Nigyar Kocharli is a woman on a mission, her objective to promote Azeri literature and her passion for reading.
“I have always been fascinated by books because they change people’s lives,” she said, sitting in Ali and Nino, her book café in central Baku. “I used my grandfather’s furniture when I first opened the café. It is new now, but the photos on the walls are still from the original design.”
Ms Kocharli is among the very few businesswomen in Azerbaijan, where only 7 per cent of business-owners are female. She studied mathematics, but it was her favourite pastime, reading, that determined her professional future.
As a child, she fell in love with the book ‘Ali and Nino’, the story of an intercultural romance between a Muslim Azeri nobleman and a Christian Georgian princess. It is now also the name of her growing book enterprise.
“Our work consists in developing a more diverse economy with dynamic enterprises like Ms Kocharli’s for the future,” said Lala Rzayeva, the National Programme Manager of the EBRD’s Small Business Support (SBS) in Azerbaijan. SBS is funded by the European Union and has supported more than 800 companies since its launch in Azerbaijan in 2003.
Ms Kocharli set up her business with an initial investment of US$ 600 in 2001. She bought books in Russia and Ukraine and then sold them on in Azerbaijan – with growing success. The first bookstore opened its doors in 2005.
By now, her enterprise Ali and Nino employs 70 people in five stores, six departments in stationery shops, two book cafés and an online bookstore.
“It wasn’t about setting up a business anymore,” she explained. “I realised the potential to grow from a small to a medium-sized company. But how? It isn’t simply a question of money. You need proper advice and the know-how to develop.”
For Ali and Nino bookstores, the main challenge was related to efficient inventory management and embracing the opportunities of the online market. The SBS team helped Ms Kocharli find an experienced consultant, who made the management of the businesses more efficient through various IT solutions.
In the past, customers faced a long wait while staff would check whether a book was available or not. New software has made this an immediate process and accurately informs staff about the exact quantity of remaining copies.
The consultant also improved the online bookstore to increase sales with a more customer-friendly interface, a link to the warehouse system and more payment options.
“Our website gets over 5,000 clicks per month and the number is growing,” said Ms Kocharli. “We are promoting our online activities in many ways – for example, through Facebook debates on literature-related topics.”
Ms Kocharli has been actively promoting her passion for books and has contributed to Azerbaijan’s cultural life for years. She supports reading clubs, participates in open-air book fairs and was the founder of the National Book Award, the country’s largest literature award.
The upside is good publicity for the Ali and Nino bookstores and her cafés, but there’s also a downside: “It has become a very competitive award and sometimes people hate me for it,” she said.
The project to help her business expand is now successfully completed, but Ms Kocharli is already looking for the next challenge.
“A few months ago, I opened the first bookstore outside Baku, in Ganja, our second largest city,” she said. “There are only a dozen in the whole country so far, but I have every intention of changing this.”