Ishkan‘s Fruit Garden

Article, 10.11.2016

A story of a young entrepreneur from remote but fruitful Meghri region of Armenia.

Arax river on the Armenian-Iranian border

A dry and empty plot

Ishkhan Aslanyan (42) stands on the edge of his huge fruit garden and looks down at the little pond surrounded by hills and wild plants, which has once inspired him to buy this dry and almost empty plot some six years ago. By then, he was not sure whether it would be worth to start a fruit garden in Meghri. Meghri is the southernmost region of Armenia bordering with Iran in the south and Azerbaijan in the west and east. From the capital Yerevan, the biggest marketplace in the country, it is at least eight hours drive across four high mountain passes.

After living a couple of years abroad as a migrant-worker, one thing Ishkhan was sure of was that he wanted to settle in his homeland. „Without these mountains I am nothing in this world,“ he proudly says, admiring the high naked rock deliberately standing out against the blue sky. „This rock gives me energy,“ he continues, gazing at it.

The mountains that surround Meghri heat up the area during the day and keep the warmth during the night, thus creating a unique subtropical climate in this part of Armenia. This allows to grow pomegranate, fig, persimmon, and even kiwi, not to speak of early cherries and apricots.

By profession, Ishkhan is an engineer-economist, but he comes from a family of agronomists and wine producers. „The inclination to gardening is already in my genes,“ he states with a big smile. With the start of the project „Markets for Meghri“ (funded by Switzerland, implemented by the Center for Agricultural Research and Development) in the region, Ishkhan began to take part in different trainings on how to take good care of fruit trees. „This knowledge inspired me to start a fruit garden. It gave me confidence to process fruits first from my own garden and now even from the region,“ he admits.

„Challenges make me grow“

Ishkhan Aslanyan from the Meghri region ©SDC

Ishkhan started drying fruits in 2013 in an electric fruit-dryer he received from the Swiss-funded project and produced 500 kg of hygienically dried fig and persimmon. The next year, he realized that one machine is not sufficient and bought himself another one. This year, he processed 40 tons of fresh fruits, which made eight tons of dried organic fruits for export to Europe. Today, Ishkhan is one of the few Armenian exporters of high-quality dried fruits to Switzerland, Austria, England, Czech Republic, and Russia.

Ishkhan likes to process fruits for European countries. „They have very strict standards, which on the one hand challenge me, on the other hand, they make me grow,“ he proudly states showing his cold room with carefully stored dry-fig in white bags. „I always choose the more difficult way in business, because there is less competition and it makes my life more interesting.“ At times, the young entrepreneur also had to turn down big orders from Europe. He prefers to concentrate on the quality of the product. „We can only compete with other producers in Turkey and Iran by processing organic fruits,“ he firmly states.

Creativity meets heritage

Once the Lenin‘s room in the wine factory ©SDC

Ishkhan‘s family owns part of a wine factory built in 1956, which was closed down some twenty-five years ago. He chose the oldest room in this factory, made simple renovations and turned it into a fruit collection point. He is also looking for ways to use solar and wind energy.  Ishkhan already started to equip the existing patio of the former wine factory with shelves, and covered the space with a net to dry fruits naturally. This way he can process even more fruits during the high season.

There was once a so called Lenin‘s room in the wine factory, where the workers could gather for joint reading evenings and listening music. „The next step is to turn the former Lenin‘s club into a fruit processing point as well,“ he says, showing the portraits of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin and a red soviet banner. However, he stresses that he would like to keep the historical souvenirs.

Social business

Ishkan‘s Fruit Garden ©SDC

„Ishkhan is one of the fairest entrepreneurs I know. He always offers the best price for fruits during the season,“ says Hovannes, one of the local farmers. „On the one hand he is an entrepreneur, on the other hand he is a farmer himself, therefore it is easy to work with him.“

One of the challenges that entrepreneurs in Meghri face is the lack of male workforce. The workers are mostly women. „It is very pleasant to work with women. They are hard working, stable and reliable, but nevertheless there is also heavy work where we need more men,“ regrets Ishkhan. „I do not allow women to pick up heavy load without me, if I am not there they shall wait for me. The young men in our region are not interested in agriculture. As soon as they learn something new they leave us for bigger cities,“ he continues.

Still, Ishkhan believes that the youth is the future and makes efforts to attract more young people to his work. His garden is always open to school children. During the high season, they can pick and eat fruits and even earn money for their work. Ishkhan used to have a young dedicated gardener until recently. Now the young man is studying agriculture in Yerevan and the businessman is supporting him. „I am looking forward to the young agronomist‘s return,“ he says with his eyes full of hope.

On the other edge of his huge fruit garden there is a small plot with rape water melons, pumpkin, red and green pepper. Ishkhan has reserved it for realizing his long standing dream: to build a small family house for him and his wife.

Read more about the project here