I just love businesses that have a strong social purpose at the core of their business. Profit is important but impact is the goal! Like if you’re a fan of impact businesses! 💚💪🏼👏🏼💚 . . . . . . . . . . #socialchange #socialenterprise #socialgood #female #girlboss #azerbaijan #foodstagram #food #travelblogger #planetbinsights
Masterclass and Product Development
In order to continue to diversify their product range, they have regular masterclasses that are facilitated by one of Azerbaijan’s most famous pastry chefs. The women gather on a weekend learning how to make traditional pastries that they can then make at home. I was fortunate enough to attend a masterclass and meet some of the amazing women who are making these sweets. At one stage Sara introduced me to the team and a lady said something in Azerbaijani. Sara translated that the woman had said that she is looking forward to becoming famous in Australia. Everyone laughed. There was a strong sense of happiness, pride and empowerment in the room as the women learnt how to make traditional mini pastries. Earlier that day, I went to one of the local cafes that distribute their healthy balls. I showed the lady who made them a picture of the healthy ball I ate and she looked so proud and said thank you!
I asked Sara how they manage orders and she said that they have a database of women’s culinary skills. If a woman excels at creating one product then they will get priority treatment. ‘Every woman has their own skills and expertise. It is important for us to know this so we can continue to provide top quality products to our customers.’ Sara shared. The women work for a maximum of 5 hours per day and collectively make about 500 sweets every week.
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Would I be a true Australian if I didn’t go to one of the most obscure countries in the world and sniff out a quality Melbourne style coffee?? The coffee was ripper but it wasn’t even the best thing. @urbanica.coffee.wine in Baku, Azerbaijan commit to heaps of social projects and they also stock @buta_art_sweets. Buta is a social enterprise who employ women with disabilities to make delicious sweets, including the snickers ball I ate with my coffee! Whenever I’m feeling a bit homesick I know that there is nothing a little coffee can’t fix! But yeah also pretty keen to be back in Aus! 🇦🇺💖👯 . . . . . . . . . . . . #coffee #travelblogger #travel #azerbaijan #baku #socialgood #socialenterprise #foodstagram #planetbinsights #coffeeshop #coffeeholic
Buta Arts and Sweets’ Exciting Vision
‘I am proud to be in the social entrepreneurship field. It is my life’s work.’ Sara shared. In the next 5 years they want to employ 50 women, have 5 shops and an international presence. However their most important metric is that they want to change the mindsets of 3000 people in Azerbaijan about people with disabilities. They will do this through marketing as well as events and training to give people opportunities to meet with the women and see first hand the value they provide.
One of the biggest challenges Buta Arts and Sweets faces is the mindset of people in the community. ‘Many people think that food and products made by people with a disability will not be good.’ Sara said. ‘We are working to create a community who understands the value of women with disabilities and that they can contribute to society in a meaningful way.’
Sara is a pioneer in overcoming limiting mindsets. She is also proving that being a social entrepreneur and a female business owner is a viable option in Azerbaijan. Through her success she has shown the potential of people and is changing the way people perceive business success in the country.
The Future of Social Entrepreneurship In Azerbaijan
Sara has been working to define the term social enterprise and worked with the government on a proposal to provide incentives. ‘Social enterprises are important to the future of Azerbaijan as NGO funds are drying up and we need people to understand that it is possible to create profitable solutions that solve some of our greatest issues.’ Sara said.
Sara also works with Baku Idea Lab and Universities to facilitate training for future social entrepreneurs. To date they have trained over 1500 people with new skills to help build a social enterprise. Sara is cautiously optimistic about the future of social entrepreneurship in Azerbaijan. ‘If we can unlock the social entrepreneurship market in Azerbaijan it will be be great for our economy and society.’ She said.
Sara’s energy and passion was infectious. It is possible for one person to make a difference. Firstly she understood her own passion and skills. Then she looked for a way to solve a social issue in a sustainable way. I was so impressed with her ability to always be improving her business through operations, sustainability and quality. Her obsession with delivering a quality product to consumers is an important characteristic of creating a profitable social enterprise. She understands that the business cannot survive if they provide an inferior product as people will not continue to purchase just because of the social good. Her ambition and drive to connect with others and create a sustainable business model means that great things are ahead for Buta Arts and Sweets as well as Azerbaijan.