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Opening drawers

Mongolia, November 25, 2008

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Photo: Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps

Tsetserleg, Mongolia — How does traditional Mongolian nomad furniture end up in children's rooms in Amsterdam, more than 4,000 miles away? A combination of craftsmanship and connections, with a little help from Mercy Corps.

Khureltogo, 43, is a master woodworker who specializes in making wooden frames and household furniture for Mongolian gers: brightly painted stools, cupboards, tables and chairs decorated with distinctive circular patterns sized for the portable round houses used by Mongolian nomads. He wasn't always a furniture maker; before the collapse of the country's communist systems in the early 1990s, he worked as an engineer in a state power plant. Khureltogo lost his job in the democratic transition and economic reforms that transformed Mongolia, but soon found a new — yet familiar — way to make a living.

"I had experience making ger furniture by hand; I'd worked with my father and other family members when I was a young man," he said. "And, while I was looking for work, I found that there was definitely a demand for the product. So I took the money I had saved and started my business."

That was 1993. Khureltogo named his new business Shine Burd, which means "new oasis" in Mongolian. It's also the name of his wife's hometown. He started by working out of his home, building furniture for nomad families on a per-order basis. But word of his craftsmanship soon spread throughout the areas around Tsetserleg, a city known for its ger furniture.

His growing reputation won him the resources to open a small shop in 1996, buy raw materials in bulk and begin to build an inventory. By 2002, the business had grown too big for that storefront, and so Khureltogo bought the entire second floor of a building, procuring enough space for warehousing, a business office, workspace and a display area for prospective buyers.

But he had set his sights on something even bigger than his expanded shop — and something even farther away than the nomad camps of the vast Mongolian landscape.

Painting ger polesPhoto: Thatcher Cook for Mercy CorpsGetting exposure

The hopes of entrepreneurs have been swallowed whole by far lesser things than the difficulty of doing business amid Mongolia's sweeping steppes and deserts. And Tsetserleg, the provincial city where Khureltogo lives and works, is more than 250 miles from the country's capital of Ulan Bator over roadways that range from rough to non-existent. It's a forbidding environment for anyone, much less a small furniture business with a wish to enter the export market.

Mercy Corps helped make the environment more favorable for businesses in far-flung towns like Tsetserleg. The agency's Gobi Initiative set up festivals and trade fairs in which local shops and companies could market their products in the country's capital to buyers from across Mongolia and beyond. Khureltogo's Shine Burd took second place among all participating businesses at the Gobi Festival in 2005 and 2006, noticeably raising its profile and making the connection that led to its first export contract.

Expanding beyond borders

"I was looking for an unusual country to do business in," explained Dutch native Justus Dolleman. "A place where few people go, a difficult place. Mongolia came to mind."

Dolleman met Khureltogo at the 2006 festival, and the two made each other's wishes come true. Shine Burd shipped $1,800 worth of ger furniture to a Dolleman's company, Juist Just, in February 2007, followed by two more shipments totaling $9,000.

Today Juist Just sells the furniture online and in retail outlets throughout Holland and Belgium. The buyers are primarily Dutch women, including many pregnant women and new mothers who decorate their children's rooms with the colorful, unique furniture.

Painting detailPhoto: Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps"I've seen chests-of-drawers used as changing tables and storage boxes used as toy chests," said Dolleman. "It's really taking off."

The festivals are just one part of the Gobi Initiative, which offers training, mentorship, market linkages and loans to small business owners throughout Mongolia. It's helped more than 1,500 businesses and provided $2 million in commercial loans since 1999.

Khureltogo has taken two loans — $6,300 in 2005 and $11,300 in 2007 — to expand his business and hire and train new employees. He now has 10 full-time employees, skilled woodworkers and painters who earn a competitive monthly wage and receive bonuses when big orders are placed.

Khureltogo's creations have even been featured in parenting magazines across Europe. It's all quite a change from starting a small business out of his home more than 15 years ago.

Shine Burd still does most of its business creating and furnishing the homes of local nomad families. The furniture it takes to equip a typical ger — two chests, one table, two beds, a chest-of-drawers and a kitchen pantry — costs about $350 here in Mongolia. But the overseas sales has created more jobs in an area of Mongolia where good-paying job opportunities are scarce at best.

"I owe my export business to Mercy Corps," Khureltogo said. "Since we started our collaboration in 2004, they have helped me market my products to foreign clients. And our market demand is growing, so I'll need at least four more employees in the near future."