International Business Programme Connects Kazakhstan, US Entrepreneurs

ASTANA – Askar Oryngali and Akhmet Yermukhanov are two of the Kazakhstan business people who have been helped by a three-year, $5 million programme funded by the U.S. and Kazakhstan governments to aid entrepreneurs.

The Kazakhstan Business Connections Programme provides business training, maintains the Entrepreneurial Development Fund (DAMU) website and organises study tours to the U.S. During the tours, participants attend business meetings, trade shows, round tables and seminars. In the past two years, 94 Kazakhstan entrepreneurs have travelled to the U.S., nine have finalised agreements with American companies and several more are in negotiations.

Oryngali and Yermukhanov were among those chosen to travel to the United States for coaching and to meet with potential partners. Both concluded business agreements through these trips.

Yermukhanov is director of MIA Group, an Aktobe-based company of 15 employees that supplies industrial goods to gas, drilling, transportation and other companies. He said the trip to the United States allowed him to expand his circle of business partners. “We buy (goods) from Europe and from time to time from the U.S., so we already have experience working with European companies. … But it was a good experience for me to visit the U.S. and to see and contact my business partners.”

During his trip in July, he concluded negotiations with the American company Battery Doctors, resulting in the purchase of $16,000 worth of battery-extending technology. If the technology works, MIA Group plans to become its regular distributor.

Though MIA Group has had foreign partners for some time, there were still things to learn from sitting down face to face, Yermukhanov said. “I think local businessmen can learn many things from Western businesses, like time management, and how to do business and how to efficiently conduct business,” Yermukhanov said, adding that some of Kazakhstan’s older business people rely on experiences from the Soviet era rather than the latest business training or education.

Yermukhanov said that he has learned to modify the way he does business when dealing with foreign partners. “Some (local businesses) do import products here and the exchange gets stalled in the middle of the process sometimes. … Mostly (foreigners don’t understand) the way of doing business here: ‘Bring this product to Kazakhstan and I will sell it.’ No prepayments, no nothing. Blunt and primitive. Foreign partners don’t understand this.”

Oryngali, founder and director general of Kazakh Petroleum, a dealer of industrial heavy machinery and other goods, travelled to the U.S. with the programme’s construction group in May. During that trip, he finalised a distributive deal with American company CemenTech for the right to deliver up to $500,000 worth of CemenTech products and to establish distribution centres and provide support services throughout Kazakhstan. He is exploring the possibility of purchasing more equipment at the moment.

Oryngali found the programme through business training at the Turan Profi Academy, which he’d learned about through the DAMU fund website. He was selected to travel to the U.S. after competing in a contest and then defending his proposed business plan. The core of the plan was CemenTech equipment; Oryngali had been involved in preliminary negotiations with the company before the trip. During the trip, the deal was sealed.

Oryngali is hoping CemenTech products will help him take part in the new green economy. “Now we have EXPO 2017 construction starting. We hope, at least, that they will use green economy technology, and CemenTech fits many of their parameters, economy and ecology among many others.”

Oryngali’s impressions of the U.S. were positive. “I liked the people. … It is a civil society; people know their rights, they feel free. Doing business here (in Kazakhstan), you need to re-insure yourself a hundred times (with) stamps, signatures, papers. In the U.S. there is a more trusting environment, just signatures and trust.”

“We can learn from Americans how to protect our businesses,” Oryngali continued. “For instance, many entrepreneurs are not protected legally in (Commonwealth of Independent States) countries. …” he said. “Kazakhs are open, civilised and want to do business with foreigners, but we need the help of the U.S. in building our civil society. The more small- and mid-sized businesses we have, the more our civil society is strengthened, and without a strong civil society any state is weak.” Small and medium enterprises without good connections still struggle in Kazakhstan, Oryngali said, while Yermukhanov said he has seen many positive reforms over the past 10 years.

The Americans also have a lot to learn from their counterparts in Kazakhstan, especially since, as Oryngali said, there are many stories that don’t make Kazakhstan look good. “When they talk to us, they are discovering Kazakhstan as we are discovering America,” said Oryngali. “They have heard of us but don’t know much about Kazakhstan. (This programme is) a great collaboration and beneficial for both sides.”

“Kazakhstan is still an unknown country to the U.S.,” said Yermukhanov. “Every country that has the ending ‘stan’ is associated with instability. Not only in the U.S. but also in Europe, people don’t know about Kazakhstan.” Oil and gas companies know, he said, “but many others in the small and mid-sized business community don’t know much about Kazakhstan … even though the country is open, any corporation can open their business here. The most important thing here is to find the right partner.”

Connecting the right partners is one of the goals of this programme. “We are entrepreneurs, but in our daily work it is hard to travel. We have been working for years with partners we have never seen. During these trips, we can see each other, show ourselves; that’s important,” Yermukhanov said.

Both say participants should prepare themselves before leaving Kazakhstan by studying the market and engaging in talks prior to their trips. They should also focus on business during their time in U.S.

“When our business people go there, they want to shop, go sightseeing, they don’t have much time left for business. … They look very determined here, with plans and lots of intentions but when they get there they lose these ambitions. Those who have already travelled and come back need to have sessions to give practical advice to those who are about to go, because we want these trips to have the maximum effect,” Oryngali said.

The programme’s next trip will be with a healthcare group, which finished its pre-trip orientation on Oct. 10. The programme will run for one more year.

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