Return to trade at Central Asia’s largest markets provides an important lifeline for the region’s economies.
In Central Asia, trade is the largest sector in terms of GDP and employment. Much of this trade is based on the region’s vast open-air markets.
As with many businesses, the covid-19 pandemic caused these bedrocks of the economy to be locked down, slashing profits and leaving stallholders out in the cold.
When combined with falling gas and oil revenues and a slow vaccine rollout, the economic prospects of Central Asia have rarely looked bleaker. Last year saw the region return to recession for the first time since 1995, according to the World Bank.
As the pandemic subsides in much of the world, economic recovery in Central Asia will be closely tied to how quickly its trade can bounce back. Open-air markets will be crucial for this.
At Abu Saxiy market in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, converted shipping containers are giving small businesses a chance to bounce back quickly. The market was first founded in 2006 when entrepreneur Timur Tillyaev converted 680 abandoned containers into stalls. This innovation provided safe, adaptable points of sale with flexible rents and soon became hugely popular with local traders. Abu Saxiy quickly grew into Central Asia’s fifth largest market and today employs around 5,000 people, welcoming locals and tourists alike.
It is hoped the same benefits provided by converted containers will support small businesses as they recover from the pandemic. “Trade has always been an essential part of the Central Asian economy. Re-purposed shipping containers are an extremely cost-efficient option for traders,” said Timur Tillyaev. It is hoped by many they can play a crucial role in restarting Uzbekistan’s retail economy.
It is not the first time that markets in the region have supported its inhabitants in times of difficulty. In Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city, it was the informal economy provided by markets that sustained the population following economic collapse. The Barakholka or “flea market” first appeared on the outskirts of Almaty in 1984. Black market books were the main trade. But when the Soviet Union fell and the economy with it, Almaty’s citizens had to rely on their neighbourhood markets for food and essentials. Barakholka has since grown into one of Kazakhstan’s most successful retailers. Retailers and residents alike will be hoping that such markets are able to quickly return to normal procedure.
In Kyrgysztan, the largest employer and taxpayer is Dordoi market, which was founded by Askar Salymbekov in 1991. Dordoi is Central Asia’s largest market covering an area of more than a million square metres with 40,000 stalls and over 55,000 employees. Along with Timur Tillyaev, the developers of Dordoi were also early pioneers of converting containers into stalls.
For Kyrgzstan and Dordoi, the wider global economic recovery, particularly in China, will be a massive boost. Like the ancient silk road markets which used to run through Central Asia, Dordoi is a key trading point between China and the West. It is one of the main transhipment bases for wholesale trade with the Central Asian region, Russia and the rest of Europe.
In February 2021, China’s exports grew at a record 154.9% from 2020, while imports grew 17.3%, the most since October 2018. The signs that China’s economy and trade is returning to normality and growth could not come soon enough for Dordoi. More important for the wider region are the signals emerging from Beijing that its landmark infrastructure Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) does not seem to have been derailed by Covid-19. The BRI promises to develop vital new infrastructure links connecting Central Asia with Europe but also between its different countries, meaning the future of trade looks as though it will continue to grow.
For centuries, Central Asia has relied on its markets and trade for survival and prosperity. The covid-19 pandemic has shown that they remain just as important today.