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Kyrgyzstan’s globetrotting dolls

An army of dolls ready for the long journey to Western markets swissinfo.ch

In 1997, Kalipa Asanakunova and her family were too poor even to buy bread. Now they provide work for a whole neighbourhood.

This content was published on December 11, 2003 - 13:37

Their success was made possible by craftsmanship and creativity, a village-style factory and a plane ticket to Hungary.

“Twenty years ago there was nothing in this area. I used to come here to shoot birds,” remembers Ura, our friendly driver, speaking in stilted French, which he probably hasn’t used since.

We are in the dusty outskirts of Bishkek, an area of unpaved streets and ubiquitous potholes. Children are running about everywhere, chasing scrawny chickens or engaging in mock fights.

There are exposed pipes, clad in crumbling reinforced concrete, carrying hot air to some mysterious destination.

The neighbourhood is populated by migrants, newcomers from the south or east of the country, or from nearby Tajikistan or Uzbekistan, or as far away as Afghanistan. Unemployment is rife.

This is where Kalipa Asanakunova lives, in a house of reddish brick, no different from many others. But now she intends to extend it: she is making a fortune.

How? By exporting hand-made dolls to Europe, Australia and America. “I began on my own and now I employ between 50 and 60 people, some of them doctors, architects and teachers,” she tells us proudly.

Off to Hungary

“In 1990, immediately after independence, the economic system collapsed. There was no work”, says Kalipa, who trained as a designer of craft items.

“After struggling for many years, in 2000 I became involved in some small-scale local projects. I was selling items to souvenir shops in Bishkek”, she tells us.

Then, last year, the Swiss government’s development aid agency presented her with an airline ticket to go to Hungary and attend an international craft fair.

The intention was to encourage the development of her business, and generate income that would create further jobs.

“It was a very important step,” says our new entrepreneur. “I met designers and learned about trends and tastes in many countries, which enabled me to adapt my products to meet market demand.”

Production line

This also led to the development of new products, for example charming figures of bride and bridegroom in traditional Kyrgyz wedding attire. Kalipa sells them for $2 or $3 each; in Western markets they will fetch six times as much.

Last September, for example, she received an order from France for 2,500 of these dolls – manna from heaven, if you consider that the average salary in Kyrgyzstan is around $30 dollars a month.

Kalipa and many of her employees/neighbours set about making the dolls, each working in their own home, as and when possible, and taking charge of one stage in the production process.

“The family who live next door here are responsible for modelling the heads; no one can do it better than them,” explains Kalipa.

Success

Kalipa’s is a success story, but that success is by no means assured in the future. Like any development project based on the export of products of low added value, hers are easy to copy and demand might not always exceed supply.

“Should I try to obtain copyright for my products? I have considered it, but it would be too complicated”, explains Kalipa, adding that she has already seen copies of her dolls in a number of places.

“But what can you do about it? It’s a basic rule of the market. The important thing is to get there first. And if you are creative, you will always find a way forward”, she concludes.

swissinfo, Marzio Pescia, Jean-Didier Revoin, Bishkek

Key facts

Average monthly salary in Kyrgyzstan - $30.
Export price of Asankunova’s Kyrgyz dolls: $2-3
On Western markets they will sell for up to six times as much.

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In brief

Following the economic collapse brought about by independence, Kalipa Asanakunova, a designer of craft items, found a new source of income.

The Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation sponsored her to visit an international craft fair in Hungary, where she developed new products to suit Western tastes.

She now employs between 50 and 60 people, earning above average wages.

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