Birzhan Kuzhakov, an entrepreneur from Uralsk, West Kazakhstan region told the Kursiv edition how he came up with the idea of entering into business, why he hires disabled people and what he is going to do to get out of the crisis.
Birzhan Kuzhakov, a 50-year-old former police officer, lives in Uralsk where he runs a company called Gibadat. The company produces cabinet furniture, home decoration in ethnic style and medical standing frames for children with Down’s syndrome and cerebral palsy.
According to the man, in the days of his youth he used to work as an artist-designer, before later serving in the traffic police.
“I’ve lost my legs during my shift on the highway in winter. It was a very cold day. I couldn’t leave my post and had to wait for the shift change. After two days I started feeling bad, and eventually lost my legs,”he said.
In a desperate endeavor to save his legs, Kuzhakov had asked for help from various surgeons in Kazakhstan and Russia but they couldn’t help him. At the age of 30, both his legs were amputated. However, he never lost his courage. After the surgery, he got a visitor – his former superior officer in the police, who offered him to work at the vehicle inspection station. Kuzhakov was happy just to work again and said yes.
How the business started
The idea of the furniture business came to Kuzhakov all of a sudden. One day his brother gave him old furniture and while being at the station Kuzhakov built a small locker, which he sold on the same day. “Aha! I’ll be a furniture maker,” he thought.
He registered a business and got his first big order to build furniture for a dormitory in a workers’ camp. Together with his brother and another assistant, Kuzhakovproduced beds, lockers, and seats during long evenings at the technical station building.
“I earned $1,331 for that order. It was quite good revenue back then in 2002. I decided to use that money as leverage and bought some new machine tools. Also, I sent an application to a business incubator, which had been run by a local oil company,” he said.
He got a small shop from the incubator free of charge and expanded his product line with small kitchen tools in ethnic style. It helped to stay afloat but didn’t pay much. Therefore, Kuzhakov tried to get a really big order from the local administration.
“When I offered our akim (mayor) to make furniture for him, he was not sure whether he could rely on me or not. However, he gave me a test order and was happy with the result he got. Since then we have been implementing orders from schools, kindergartens, and dormitories,” added Kuzhakov.
After a while, Gibatat furniture became well-known for good quality and design throughout the entire region: Uralsk, Atyrau, Aktobe and Mangystau. The company bought new machines and equipment and had grown rapidly. At the same time, 21 employees of 35 were disabled people.
Socially oriented business
“Several years ago it was almost impossible in Kazakhstan to find a job if you are a disabled person. In 2018 a new law was adopted and now every company is obliged to hire such people if they want to work. But I have personally hired disabled people long before it became a law. I know very well that invalids would not survive without a job,” he said.
After Kuzhakov met a mother of a child with cerebral palsy, he got to know that this type of child needs a so-called verticalizer or stand frame to help a disabled child sit or stand. A Russian-made apparatus costs about $3,400 on average, so he decided to produce them on his own.
During this endeavor, Kuzhakov’s team have carefully reviewed various types of stand frames, talked to orthopedists and designed 34 new models of apparatus. Even though they cost just about $280 per piece, Kuzhakov didn’t sell most of them. Instead he has been donating them to those who need them. As a result, 75% of children with cerebral palsy in Uralsk have already been using these tools, and 240 more wait for an apparatus.
Crisis and role of the state
According to the entrepreneur, he received no help from the government except a grant from the DamuFoundation. He used that money to purchase a laser machine for his company.
“There are no excuses for disabled entrepreneurs in Kazakhstan. No matter if you have no legs you should work as any other healthy man does because a customer needs a result. I do not mind working with no benefits but I don’t want additional obstacles. There are a lot of them for the disabled,” he added.
First of all entrepreneurs with disabilities could not rely on loans. Commercial banks avoid loaning such a category of people because in any controversial situation a court would support the disabled person, not a bank’s call.
It’s not an easy task to develop a business with no financial leverage. For example, Gibadat still has no room in possession. Kuzhakov’s company pays $1,170 per month for everything it needs: the workshop, shop, and office. The businessman even sold his own house and a car to get enough money for new production equipment.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also hit the business. Now there are just 12 employees in the company.
“This spring we had won a bid and had to produce furniture for school but since then, the spring prices for materials have risen by 50%. We asked a customer to negotiate some changes to the contract but he refused to do so. As a result, we decided to complete that order with almost no revenue,” the entrepreneur said.
However, Kuzhakov is still optimistic. He is going to restore his potential and expand the product line. If disabled people are able to take a loan for their business, it would be just great, he says.