Transformative journeys: How Urva, Azerbaijan is redefining itself through culinary innovation and community empowerment

Foreword by the Mayor

“Our municipality is a small municipality covering Urva, Chilegir and Urvaoba villages in Gusar region of Azerbaijan. It is very different from other places participating in the Urban Imaginaries programme, both in terms of territory and residents.

“When Farhad suggested that we join this project and the results of the selection process were announced, I was excited. A small village municipality won the right to represent our country in an international project, along with big cities.

“This project has reinforced the importance for proper dialogue with residents and partners. Farhad fully supervised the implementation of the project, and I am sure that the acquired knowledge and established relationships will serve our municipality for many years to come,” said Mrs Gunesh Hajiyeva, Head of Urva Municipality.

Putting Urva on the map: A culinary vision for sustainable tourism

“There are two quite well-known restaurants on the way through the village to the ski resort, and while most people knew the restaurant, they did not know the village where the restaurant was located. I wanted to change that,” explains Farhad, a local resident.

Urva, a municipality in Azerbaijan, is located on the main road to Gusar, a well-known ski resort and tourist destination. But as Farhad describes, it has historically been overlooked by tourists.

Farhad’s gastro tourism and culinary background fueled his passion for transforming Urva and rewriting its story. He recognised the potential to elevate the village’s profile beyond being a mere stopover for tourists heading to the ski resort.

“Being from the food industry, I wanted to get the farmers on the map, to give them the platform to present their goods,” says Farhad.

As part of a municipal team from Urva, Farhad took part in Urban Imaginaries, a learning journey delivered in partnership with the Centre for Public Impact and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), financed and supported by the European Union (EU). The programme supports local governments across Eastern Europe and Central Asia to develop innovative solutions to their most pressing urban challenges.

To establish Urva as a destination in its own right, Farhad and his team suggested establishing a tourist information centre and developing a village brand to promote the area’s food production. The goal was clear: bring local farmers to the forefront, showcasing their goods and establishing Urva as a culinary destination.

“We wanted the people who live here, the citizens of the village, to benefit from the tourists who come through their village rather than just waving goodbye to them on the way to the resort,” says Farhad.

The challenge of engaging the community

Bringing this vision to life required consultation and cooperation with the community. This proved challenging initially:

“It was extremely difficult when we started because people living in Urva are used to a certain way of life. You can imagine people’s reaction when somebody comes to them and says, ‘Well, you’ve been selling your products in the bazaar, but what if we make a new product and place it into other marketplaces and promote it differently?’”

As the project unfolded, the community witnessed the positive impact of initiatives in neighbouring regions, and their scepticism transformed into active participation.

“Once we got the ball rolling and built trust and relationships with residents, they started coming up with their own proposals. For example, to establish a small football field for the residents or improve internet access in the village. People needed a kickoff moment to understand that they can be the driving force of change,” says Farhad.

The project not only empowered local farmers but also garnered support from other stakeholders, such as large businesses.

“When a small village municipality comes to a big business or big state agency requesting support, there can be a kind of mistrust. But we could change the narrative over time and after many meetings. Now we have one of the biggest businesses in the village openly supporting this initiative by providing a free space for the tourism centre.”

Municipalities as agents of change

Farhad’s experience with this project has altered his perception of the role of municipalities:

“There was a personal shift, too, experiencing a pivotal change in perspective, re-evaluating the municipality’s crucial role as an institution. I realised how valuable and necessary this institution is to the life of residents.”

The Urban Imaginaries programme has also been transformative for the community, inspiring a belief in the potential of grassroots initiatives to drive positive change. As Farhad describes:

“Previously, they did not have much experience with and did not trust the municipal team, but now they see a shift and the potential improvements that can be brought through projects like this. Considering it’s a small village municipality and only a few people are working there, it’s also renewed the confidence of the municipal team that even with limited capacity, they can really do something.”

Farhad was also inspired by initiatives led by other municipalities taking part in the Urban Imaginaries programme:

“Working with UNDP and the EU has shown me how there is a network behind everything and how important that can be in connecting people.”

“Learning more about the work that Mingachevir is doing to transition to LED lighting was inspiring. We, as a community, have been thinking about how to apply that in Urva but using more solar electricity because we’re high in the mountains.”

What’s on the menu? What does the future hold for Urva?

Farhad shares that “regarding immediate plans, it is, of course, to finalise the work on this initiative and to open the tourism information centre. We’ll follow up by creating the first batch of products made under the village brand in spring 2024.”

Looking further ahead, plans are underway for a new route connecting Azerbaijan’s northern and central regions, which will pass through Urva. Farhad says there are hopes within the municipality that this will allow Urva to become a local hub and role model in the region:

“The municipal team has already started talking to some villages around us where specific regional products are made and thinking about how we can attract them to work with us. For example, a village in the north produces a specific cabbage. We’d like to explore how we could get them involved in production in the area.”

“There’s also potential for setting an example to others by introducing certain initiatives and promoting them to newcomers as well as attracting potential regional investors. For instance, in the area of green energy and waste management, there’s an opportunity to make it an example to other small villages, to show them they can become a vital and connecting place in their community and their locality.”

Advice for aspiring municipalities

Farhad says, “The most important thing is to believe in your capacity and capability of being the changemaker, the person or entity that can lead and make this change.

“Identify something that can make you stand out, depending on your location and situation. If you’re a tourist spot like us, you must find a product or service or whatever your place is well known for and use it to move forward.”

“Anywhere else in the world that has cultivated a specific geographical identity has prospered by using the brand name and by identifying and promoting regional products. So, adopting this type of approach, even at a small scale level as a village, can be beneficial both financially and in giving recognition to a place to attract more people to come and visit.”

Farhad’s work alongside the wider community has begun to change the local landscape and inspired new possibilities for the municipality. As Urva continues to evolve and develop its village brand, the municipality’s journey can inspire other communities aspiring to reimagine and innovate their places.

Written by:

Aurora Horwood, the Centre for Public Impact (CPI) Head of Communications, Europe