Several boys in a gym receiving martial arts instruction from a teacher.

An Opportunity to Thrive in Georgia .

From karate studios to greenhouses, rural Georgians have taken advantage of an opportunity to launch new careers and expand their businesses.

How much of a difference can one small opportunity make?

In some countries around the world, opportunities are everywhere. Scholarships, low-interest loans, and tax credits smooth the way for citizens to get an education, start a business, or buy a house. Yet in other places, like rural Georgia, such lucky breaks may be few and far between.

Instead of opportunity, most rural Georgians are more familiar with challenges. Much of the region lacks infrastructure, like clean water, functional roads, or safe school buildings, and about 260,000 Georgians are internally displaced. These internally displaced people live in substandard housing after being driven out of their homes by one of the territorial conflicts that has plagued Georgia in the last several decades.

Yet aspirations can still exist under conditions of hardship, and the New Economic Opportunities (NEO) Initiative was launched to provide more resources to help Georgians fulfill their potential.

Funded by USAID and implemented by Chemonics, the initiative reached more than 81,000 households with a broad range of support, from helping municipalities develop their own local economic development plans to providing emergency relief after natural disasters. But the focus of the project was on giving Georgians a chance to learn a new career, start their own business, or branch out into farming a higher-value crop — in other words, a chance to flourish.


households reached through NEO initiative

NEO worked with local partner organizations to develop two- to three-month courses in careers as diverse as baking, welding, carpentry, and stonemasonry. The project also introduced new techniques and equipment to farmers, from fruit tree pruning methods to drip irrigation and greenhouse production. To provide Georgians with startup capital for new careers and expanded ventures, NEO offered interest-free loans and in-kind grants.

According to Tamar Mikautadze of AbkhazIntercont, one of Chemonics’ local partner organizations, citizens were quick to take advantage of these new options: “We have never before seen so much happiness on the faces of our beneficiaries, who spared no effort to escape poverty.”

Strengthening Character Through Karate

One of these entrepreneurs, Giorgi Pataraia, was only 10 years old when he fled his home. He and his family were displaced from Abkhazia by the war in 1992, like thousands of other Georgians. Now, Giorgi is building a life in the town of Kutaisi and has received a degree in engineering.

But his deep love of martial arts has drawn Giorgi toward a different career path. To pursue his passion, he rented a sports hall from a nearby school and began to transform it into a karate studio with help from friends. However, with homemade equipment and a poorly suited space, his business was not able to grow.

A new door opened when Giorgi applied for a business management training course offered through the NEO project. He also took advantage of a small interest-free loan, which he invested in professional-quality punching bags and in renovating the space.

Now, the karate studio is three years old and has seen its revenue grow by 30 percent, allowing Giorgi to buy new heating equipment, mats, and a climbing rope. He is proud of the hard work he has put into the studio and attributes support from NEO for helping him transition what was once a hobby into a growing business.

With his studio in a stable position, Giorgi can spend more time reflecting on what the lessons mean for his students. “Karate is one of the best ways to encourage students and teach them responsibility,” he said. “My magic formula is to exercise the body, soul, and mind.”

Starting Fresh with Vegetable Farming

Another participant, Jambul Abshilava, was also an internally displaced person interested in founding his own small business. After being driven from his home and moving into a converted school building with 30 other families, Jambul was venturing to rebuild his life.

“When starting from zero, you’re not going to get anywhere without working extremely hard,” he said.

Jambul’s efforts were given a boost by NEO, which provided him with equipment to build a greenhouse and trained him on best practices in vegetable production. Two years of good harvests have shown a positive return on investment, boosting his income by nearly 40 percent. This new farmer now sells his tomatoes, cucumbers, and herbs at the local market, but he has set his sights higher. Once his harvests are large enough, he will sell his vegetables directly to distributors.

Being able to manage his own small business means a great deal to Jambul: “By supporting (internally displaced people), USAID gives us the opportunity to believe in ourselves and lets us carve out a better path in this world.”

“By supporting (internally displaced people), USAID gives us the opportunity to believe in ourselves and lets us carve out a better path in this world.”

Jambul Abshilava, Georgian farmer

“NEO was a bright spot in my life, totally changing it in a positive way.”

Nana Vatsadze, catering service entrepreneur

A Warm Reception for a New Bakery

The small town of Tsageri in northern Georgia has a new and popular gathering spot: Café Nana, owned by Nana Vatsadze.

Nana’s road to becoming a business owner began when she lost her job as a teacher at the village school. With an entrepreneurial spirit, she started selling muffins and savory pies at the school cafeteria and, on special occasions, to her neighbors. But she was only earning $45 a month and was having trouble supporting her two children and aging parents.

With a business plan in mind but no startup capital, Nana was barely breaking even until she learned about an opportunity through NEO. With support from the project, she bought a hot water tank, refrigerator, and two stoves, and rented a store in downtown Tsageri. Since Café Nana opened its doors, the bakery has gained enough loyal customers for her to employ an assistant and launch a catering service. With the purchase of a new car, Nana can also offer deliveries, an investment she thinks will help her increase her competitiveness and broaden her sales market.

Nana works hard to make the café a success, frequently staying as late as 11 p.m. But she says she loves the business: “NEO was a bright spot in my life, totally changing it in a positive way.”

Small Chances, Big Dreams

Individually, the opportunities offered by the Georgia NEO Initiative were small. But each served as a tipping point, helping families reach a new level of economic security.

For many vulnerable households, this means a newfound peace of mind. As Tamar Mikautadze put it, “There will be communities filled with people who have no fear of tomorrow.”