The route to awareness in Azerbaijan

How does one create more awareness about social entrepreneurship? It's one of the central challenges faced by Education HUB, our Azerbaijani partner in the EU-funded Collaborate For Impact market building project. They've come up with some interesting avenues, one of which came to fruition very recently.

Tom Dinneweth |
PhD students have just received the certification for their training on social entrepreneurship.

As a child, chances are you wanted to be an astronaut, or score the winning goal at the World Cup. And with good reason – space is boundlessly fascinating, and the eyes of the world are permanently transfixed on large sporting events. What’s more, there are plenty of examples of famous astronauts or prolific football players. The same does not (yet) ring true for social entrepreneurs. 

Indeed, one would typically struggle to name even a few. And while it is likely a fact that it is not in the nature of social entrepreneurs to draw attention to their own person, it does highlight one of the issues social entrepreneurs encounter: a lack of general visibility. With this comes a lack of awareness, about what their work means, what they do, and why they matter. It’s hard to dream of becoming a sustainable farmer or a teacher for refugees if these people hardly ever catch the spotlight.

This visibility issue is even larger in a country like Azerbaijan, where social entrepreneurs operate more or less in a void. Whereas the European Union is continually working on a framework and impetus measures to support the social economy in its members states (hello there, SFDR!), the same does not (yet) hold true for the majority of Eastern European countires, where social entrepreneurs are still fighting to prove their value and to claim a legal status of their own. 

Awareness starts with education

One way of accelerating this recognition process is through increased awareness. Education HUB, our Azerbaijani partner in the EU-funded Collaborate For Impact project, likes to tackle this issue in creative ways. One recent initiative had them setting up a training programme aimed a PhD students from different national universities. 

The idea behind the action is that by teach these students, who are sourced from different economy-focused degrees, about the social economy and how it functions, they will carry this knowledge with them for the rest of their career. Ideally, they will also write academic articles that focus on the topic, creating a sort of snowball effect. 

"It is very important to have academic articles to raise awareness about social entrepreneurship”, asserts Gulnara Ismailova, Program Manager of Education HUB, “and to establish it as an important business model to help ensure sustainable development and a green economy”.

The first round of the training programme started in December 2023, and ended in February 2024, with a certification ceremony. Different social entrepeneurs from the network of Education HUB volunteered to share their knowledge and experience. With participants from several national universities, some even several hours removed from Baku, the results were very encouraging. 

Khanim Dashdemirova, the deputy chairman of the board of the Education Development Fund of Azerbaijan, emphasized the importance of the of trainings like the one offered by Education HUB and noted that they are interested in continuing such initiatives.

This pupil has just finished the first edition of the training for PhD students.

"One of the main goals we set for 2024 as the Education Development Fund is to stimulate the development of science. That’s why it is gratifying to have articles by doctoral students in the field of social entrepreneurship", confirmed Dashdemirova.

An extra layer of urgency and relevance is provided by the high-profile COP29 meeting, which will be held in Baku at the back end of 2024. Azerbaijan’s own efforts in sustainability will undoubtedly be a topic around that period. In fact, it has made its way to the coverage of the recent presidential elections in the country, with presidential candidate Razy Nurullayev championing the creation of an impact fund to help build the social economy.

Awareness also starts with media coverage

The PhD programme is a new addition to the offering of our partner in Azerbaijan. It is not the first foray of Education HUB into the world of awareness raising. Another notable initiative consists of a similar awareness training, but this time geared towards journalists. As part of the training, well-known journalists and bloggers learn about the history of social entrepreneurship, social business models, innovative and design-based approach.

The journalist training has become a yearly tradition now and has resulted in the creation of a "journalists coordination group" which aims at supporting media representatives to promote social entrepreneurship more actively. The approach has proven effective so far. Landmark events like the Azerbaijan Impact Days saw coverage from national journalists, marking the start of a more intense collaboration. The existence of this content stream adds a new voice on the topic of social entrepreneurship, and in doing so also opens avenues to push for policy advancement in the future.

And who knows – perhaps somewhere in a living room in Baku, a kid in a wheelchair sees the news, which features the dancers at DanceAbility, busting a move despite their physical disabilities. They see a way to belong – maybe later, they can be a dancer, too – in addition to being an astronaut, of course.