In a Circle

In a Circle

At the beginning of the year, the Support to SME Development in Armenia project (SMEDA) has provided a platform for creative industry professionals to discuss and discover ways to strengthen their fields. The four round table meetings led to a whole series of interesting projects. Part of them has already been implemented this year and others are yet to come.

 

Text: Karine Ghazaryan

 

As part of the EU4Business and EU4Innovation initiatives of the European Union, the SMEDA project was launched in 2016. The project will run until 2019 and is co-funded by the European Union and the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), and it is implemented by the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ).

The project is called SMEDA, which stands for Support to Small and Medium Enterprise Development in Armenia. A significant part of the project is dedicated to supporting the creative industries, focusing on four directions: advertisement and marketing, cinematography, design, and software and games. In March, the SMEDA team organised round tables with the activists of the fields to discuss the needs and the challenges they face. Several promising initiatives emerged from the discussions. For example, several fashion designers decided to establish the first professional fashion association in Armenia.

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The Fashion and Design Chamber of Armenia was initiated by the young and well-known designer, Vahan Khachatryan together with several Armenian young fashion designers. It officially launched in November 2017. Elen Manukyan, the head of the project and co-founder of the “5 Concept” fashion store, notes that this is a one-of-a-kind organisation in the country. “There was no such institution to unite designers, as well as to raise important questions and provide opportunities to implement joint initiatives,” she says. “The Chamber will represent interests of both companies and independent designers.” The organisation now has around 30 active members, and their number is expected to grow. After its launch in November, the founders applied and were awarded with one of SMEDA’s action grants. The one-year grant will allow activists to build capacity and attract attention to the field.

In August 2017, SMEDA supported 11 Armenian designers to travel to Ukraine and present their collections at the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Days Kiev. As the team leader of SMEDA, Eva Näher mentions that for many of them it was their first international experience. “When you are an individual, it is difficult to reach out to an international audience” she says. “So, Kiev showed the need for designers to come together.” Three of the brands, LOOM Weaving, Z.G.Est, and Petoor, were given the opportunity to exhibit their products in Kiev’s fashion stores. A dress from RUZANE was included on the Ukrainian Cosmopolitan “10 best looks from Mercedes-Benz Fashion Days Kiev” list. “The trip demonstrated how much we have yet to learn from international experience,” says Elen Manukyan. “It was kind of a push to work together and to travel more with our collections.” Besides the work outside of Armenia, designers believe that there is a lot to do inside the country. At the round table meeting organised by SMEDA, the participants mentioned the importance of the government to be engaged in providing a legal framework and tax benefits, developing standards of quality as well as recognising design as a separate sector of the economy.

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The SMEDA team tries to engage professional associations and governmental bodies in its activities. SMEDA cooperates closely with the Ministry of Economic Development and Investments and offered its support to the Ministry of Culture to develop the first law regulating cinematography in Armenia. The suggestion to join the discussions on the cinematography law was made during the round table meeting by a number of filmmakers, who also drew attention to the lack of professional networking and funding for shooting, production, and distribution.

Just like the design initiatives, the idea of an independent filmmakers’ club came up during the meeting. “The non-formal club lists 10 to 15 participants who meet once a month just to communicate and to keep in touch,” filmmaker Melik Karapetyan says. “There already is a plan by SMEDA to organise European Audiovisual Entrepreneurs (EAVE) training in spring.”

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Along with EAVE, SMEDA provides an opportunity to bring many more kinds of professional expertise to Armenia. For example, a British expert on creative consultancy, Andrew Erskine, traveled to Yerevan to provide creative writing workshops for local journalists. Online, broadcast and print media journalists attended a four-day workshop in October to develop their reporting skills on economic, business, innovation and startup issues. The main idea was to “write figures and make it attractive.” While all the topics mentioned above are often difficult to present in an easily digestible manner, all of them are of great importance for society, and it is crucial that people can present them clearly.

Other training on simple and interesting presentation of content included graphic recording workshops. This technique allows complex discussions to be broken down and to be presented in a visual report. This way, large amounts of information becomes easier to memorize.  

SMEDA also supports the organisation of professional meetings on a larger scale. One of them was the fourth annual PR Summit which took place between May 19-21 in Yerevan with the participation of American, European, Lebanese and Russian experts. The summit was organized by Deem Communications, an active participant from the Armenian advertisement and marketing field.

One of the main outcomes of the summit was the first city branding activity which is now operational. The Gyumri branding initiative was offered by Deem Communication to increase tourism in the city and attract new investments. Six months later, the new brand of the city was presented to the general public by Deem Communications. SMEDA invited an Icelandic place branding expert, storytelling and communications strategist, Hjörtur Smarason, to provide training on city branding as a development tool for local businesses, media, government agencies and non-governmental organizations. The team leader of SMEDA, Eva Näher, thinks that the creation of a strong and positive image of the city could mean more businesses opening up offices in Gyumri, thus contributing to the decentralization of the business environment.

Although the round table meetings made it clear that there exist serious challenges in the field of software and games, SMEDA specialists mention that significant efforts are being made toward developing IT, and it is one of the fastest growing sectors in Armenia. However, game developers drew attention to the large gap between what educational institutions offer and what the labor market needs. This and other issues push SMEDA to maintain a number of activities in IT, and first of all, support to Armenian startups. Game developers, as well as almost all other participants of the round table meetings especially highlighted the importance of more networking and exchange. During the creative writing training, creative consultancy expert Tom Fleming suggested the concept of a creative hub. This may become an idea SMEDA will be working on in 2018. Fleming notes that a hub could provide a vital development function for the creative industries in Armenia. It could help convene creative talent, giving it presence and providing opportunities for collaboration and scale. Moreover, it might help repurpose old industrial buildings to signal a new economic age. “In our research and consultancy across the world, it is clear that creative hubs are of huge significance to the health and dynamism of the overall creative economy. They enable micro enterprises and freelancers to come together - to collaborate, trade and exchange ideas. They open up opportunities to access markets and larger firms; and they provide a practical infrastructure model for the delivery of business support, training and investment readiness. They are also often relatively safe and affordable - where creative talent feels free and enabled to develop critically engaging work and where rents are structured to ensure different types of business and organisation can afford to participate.”

Usually functioning in old industrial buildings, creative hubs provide an excellent location for exhibitions. All creative companies can use this location to display and promote their products. Moreover, supportive businesses like shops, cafes, and professional service providers can also work there, thus turning the place into a great platform for cooperation and development.

All interested people can participate in the upcoming discussion on the potential creation of a creative hub which will be organized by SMEDA to discover the real needs, engage motivated professionals, and consolidate resources. Just like previous round table meetings, this one may become a starting point for promising initiatives and new opportunities for small and medium enterprises in Armenia.