EBRD and We-Fi help woman-led Uzbekistan restaurant go digital

By Nigina Mirbabaeva

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In a culinary tradition rich in carbohydrates like that of Uzbekistan, flour-based products are an everyday staple. So when Zamira Rakhmanova and Nargiza Ulugova took this cultural fascination further, opening Tashkent’s first dumpling house, Testo by Zamira&Co, it became an instant hit.

With support from the EBRD’s Advice for Small Businesses programme funded by the Women Entrepreneurs Finance Initiative (We-Fi), Zamira and Nargiza have been able to future-proof their business by launching a new delivery service based on messaging platform Telegram, while building Testo’s brand awareness through digital marketing.

“The idea to open a cafe selling tasty, fresh, home-made dumplings – from the Russian pelmeni to the Italian ravioli – came organically,” says Nargiza. While neither of the two friends was a chef, Zamira was known as somewhat of a dumpling connoisseur, having blogged extensively about the dish’s many benefits. Both of them loved dumplings and wanted to share that love with others.

Testo, meaning ‘dough’ in Russian, quickly took off, and the first Testo by Zamira&Co café welcomed Tashkent’s hungry residents in 2018.

With a year-on-year increase in its sales and customer base, allowing Zamira and Nargiza to open their second café in 2020, Testo was on track to becoming a household name. That was until Covid-19. The restaurant had to close its doors in March. When it became clear that the lockdown was here to stay, the two friends realised they needed to change their business strategy to keep ahead of the competition.  

 “We had already been using a third-party delivery service. But with drastically reduced income during lockdown, we needed to bring this in-house to be more cost efficient,” says Nargiza.

Telegram is not only a widely used messaging application in Uzbekistan: it is also an emerging e-commerce platform. Zamira and Nargiza knew that Telegram would be the best channel to host Testo’s own delivery service, which was confirmed by the market analysis conducted as part of the project.

“We had already attempted to build a delivery chatbot, but our developer consistently missed deadlines. With the EBRD’s support, we were introduced to an alternative developer who had strong experience in creating catering and hospitality bots, and decided to partner with them instead,” notes Zamira.

After testing and linking payment systems, the team launched the chatbot in February 2021, putting all their efforts into raising the visibility of the new tool. As a result, Testo grew its client base to more than 1,200 customers, with 5,000 regular visitors one month later. Today, Testo’s orders via Telegram account for 10 per cent of all sales. But this is far from being the most positive result of the project.

“At a time when other hospitality venues were seeing a decline in sales, we managed to increase traffic to our cafe, and grow our revenue by 18 per cent in March 2021,” Zamira notes. This increase in demand allowed the company to expand and hire five more people.

The two friends also saw that sales via Testo’s third-party delivery partner continued to remain stable, which meant that the chatbot had allowed Testo to tap into a completely new customer base.

“There is clearly more room for growth in the market, and we don’t plan to stop,” Zamira says.

Over the next few years, the duo plan to branch out into retail, so that customers can enjoy their beloved products anywhere, anytime. As a first step on this journey, the team is developing a website with e-commerce and store finder capabilities to make it easier for customers to order, pay, and collect their goods. While the website is due to launch later this year, a bespoke mobile app with a loyalty scheme is already in the final stages of testing.

“Our customers don’t just love our brand – they love our products. And we want them to enjoy what we offer without the constraints of cafe locations or opening hours,” says Nargiza.

Looks like a dumpling revolution is on the the horizon in Uzbekistan…

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