As a strong advocate of youth empowerment and entrepreneurship in the MENA region, I’m always trying to find new ways to promote these ideas and thanks to a recent trip that I made to the beautiful Central Asian country of Tajikistan (and a piece that I wrote on the Algerian startup ecosystem recently) I’ve discovered that one of the most crucial things required to promote entrepreneurship in a country is a space for innovators to gather and collaborate. Today, I will share the story of the Tajik entrepreneur who led me to this important realization.
Meet Iskandar Ikrami, the founder of the Mazza café (which means delicious in Tajik) the first coffee shop chain in Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan.
After studying in Russia and working in China for several years, Iskandar came back to Dushanbe in 2012 and realized that there were no cafés for young people to socialize, work or study in.
At least not like the ones that he had spent time in when he was abroad. The only options that were available were dark and smoky venues, which had limited food, mediocre beverages and zero atmosphere.
Noticing this gap in the food and beverage (F&B) market in Dushanbe, Iskandar decided to open his first Mazza café in 2014 on Rudaki Avenue (the heart of Dushanbe’s business and tourist district) to provide a new generation of connected and increasingly mobile young Tajiks a unique experience with a local and international feel.
After seeing how popular his first Mazza café had become, Iskandar decided to open two more branches along Rudaki Avenue to capture more of the capital’s growing F&B market.
All of Iskandar’s three branches have different feels and vibes to cater to the specific location of Mazza café branch.
1) Mazza café (The founding branch)
The first branch is in the heart of the tourist and business district and it offers young Tajik professionals a place to host business meetings and tourists a place to take a break after a long day of touring Dushanbe’s main sites.
2) Galleria Mazza
The second branch, also called the Galleria Mazza café, offers customers the opportunity to enjoy exhibitions of local artwork, which are rotated on a routine basis. Thus, offering local artists the opportunity to share their artwork with Tajiks and tourists alike.
3) Idea Mazza
The third branch recently opened in the Dushanbe Plaza (a convention center in the capital) is called the Idea Mazza café, because it provides a space for local youth and innovators to meet, brainstorm and collaborate together.
In a country where few international F&B brands have penetrated the local market, Iskandar is confident that his coffee shop chain will continue to thrive, if he continues to strategically expand his brand’s presence in Dushanbe.
He also believes that the social and economic changes that are currently happening in Tajikistan are opening new doors for local entrepreneurs (like himself) to start profitable homegrown brands that meet the various needs of Tajikistan’s underserved markets. However, for many Tajik people, it still feels like this is easier said than done.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Tajikistan gained its independence; only to be plunged into a bitter civil war, which lasted for several years and resulted in the loss of countless lives. Not only did the civil conflict erode the social cohesion of Tajik society, it also deeply impacted the economic stability of the country.
Thus, slowing the development and economic growth of Tajikistan. However, according to Iskandar, times have changed and he believes that two things need to happen in order for the number of small-medium enterprises (SMEs) to increase in Tajikistan in the future:
Firstly: Tajik entrepreneurs need to dispel the fear that someone might take their businesses- or their business ideas.
Secondly: Tajik entrepreneurs have to stop copying and pasting business ideas from each other and start introducing more innovative ideas and concepts to Tajik markets.
Although there is still a lot of work to be done to develop Tajikistan’s local business ecosystem, Iskandar believes that things are changing in the country. Over the past three years, Iskandar says that he has witnessed an increasing amount of government support for local entrepreneurs, who want to establish businesses and services that will attract Tajik consumers and invite more foreigners to visit and invest in Tajikistan.
What can the MENA business ecosystem learn from Iskandar Ikrami and the Mazza café experience?
1) SMEs should provide spaces for innovation whenever possible
Sometimes, inspiration is a hard thing to come by, especially if you’re not working in a space that is conducive to creative thinking. We all need to spend time in a space that encourages innovative thinking and what better place for that than in the offices or building of a growing business? While I understand that space and privacy might be a concern for some SMEs, this shouldn’t stop them from trying to provide (in some shape or form) innovative thinkers with a space to grow and collaborate in.
Whether SMEs carve out a small section of their office as a Creative Corner for employees to brainstorm their own ideas or they provide student entrepreneurs with a free place to gather after work hours, all that really matters is that more MENA entrepreneurs try to create a space (both literally and metaphorically) for new ideas.
2) SMEs should make promoting local talent a part of their DNA
For Iskandar, it wasn’t enough for him to just open a café, he also wanted to use his business as a platform to celebrate local talent, which is why he opened the Galleria Mazza. No matter what industry or market they’re in, more MENA-based entrepreneurs need to think of ways to use their businesses to leverage local talent, so they can support these creative individuals and create more demand for their products and services.
So, next time your startup is looking to decorate its offices or to host a networking event, think of ways that you can leverage these opportunities to support local talent and create more exposure for their work.
3) SMEs should create homegrown brands that fuse local and international elements
Although I’m a huge advocate of promoting local brands with local flavors, I also think that entrepreneurs should try to incorporate an international element into their business, if they would like to expand internationally in the future. In Iskandar’s case, he loved eating subway sandwiches when he was abroad. Consequently, he introduced a sandwich bar into his coffee shop to bring an international flavor to his brand.
Although he didn’t express the desire to expand internationally when I met him, Iskandar has already incorporated an international element into his business, which could make his brand unique in Central Asia- if he decides to expand. While it’s not necessary for every entrepreneur to expand their brand beyond their community or city, it never hurts to incorporate an element that would make such a move possible down the line.
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