‘Rural equals agricultural’ used to be a commonplace perception in Georgia, where around 40 percent of the population lives in villages and relies on farming for income. But as the country’s emergence from post-Soviet stagnation over the past two decades drove a transition to an open market economy, agricultural rural life largely lost its idyllic flair.
Although agriculture contributes less than eight percent to Georgia’s gross domestic product, the sector still serves as a major source of employment in rural communities. Unfortunately, its low-income levels keep many small and micro farmers in poverty. Until fairly recently, rural life has been defined by experiences of farming families, leaving little space for those striving for different walks of life.
In 2017, Georgia kicked off a fundamental reform effort to diversify rural economies, reduce poverty and make rural areas a better place for entrepreneurship, employment, education, health care, technology and climate action. The European Union (EU) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) have been supporting this transformation by helping the country create policy frameworks and by assisting local projects initiated by rural residents.
In 2020 and 2021, over 80 rural entrepreneurs joined a GEL9 million (almost US$3 million) grant programme to boost rural entrepreneurship, promote non-agricultural livelihoods and help overcome the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. The grant programme was initiated by the EU and UNDP and ran in partnership with the Rural Development Agency of Georgia’s Ministry of Environmental Protection and Agriculture. Regional and municipal governments also contributed, particularly in the Ajara Autonomous Republic (Ajara AR), where EU and UNDP support inspired dozens of successful local projects.
“The EU is assisting Georgia’s efforts to implement an ambitious and wide-ranging package of reforms to build villages of the future, where people can enjoy diverse learning, and find employment and business opportunities,” says EU Ambassador, Carl Hartzell.
“We are helping rural communities open up new opportunities – higher productivity ventures, and diversify away from relying only on agriculture. It’s important Georgia’s development leaves no one behind and includes all communities, not just those in the cities,” says UNDP Georgia Head Nick Beresford.
The village of Uchkho is a hidden gem of the Ajara highlands. Stunning vistas open through majestic mountains. The village’s twelve waterfalls that cascade through the 1.5-kilometre canyon are a dream of thrill-seekers wishing to let loose, try something wild and have a real adventure.
The National Hiking Federation and the Department of Tourism and Resorts of the Ajara AR used GEL51,315 (US$16,000) support from the EU and UNDP to arrange a waterfall rappelling attraction in Uchkho Canyon. The support covered the construction of bases, holding points and ten well-equipped rappelling stations along the trail. It also supported the training of six local guides and helped ensure compliance with local health and safety rules.
As pandemic restrictions started to ease in the summer of 2021, tourists eager for fresh air and excitement came out for the canyon’s heights, awesome views and a three-hour breathtaking slide down the waterfalls.
After safely roping down a 30-metre waterfall, tour participant Rusudan Varshalomidze exclaimed, “canyoneering gives you a feeling of being part of nature, a kick of adrenalin and positive energy — I am overwhelmed with today’s adventure!”
“Thanks to this project, Uchkho is becoming a place to visit for people interested in sports and adventures,” says Lela Goguadze of Ajara’s Tourism Product Development Agency.
After welcoming the first tourists in August 2021, waterfall rappelling will open a new chapter in the development of the Ajara highlands and will create new opportunities for greener and more sustainable growth.
“I want people to have beautiful smiles and lots of teeth,” Besik Dekenadze proudly proclaims.
A local boy from mountainous Khulo, Dekenadze was determined to start a dentistry lab in his home village. The first steps took hard work and dedication. After graduating from medical college, he had to take seasonal work in Turkey’s citrus plantations in order to save money for his enterprise.
His remarkable perseverance to develop a local service for his community paid off; he finally started his dentistry lab in a tiny room with a basic device to make dentures.
“People used to have to go all the way to Batumi for dental services. Now, we can carry out the entire process locally in Khulo,” Dekenadze says.
In 2021, Dekenadze’s dental lab took part in the EU and UNDP rural development grant programme. He used the GEL62,400 (US$20,000) grant to expand his workshop with a digital scanner and hi-tech denture-modelling tools. In a remarkable change, instead of Khulo residents travelling to Batumi for dental care, people from Batumi are making the trek to Khulo Municipality to seek out Dekenadze’s quality services and affordable prices.
“We did not have much income from the start, but I was determined to develop things locally, in my home village, and make life easier for my community,” Dekenadze says.
“Starting your business can be scary, but if you stay focused, you will eventually achieve your goal.”
Hiding in the Woods
Need to recharge? There is no place better than ‘Woodhide’, a fairytale guesthouse deep in Machakhela National Park.
Natia Kakhidze started this increasingly popular business with GEL55,000 (US$17,500) support from the Ajara AR Government, provided as part of the EU and UNDP rural development grant programme.
To fulfil her dream, Kakhidze left her successful career in bustling Batumi to return to her home village in Machakhela Gorge. She is convinced that it is the best place in the world to enjoy nature, relax and get away from stress.
“We spent the whole winter working on the site, trying to finish building the cabins before the tourist season started. I think it turned out quite well!” said Kakhidze, adding with a broad sweep of her arm, “now tourists can come here and enjoy all this beauty.”
In Soviet times, Machakhela Gorge’s proximity to Turkey made it a restricted area that was concealed in the Ajara highlands. Virtually no one could enter the region except for border guards and residents with special permits. Decades of control and isolation formed a unique lifestyle characterized by local communities’ reservedness and general reluctance to embrace change.
Things began to change in the 1990s after Georgia acquired its independence. Though restricted areas and movement permits became a thing of the past, economically, Machakhela lagged behind the other regions of Georgia, especially fast-developing Ajara. Small, isolated villages scattered across the valley continued living on farming and illegal logging, almost not noticing the booming economy of Georgia’s Black Sea coast just a 30-minute drive away.
In 2012, Machakhela Gorge was granted the status of National Park, largely due to efforts by Georgia’s Ministry of Environmental Protection and Agriculture, UNDP and the Global Environment Facility. New opportunities for sustainable green growth opened as tourists poured into the region to enjoy its lush forests, mountain views and exquisite cuisine. However, it took several years for the local communities to respond to these realities.
Kakhidze believes that rural projects can unlock the development potential of Machakhela Gorge and help people explore new prospects from environmental tourism. “Projects like this bring a new life into our village and our region. They show what we can do to build our future.”