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From OSCE employee to first female hotelier in Tajikistan

By Nigina Mirbabaeva

How do you become a successful women entrepreneur in a male-dominated industry and environment? With a little starting capital, creativity and expert support –­­ says Zebuniso Solieva, a hotelier and yoga teacher in Tajikistan.

With support from the EBRD and Switzerland, Zebuniso was able to improve her business processes and grow her hotel business.

A niche discovered  

A development officer by trade and a yoga teacher by calling, Zebuniso is the owner of the popular Armon Apart Hotel in the city of Khujand in Tajikistan.

“I started my business with just one apartment that I rented out on an ad hoc basis,” she remembers. It was meant to be a passive investment that would bring additional income on top of her day job as an employee of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), tackling issues related to human rights and civic education in Tajikistan.

However, Zebuniso quickly realised there was a niche in the hotel market that needed to be filled.

“While I was at the OSCE, there was a real problem with longer-term accommodation for foreign staff and guests visiting the mission in Khujand,” she explains. “Service in local hotels was sub-standard and staying in them for long periods was inconvenient.” Zebuniso realised that a hybrid apartment-hotel, providing high levels of service and living standards, could be the solution.

She left her job and began to focus on her new venture, slowly but surely buying new apartments in the building – sometimes through very creative measures. “Securing a loan as a woman with a new business and no collateral was close to impossible, so I started out by getting micro loans. At one point, I had 15 micro loans with a local bank,” she laughs. It paid off, as today her enterprise, Armon Apart Hotel, provides 15 apartments for rent as well as yoga and wellness services.

Efficiency gains with a little help on the way

However, to be on par with outstanding hotels, Armon Apart Hotel’s internal processes had to match theirs too.

Zebuniso turned to the EBRD for support with improving her business operations. Through the EBRD’s Advice for Small Businesses programme, supported by Switzerland through the EBRD’s Small Business Impact Fund (ItalyJapanLuxembourgNorwaySouth KoreaSwedenSwitzerlandTaiwanBusiness - EBRD Technical Cooperation Fund and the USA), Zebuniso was able to implement automated accounting software and build a website.

“As a small business, we didn’t have the means or the knowledge to implement sophisticated accounting software or build a website that would attract customers, so the EBRD’s support was crucial for our growth,” she says. The new software helped Zebuniso improve the management of her business’s finances, allowing her to spend less time on manual work and more time on helping clients discover yoga, nutrition and a healthy lifestyle. Her new website, meanwhile, raised awareness of the wellness services she provided on top of her accommodation offering. The result? People from outside Khujand coming to stay and practice yoga with Zebuniso, a 54 per cent increase in turnover and a 50 per cent increase in sales.

A brand on the rise

“Today we are a distinguished business – we’ve won many accolades such as Tajikistan’s ‘Brand of the Year’ in 2018 and are consistently in the top 50 hotels in the country,” Zebuniso says with pride.

And she doesn’t plan on stopping. Looking to the future, Zebuniso intends to take her business to other cities in Tajikistan and expand the range of services it offers to become a true wellness brand. “We want to offer all aspects of healthy living to all Tajiks and help people improve their lifestyle,” she says. And with her enthusiasm and business acumen, the endeavour should be bearing fruit before long.

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