Trust me: my dream was to set an example for others
Two years ago, 34-year-old Avtandil (Avto) Chikadze from Akhmeta in Georgia could never have imagined that one day he would have his own workshop.
Since childhood, he’s been attracted to woodworking but unfortunately never had the right conditions or equipment to pursue his interest at home.
Sixteen years ago, when he was 18, Avto started working in a furniture workshop in Tbilisi with standard furniture, tables and doors made of laminate and medium-density fibreboard. It was an entry-level job.
They also processed wooden material. The scrap they produced – corners, trimmings, low-quality parts – was thrown away.
One day, in his spare time, Avto took some of the scrap wood and tinkered with it. In one piece he placed a clock mechanism, put it in an iron frame, and – hey presto – he had a clock. He hung it right in the workshop.
A few days later, a young woman came to order furniture. She thought the clock was for sale and asked how much it was.
“At first, we thought it was a joke. I told her 140 lari. She said, ‘I’ll take it.’ I was embarrassed and gave it to her for 100 lari. When I got home, I told my family about it and asked if we had any broken stuff. After that, when I returned to Akhmeta, I took old materials from the sawmill there and I did different things in the workshop,” Avto recalls.
And so began his new life, turning shavings into gold. It began with an idea and a strong conviction.
In the spring of 2020, CENN, the Caucasus Environmental NGO Network, with the support of the EU, announced a grant competition for social innovations as part of the ‘EU4Youth: Social Entrepreneurship Ecosystem Development (SEED) for Green Growth’ project.
The project is implemented by CENN, Green Lane (Armenia) and the Kakheti Regional Development Foundation (Georgia). The objective of the project is to identify and develop the entrepreneurial potential of young people in the South Caucasus through social entrepreneurship and green innovations.
Avto’s wife, Iza Legashvili, accidentally came across a CENN advertisement on the internet and both Avto and Iza promptly filled out the application.
The competition’s judges liked their idea, and they invited the young couple in for an interview.
“At that time, I worked in a bank and knew nothing but banking. I never thought that one day I would leave my job and take over the family business. We worked with mentors for 10 months – from accounting to marketing, we learned everything,” recalls Iza.
The young couple learned how to turn a hobby into a business idea, how to write a project and business plan, and delved deeper into marketing, customer relations, and what it means to create your own brand.
Soon thereafter, woodworker Avto became a green entrepreneur, and loan officer Iza began to manage her own company.
Avto and Iza received two grants from CENN – one to start the business and one to expand it. The total for both grants was 38 000 lari.
With the money, they opened a workshop and a showroom in Akhmeta. They converted their garage for the showroom and an old storage room for the workshop.
“If someone had told me two years ago that we would have our own workshop, I wouldn’t have believed it. I didn’t even consider it,” Avto says.
With the help of CENN, Iza registered a company, came up with a brand name and created a logo.
“When customers called Avto, he kept saying: ‘If you trust me, if you trust me…’, and so I came up with the idea to name the brand Mende (Trust Me).
“We also created a logo – a tree with protruding branches, and chose a colour close to the tree.”
The Mende shop is now operating at full capacity. Materials – scraps of wood and metal – are collected in Akhmeta. Avto has an agreement with woodworking and metalworking companies to provide him with unusable materials. Some of it is given to him for free, and some he buys.
Iza takes orders – working with clients is her business. Buyers are mainly in the 25–45-year-old age bracket, those who understand the value of handicraft.
Avto works on orders. He already has all the equipment for this in his own workshop.
Most of the time, Mende produces wooden clocks, candlesticks, trays, dishes and various accessories. For the holidays they create themed products – souvenirs for the New Year, Easter, etc.
Sometimes he also makes furniture: poufs, dressers, and tables.
Mende products have even been sold in the USA and Germany, bought by Georgians living there.
Along with green entrepreneurship, another focus of Mende is social entrepreneurship, especially with Akhmeta’s youth. Avto teaches them woodworking.
Since becoming a brand, Mende has trained four socially disadvantaged young people. One of them is already working in a carpentry workshop in Tbilisi, one of them helps Avto with woodworking, the other is in welding.
“My goal was to do something in Akhmeta, to set an example for others. If not for CENN and the financial support of the EU, I could not even imagine that this dream would become a reality,” Avto says. Mende plans to open its own store in Akhmeta. Avto and Iza believe that this is only the beginning of Mende’s progress and expansion.
Author: Nino Narimanishvili