Mirlan Kudaibergenev traveled to Europe to see the world, and returned to Kyrgyzstan with a fresh idea -- selling fruits and vegetables online.
The 24-year-old Bishkek entrepreneur founded one of the first online farmers' shops in Kyrgyzstan, eBazar.kg,
in February. Just three months later eBazar.kg boasts thousands of city-dwelling customers.
eBazar.kg offers a variety of foodstuffs, ranging from rice, flour, and sugar to dairy products. But the online store's product focus is on locally produced fruits and vegetables purchased directly from farmers in the countryside.
The concept is a new one in the Central Asian country, where purchasing agricultural products on the Internet was "something unheard of until even two years ago," according to Kudaibergenev.
"But people are quickly getting used to shopping online because it's convenient," Kudaibergenev adds. "We try to be different from physical markets by offering better quality, service, and prices. Our main slogans are, 'Get the product directly from the source,' and, ‘The customer is always right.' Unlike traditional markets, we have a return policy: if customers don't like our product they can return it. We apologize and try to improve."
According to official figures, nearly half of the country's 5.5 million residents have access to the Internet. In the capital, Bishkek, Internet access is above 70 percent and rapidly growing.
E-stores began arriving in Kyrgyzstan in the last two or three years, but they focused on selling clothing, furniture, and electronics.
eBazar's main rival in selling farm products is Prodsklad.kg
, a newly established e-store that, according to its website, offers more than 150 fresh agriculture products.
The two sites differ in that Prodsklad.kg mainly focuses on wholesale deliveries to cafes, restaurants, and hotels. eBazar.kg largely targets individual customers -- busy professionals, housewives with small children, and anyone who wants to save time by having vegetables delivered to their doorstep.
"Shopping for vegetables online extended my day by a couple of hours," says private cafe owner Emilbek Kutmanov.
Kutmanov used to begin his working day early in the morning, driving his van to a bazaar in downtown Bishkek to purchase fresh produce.
"I would go back and forth between vegetable stalls to check the quality, compare prices, and bargain before carrying boxes to my van and delivering them to the cafe on the other side of town," Kutmanov says. "Now I just choose them online and I can get an extra few hours of sleep."
If he places his order online before 8 a.m., Prodsklad.kg delivers fresh vegetables to the cafe by noon.
Saving Time, Space
Credit and debit cards are still not widely used in Kyrgyzstan, so e-shops there operate strictly on a cash-on-delivery system. Prodsklad.kg charges $1.60 to deliver purchases that cost more than $20.
eBazaar.kg offers shipping for about the same price, but recently announced that any online order made a day in advance will be delivered free of charge.
Kudaibergenev says his immediate goal is to expand his business to some of Kyrgyzstan's other cities, such as Osh, Talas, and Cholpon-Ata. The young entrepreneur is also considering ways to expand outside Kyrgyzstan.
"Perhaps it's too early for me to consider exporting farm products to Europe in the foreseeable future, but I am thinking of reaching customers in Astana and Almaty -- cities in neighboring Kazakhstan," Kudaibergenev says.
Far from Bishkek, farmer Nurbek Mombekov grows potatoes in the mountainous Naryn region near the Chinese border. He recently signed a contract to supply online retailers with potatoes and other products he grows on his farm.
"The e-stores told me they want only the highest-quality vegetables from me, in order to maintain their reputation before clients," Mombekov says. "I try my utmost because I want to uphold my contract."
Working with online stores spares Mombekov the costs of traveling to Bishkek to sell his produce in a rented vegetable stall. "It seems everybody benefits from e-commerce," he says. "It saves time and space for everyone, from suppliers to customers."
Written and reported by Farangis Najibullah, with additional reporting by RFE/RL Kyrgyz Service correspondents Timur Toktonaliev and Gulaiym Ashakeeva