The Bears of Berd: Norwegian business know-how meets Armenian craft in northern town

The Bears of Berd: Norwegian business know-how meets Armenian craft in northern town

NAZIK ARMENAKYAN
ArmeniaNow

Dozens of energetic women living in remote provinces of Armenia, believing in themselves and in a few foreigners, have turned their talent and skills into income.


In an average room of an average building in the town of Berd, some 200 kilometers north of Yerevan, women make bears called ‘Berd’. Their eyes, made of buttons, get a naïve and kind expression in the hands of these eager women. And because of the small woolen waistcoats, which have flags of different countries on them, Berd Bears have traveled throughout the world.

The bears are made by 16 women of Berd’s Women Resources Center Foundation. Anahit Badalyan, 29, head of the foundation, who after studying journalism at Yerevan State University for six years settled in Berd, says their work has succeeded since the very beginning.

When Badalyan looked into registering the foundation in March of this year, she was told that she must pay a $300 bribe for the seal.

“Later I was surprised at the change in style of work of the Ministry of Justice – no bribe, normal treatment, they have done everything very fast, and even the executive called and said that they had changed some part of the (foundation’s) charter, so that we might succeed. After just a short time I went to take the seal, I paid only 15,000 drams (about $40), some state duties and everything was ready,” she recalls.

Soon, John Hart, a Peace Corps volunteer arranged a meeting to Berd by Timothy Straight, Honorary Consul of Finland and Norway in Armenia. Straight, who has been working with Armenian NGOs and agencies for more than 10 years had previously helped women in southern provinces create similar projects. Straight even opened a small shop in Yerevan where hand-made crafts were sold.

“Tim came, I gathered the women, he looked at their work and a handmade bear caught his eye. The creators of the bear were women of Sister Hanna’s group (Sister Hanna is a Lebanon-based German who has spent seven years in Berd, and taught the fancywork art to many women there). Tim asked if they can knit that bear, and they replied that they can knit anything.”

Nine months have passed; the women have made 100 bears, which are all sold thanks to Straight’s efforts. However, they did not stop with “Berd Bears”. They have also made the characters (two bears, a raven, a bee and a butterfly) of an environmental cartoon, created with the cooperation of KASSart Studio and Homeland Handicrafts NGO. Additionally the women are also producing jam and berry products.

Each woman of the Berd Womens Resource Center earns 440 drams (about $1.20) per hour, which makes about 70,000 drams (about $200) per month when there are enough orders. On average, each woman works about 3-4 hours per day and 3-4 days per week.

Until the 1990s Berd had been a factory town (production of thermostats and electrical relay switches, milk fermentation, tobacco reprocessing, weaving, wine, canned food). About 80 percent of the factory employees were women, now unemployed, so the chance to earn money again is a big achievement for them.

Homeland Handicrafts NGO was founded by Straight, who aimed to create jobs which would need traditional Armenian craftwork, using traditional materials. Since May 2010, the NGO has been cooperating with Goris, Kapan and Meghri towns of the (southern) Syunik province.

“We take their techniques and develop new products -- traditional techniques, traditional materials, but new products. And that’s what people find fascinating,” says Straight who dealt with product development for 25 years, and tries to teach province-based women business and marketing – packaging, trademark, deadlines, quality management.

Now that production is rolling, Straight says it is time for the women to deal with the market, to be introduced and present their products, to use the modern accessible Internet platforms – online social networks, etc.

“To be honest none of them are business women yet. The next step is to find customers without my help, and once they can do it, it would be the perfect situation. They need to be businesses, they need to start marketing themselves, exporting themselves, finding markets themselves,” Straight says. “Sometimes we fail, like in case with Meghri, sometimes we have quick success like in Berd when we start with 0 money. By October I was sold out; I have ordered 50 new bears for them.”

Until know the bears were exclusively sold in Armenia and transported out in suitcases to the buyers. Currently the bear which costs 15,000 drams (about $40) can be ordered through Straight via his blog http://homeland-handicrafts.blogspot.com/ or through Anahit Badalyan if contacted via her blog http://berd-women.blogspot.com/.

The work is inspiring to Badalyan, who felt uneasy at the beginning.

“My son Gagik is four years old. While making the cartoon and the other bears I have experimented on him. I prepared parties for him with the bears and other characters, and he gave me advice, saying that the bear is fat, it must be a little thinner, or it is heavy, or its eyes look kinder this way, etc. We made bears, but we did not have a single bear toy in our house, I took some to my house and then brought them back again. And now my son is sleeping with a bear toy, which gives me confidence that the bears will greatly succeed in the future,” says the future business lady of Berd.