Azerbaijan’s currency, the manat, has been on a rollercoaster since January 2015, experiencing two devaluations which deeply affected people’s pockets.
As the economy heavily relies on oil and gas revenues, the fall in oil prices which started in 2014 took a toll on the national budget. In addition, the plummeting currencies of Azerbaijan’s trading partners, like the Russian ruble, put additional pressure on the manat, which, in one year, lost over half of its value against the US dollar.
Authorities have tried to address some of the challenges small businesses face, like corruption, and entrepreneurs have blossomed as youngsters have begun to realize that they want to be in the driver’s seat. From cafes to start-ups, ideas are spreading across the country.
Note: In January 2015, 1 Azerbaijani manat was worth $ 0.78, while on December 21, it was down to $ 1.55. It slowly decreases daily, and as of September 13, 2016 one manat is worth $ 0.64.
SWIMSOS is an innovative swim short, consisting of a ring which automatically inflates in case of danger by simply pulling a string. The life-saving product is the brainchild of two cousins, Elshan Zeynalov, 25, and Samad Khanmammadli, 31 whose fear of water sparked the idea.
“I have been afraid of water since my childhood and this prevented me from swimming in deep water,” explains Zeynalov. “We thought about creating something comfortable and simple, just one piece, which could be ready whenever there is a need.”
“Now I am no longer scared of the sea,” smiles the law graduate.
Suitable from seven years old, Swimsos features a belt attached to the upper part of the short with a device which, once pulled, inflates the belt in two seconds. The product weight is 400 gr and it can support people up to 170kg. The budget spent on an innovative swim short was 14,000$.
“Inflatable safety rings are available everywhere, but our product is different as the ring is embedded in the shorts which, in case of need, become a floating device,” explains Khanmammadli who graduated in history at Baku State University.
According to statistics about a quarter of people who down every year are swimmers, making Swimsos a product suitable not only to non-swimmers.
“Everybody needs it,” notes Khanmammadli, who maintains Swimsos does not have the competitors on the world market.
The process from the idea to the first prototype took about six months. They traveled to China to produce the first sample in January 2016. Since then they have been looking for investors to get the project up and going and start manufacturing the life-saving swim wear.
The two young men dream of reaching the US, EU, and Australia markets.
“The market in the United States is big and it would offer many opportunities such as swimming, as well as surfing, which are largely popular.”
Rashid Aliyev is an IT specialist in Baku. After years as an employee in both small and big companies, he has focused on developing a Braille Pad since 2013, a device he designed for visually impaired people. The tablet allows people with limited or no vision to surf the Internet, read books, and recognize the pictures and graphics.
The idea popped up in 2003, but it marinated for ten years.
“I have a relative who is visually impaired. When I was at university, I looked for books in Braille but it was really difficult to find them,” explains the 34-year old. “There was only one printing house that could print books with the Braille alphabet, and they were really expensive. Ordering books from abroad was also pricey. We researched and noticed that there are very few electronic devices for the visually impaired apart from the US-manufactured Humanware - BrailleNote.”
After graduating in economics Aliyev went back to his real passion, computer science. It felt like rounding the circle, as since he was a child he would use bits and pieces from old recorders to build robots, transmitters, and remote controls.
After several years of experimenting, Aliyev found the electromechanical solution for his tablet idea, wrote the software, and designed the pilot product.
“I created the first one about two years ago, but it did not go far.”
Due to the lack of specific expertise in Azerbaijan, in early 2016 Aliyev started working with Ukrainian specialists - “who are faster and more efficient” - to take the project on the next step and produce the prototype.
The young programmer is not the only who has ventured into designing a tablet for visually impaired people, but the difference is in the weight.
“The device three other international companies designed is about 6 kg, it functions on electricity, and it needs to be connected to a computer,” explains Aliyev. “Our Braille Pad utilizes an the electromechanical system, it does not need to be attached to a pc, and we aims for a final weight of 800 grams in weight. It is very convenient.”
Several companies have come forward to manufacture the tablet, but of the tablet, it came from several countries, but the prototype of the tablet is not ready yet, so he cannot estimate the proposals.
The state chipped in through the ICT Fund, a state-funded programme set up in 2012 to support and develop entrepreneurship in the field of information and communication technology. The funding however, was not sufficient as Aliyev would need about $160,000 in order to complete the prototype, and up to $1.5 million for a large scale production. The final tablet would cost about $800 - 1,000.
Still, Aliyev’s creative drive does not end with the Braille Pad.
“In March, during a visit to Ukraine, I came across a small, very basic, device to teach theBraille alphabet to children. I suggested to the developers to expand the functions, and install a voice function so kids could listen to the combination of the letters with its correct sound. And also they will be able to play a game. They agreed and the idea of Braille Teach was born."
Developed with the support of an Azerbaijani bank, Braille Teach is currently available on the market in Ukraine and it costs $ 65. So far the developers foresee it in Azerbaijani, Russian, English and Ukrainian and, once the Azerbaijani language set-up is completed, it will hit Azerbaijan’s market as well. The Ukrainian Blind Association certified the Braille Teach as a teaching tool for visually impaired children and Aliyev said that a German institution working with people with vision limitations welcomed it as well.
“No one is a prophet in his own country” goes the saying. And Aliyev is no exception as he is still looking for a final investor who can bring to life his Braille Pad. He laments that there is not much interest towards the device in Azerbaijan and, by and large, towards innovative IT products.
“I wish Azerbaijan could be developed like Germany, South Korea, or Japan in this respect,” he notes. “There are many gaps in the market and no conditions for the IT industry to blossom. Industrial parks do not even have the cheapest 3D printer.”
If attitude is an obstacle, investment is another, as there is a real lack of money being channelled into IT start-ups.
"I would love to see young people willing to do something different. University graduates quickly jump into working for someone. They need to understand they can also create something themselves and start something new up."
Bright handmade dreamcatchers cover the walls of El Viento, a small, turquoise-painted cafe in the heart of the capital Baku. The owner, Aysel Ibrahimli, makes the colorful pieces - somehow they are themselves the realization of a dream.
Twenty-year old Aysel has loved art since she was a child and has been making artistic crafts since she was 16. She attended the music school with her sister who then went on to continue her musical education, while Aysel decided to stop. She enrolled in the journalism faculty at Baku State University but dropped out after the first course.
“Studying should have a purpose, going to university for the sake of it, just to obtain a diploma is hypocrisy.”
After leaving university she worked as a graphic designer and a food photographer, an experience during which she understood that she wants to be the owner of her own business.
“I was not able to be as creative as I wanted. I did not have the opportunities to improvise,” she notes. It then occurred to me that in my own cafe, I could be both a designer and a food photographer at the same time.”
Aysel opened El Viento in May 2016 and she now feels her creativity is free to flow. She creates dream catchers, home objects like wall hangers made with macrame (a form of knitting using a knotting technique), curtains and seat covers, bohemian-style wall hangers and other handicrafts. El Viento is a cafe but also an exhibition space and a shop for her work.
Earning money is not the main reason she jumped into this adventure. El Viento is her personal school.
“I am learning and getting experience in design, cooking, customer service, and accounting,” explains the artist-cum-businesswoman who dreams to turn El-Viento into a place for both young and old people.
Enthusiasm kept her on-going, as being a young entrepreneur is not easy: you have to navigate through the bureaucracy and there is so little information about what to do and how to do it.
"It would have been easier if I had worked in the service sector earlier,” she adds. “One day, I’ll travel to Europe to work in a cafe to learn how the business is managed there.”