Armenia’s position at the crossroads of so many cultures and geopolitical realities could be viewed as either a blessing or a curse. Tashir Group, a major economic player and social benefactor in the country, chooses the first option. Company official Narek Karapetyan explains how Tashir is investing not just in the high-growth sectors of real estate and energy, but also in human capital through scholarships for outstanding students and financial aid for families. And the best news is that return on investment is happening at a much faster pace than anyone expected
What are Tashir Group’s main areas of activity, and what role is it playing in the economic development of Armenia?
The main sectors for us are energy, manufacturing and real estate. When we started to expand our investments in Armenia 10 years ago, it was an emerging country and not many international corporations were willing to take that step. It was still a new country. But being of Armenian origin ourselves, we were prepared to accept that the return on our investments would take 10 to 15 years to materialise. Still, we felt that this could be a good country for business – we weren’t just doing it as some sort of patriotic project. We began with real estate investments; then in 2015 we reached a deal with the government to buy the energy company ENA (Electric Networks of Armenia), and that is where we saw the huge energy potential of this country.
What is the potential of the energy sector in Armenia?
Already, between 25% and 30% of our energy generation comes from renewable sources, and with a trading partners like Iran and Georgia, which require huge amounts of energy, we saw the potential for investing in generation stations to export electricity to our neighbours. The accelerating economic growth of Armenia will also add to the demand in energy.
It has been reported that Tashir Group wants to explore for oil and gas in Armenia. What are the prospects of striking hydrocarbons?
When the USSR collapsed, many Soviet scientists located oil and gas under the Armenian shelf, but at very great depths, making it unattractive. But as oil prices change, this could become an interesting option, and we hope to hear good news about that soon. But we don’t want to become an oil company; we want to be an innovation-oriented company.
What about the real estate arm of Tashir? What are some of your recent investments?
In the last four years Tashir has opened three shopping malls in Yerevan, and we didn’t realise that return on investment would be so quick. This market has a big future. Also, next year we plan to open a circus complex that will be unique to the South Caucasus, because after the Soviet Union collapse, this industry has not been doing well in the region. Tashir Group is bringing back a renewed version of Yerevan Circus, which was founded in the 1930s.
You said you want to be an innovative company. What investments is Tashir engaging in in the technology sector?
We are investing in innovation in energy technology, such as generation stations. We want to modernise the techniques for developing infrastructure, create manufacturing options for new energy equipment, and we are also investing in the next generation of professionals: every year we pay a scholarship to all top students at the institutes of energy and power engineering and mechanics of the National Polytechnic University of Armenia, and the size of the scholarship is twice the average salary in Armenia. This means that they are transforming their education into work, and helping out their families with this money. This is a unique programme in the region, and we expect to see a return on the investment in five to 10 years.
Can you tell us more about your involvement in setting up the Cascade Energy-Tashir-ANPU Centre for Excellence at Armenia’s National Polytechnic University, and other similar initiatives that Tashir is promoting?
We have completed two projects – two major teaching centres – and now we are trying to encourage young people to pursue technical studies, because such studies have a future. Another initiative we are thinking about is opening a Blockchain research centre in partnership with the Polytechnic, where the emphasis will not be on cryptocurrencies, but on the technology itself. We want to explore this technology and see how we can use it in our businesses. The difference between Tashir and other companies is that we are growing our own pool of professionals; we invest in these people, and as soon as they finish, they come and work for us. Every single student who gets excellent grades in energy-related subjects has a 100% opportunity to work for our group.
Does Tashir have any other major corporate responsibility projects?
We are not just investing in higher education; we are also heavily investing in primary schooling, and in northern Armenia we are building new preschools in every small town and city. Tashir is also investing in hospitals. It has built the largest hospital in the northern region as well, and professionals from Europe have seen it and certified that it is a top-quality centre. Tashir is also investing significantly in poverty reduction and in the demographics of the country. In some regions, if a family has a fourth child, Tashir pays them a stipend to help them out financially through their first year. And we also support them with organic, high-quality food items. We view all this as a social duty.
How does the country relate to the various blocs that surround it, and how can it thrive as a landlocked country?
Nowadays the transportation costs from Armenia to central Russia are as cheap as the cost of shipping goods to Moscow from another Russian region. These costs have really shrunk. And now, Armenian vehicles can go into Iran and vice versa without paying any fees – we are truly the only country in the world to have such an agreement with Iran. As Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father of Singapore, advised Armenian officials and businessmen: “if you want to have a bigger economy, move up from your region.” And that is what we must do in order to expand our economic potential. This region can be shaky at times, and that is why we have started to work with the Eurasian Union and other international partners. We can already see that our strategy is moving in the right direction.
What potential do you see for investors from the Gulf states to participate in Armenia’s economic life, and which sectors or projects would be most suitable?
Armenia is the closest country to the Gulf area without any problems with water. We can grow water-intensive fruits here, and in Yerevan we drink water straight from the tap. We have a good climate and a good environment where new agricultural technology programmes can thrive and bring a good profit to investors. We are also very competitive in the textile industry, with lower costs than in China.
What else should Gulf investors keep in mind about Armenia?
When you look at the statistics, you might think that this is a small country, and that opportunities are few. Even we didn’t think that return on investment would come so quickly. Investors must understand that investing in Armenia is not just about Armenia; we are just one day away from the centre of Russia, without any taxes or expenses to contend with. We have a huge human capital, good management practices, a very low crime rate, and government oversight over the safety of investment, making this a good centre for exports to Russia and Europe. Some investors feel that working with Russia can be a little problematic, but we have very good relations with them. We don’t have any problems with anyone, and there is a lot of integration potential in this country. If you want to sell something in the Sakha region of Russia, we can do that in 10 minutes because the structure between both countries is already there. And importing from Russia is also interesting.
How does Armenia stand out from other countries in the region?
We really value education in our society, and lots of people are getting a really good education through a government programme that funds half the expense of anyone who gets admitted into one of the world’s top 20 universities. And even though we live in this region, Armenia is an extremely liberal country, especially in the relationship between men and women. The female population is very active economically; there is gender parity in our companies and in the economy in general. We want to use 100% of our human potential.