ag in mongolia

The Final Frontier? BAM in Mongolia

Mongolia is seen as the “Final Frontier” for many people. It stirs up images of the horse herds that still run free across her open steppes. From the harsh arid climate of the Gobi Desert in the south, to the pristine lakes in the frozen north that border Russia’s Siberia, the climate has forged a hardy, resilient people who work hard, play hard, and practice a survivalist hospitality.

Into this climate, Mongolia in 1990 opened her borders to doing business and trade with the rest of the world. Freedom of religion was written into her new constitution. A free market economy emerged. People were asking for the tools to cope with a new and growing economy. From 2000 to 2012, Mongolia’s resource-rich countryside has fueled what is now reported to be one of the fastest growing economies of Asia.

Into this setting business as mission entrepreneurs are finding opportunities to work with Mongolians to help them build their country on the solid foundations of faith and the hope that does not disappoint. BAM workers seek to close the gap between rich and poor; to disciple Mongolia’s young population with values which will encourage them not to buy into the despotism of capitalism, but that will build a sustainable future.

Introduction to Mongolia

Mongolia is the little known country with the big influence. It became most well-known in history in the 1200s because of Genghis Khan (Chingis, as pronounced by most Mongolians). He was the ruler who united the tribes and conquered much of Asia, ruling the largest empire the world has ever known. His grandson Kublai Khan met Marco Polo and the West was introduced to this powerful nation.

Later the Chinese would take back not only their country from the Mongols, but Mongolia as well. In the 1920s Russia helped liberate Mongolia from Chinese rule. For the next 70 years Mongolia and the Soviet Union had strong political, economic and social ties.

In 1990 with change sweeping the communist nations, Mongolia was no different. A new Mongolian democracy was instituted and multi-party elections were held. For the next 10 years like many of former communist countries, Mongolia struggled to survive in a capitalist-democratic system. In the new millennium, practicing a good “Third Neighbour Policy” (China and Russia being Mongolia’s first two neighbours) the invitation to mining companies from Western democracies to invest in extraction of its coal, gold, copper and rare earth metal resources has made Mongolia’s economic outlook favorable for the country and investors.

In 1990 with the advent of multi-party democracy, freedom of religion was ensconced in the new constitution. The Buddhism and Shamanism, which had been suppressed under communist rule, experienced significant resurgence as many of the cultural practices of Mongolians were built around these religions and they were seen as the historical and cultural basis for what it meant to be a Mongolian.

It has been reported that there were only 4 Christians in Mongolia in 1990 (and these were people who has become Christians while abroad). The church quickly grew over the next 20 years to encompass 2% of the population (estimates range between 40-60,000 Christians). Although there is freedom to practice the Christian faith, it is often seen as a foreign religion (though in reality it has deeper roots than Buddhism). This has meant encountering problems with political officials, local governments or leaders at times. It is noteworthy that along with the economic boom in Mongolia, the growth of the church has slowed significantly—at least in the city of Ulaanbaatar. The church and those involved in missions are seeking God for direction on how to meet the needs of a new generation of Mongolians who have high expectations and hopes for the future built on a new materialistic prosperity.

BAM Companies in Mongolia

The BAM Global Think Tank Mongolia Regional Group identified 12 BAM enterprises known to them. These 12 businesses have been in operation for a range of 1 to 12 years and have between 2 to 10 employees each.

The types of Mongolian BAM enterprises are:

  • Café or café direct sale products
  • Jewelry/tourist items design and sales
  • Agricultural/greenhouse businesses
  • Handmade products/export items not primarily aimed at tourists.

The most common reasons given for being in business are:

  • Provide a context for discipleship, character building, employment for believers and/or target groups that need income and support. A key identified reason for most business operators is to work with their employees to build them up and send them out.
  • Provide a context for evangelism. Secondarily, but still key, was to reach customers with the gospel.
  • Build awareness of the Mongolia people in the global community; provide opportunities through products and information that will support the people and their work.
  • Through discipleship and training provide models for Mongolians to do BAM work both within Mongolia and abroad.
Challenges to Overcome

Population and youth

Mongolian population continues to be centered in the capital, though outlying regions will develop as infrastructure and mining opportunities make development in these regions possible and desirable. It has been reported that some of the provincial capitals are projected to have over 500% growth over the next 20 years because of mining related businesses in these provinces.

With 59% of the population being under the age of 30, there are many opportunities to work with youth.

Economic climate and church growth

The economy is listed by Citibank as one of the better countries for economic growth and stability in the region.

The church grew very rapidly in the 1990’s when there was disenfranchisement with the communist system. Since the economic boom of the last 10 years the church growth has slowed significantly. As the economy continues to be strong and there are many diversions of modern technology and entertainment, this will be a challenge for outreach.

Nationalism

Shamanism and resurgence of nationalism may make it harder for foreign BAM practitioners to work in Mongolia as they are concerned with the influence and control of foreigners and foreign ideas in Mongolian economy and culture.

High barrier to entry

Probably the biggest hurdle most BAM workers (BAMers) will face is the government’s US$100,000 entry requirement to start a foreign-run business in Mongolia. This requirement is to ensure that businesses which apply to be in Mongolia are legitimate businesses and have enough capital to start up and run in the first 2 years of operation. Though many mission workers may find this hurdle unrealistic and difficult, it has been noted by many business people that this probably is a basic minimum to realistically start a business in most countries. 

Need for better business planning and preparation amongst BAMers

Though the US$100,000 may be a barrier for those looking at doing traditional mission, for those who develop a viable business plan, can donors and investors will be attracted when they see that you are serious and capable to handle their investment dollars.

Often, developing a business plan and keeping accurate financial records are new to missionaries, BAM people, and indeed many business start-ups. People don’t know what they don’t know, i.e. they don’t know that they don’t know how to run a business, write up a good business plan, keep accurate records, and so on. Therefore, aspiring BAM entrepreneurs are too often set up for failure and don’t even realize it.

Need to make business the main thing

There is a need to have true integration between business and ministry, that is you do ministry in the context of, and through your business. This is in contrast with attempting to run a business but considering that ministry is what happens in your spare time. The danger is trying to live with the impossible demands of a 80 hour working week to keep the business running and then trying to fit in 20 hours of ‘ministry’. For many this false separation between the business and ‘real ministry’ means they ultimately focus on what they consider ‘ministry’, so they only dabble in business and lose their start up money. This is not good for long-term credibility.

Lack of infrastructure and essential services

Particularly in the countryside, there is a lack of consistency in services and a difference in business standards and work ethic in other businesses or official organizations that a BAM business might depend on. For example, a business that is exporting goods may not have a regular postal service they can depend on; the Post Office opening times might not be regular, there might even be a wait of a few days in order to meet the right person to get a needed stamp.

Challenging living conditions

The harsh winter climate with poor infrastructure makes for all kind of unforeseen difficulties for transport, storage, manufacturing difficulties, general living conditions, etc. In the capital air pollution is a major health concern for BAM workers

Bureaucracy

In the countryside particularly, there are great difficulties in finding out “how to do things right”. Official paperwork is very complex and there is a lack of people, including government officials, who know how the Mongolian law and tax system works.

Cultural and language barriers

The language learning curve for English speakers is steep. Mongolian is rated a very difficult language. Less obviously, there are cultural differences that make working in business cross-culturally a challenge. Business standards and norms are different. Running any business aimed at the foreign community is very hard for a Mongolian to grasp due to lack of understanding and knowledge of the world outside of Mongolia.

High employee turnover

There is a high turn over of people with skills in a strong economy. An issue for BAM companies is finding people with skills to fill the jobs we have. With a proliferation of high-paying, unskilled jobs, many people will initially take a local job, but will quickly move to a mine or equivalent if there is promise of higher pay. Even the mines encounter this issue and have workers moving from company to company.

Opportunities for Making BAM Work in Mongolia

Mongolia thus faces many similar concerns that other developing countries also face: corruption, frustrating legal red tape, unskilled workers, workers with a different worldview regarding ethics or finances, etc. However, most successful BAM entrepreneurs after sifting through the difficulties, have found themselves working beside hard-working Mongolians who are sincere about learning how to provide for their families, both physically and spiritually.

Mongolia has a relatively small population that is highly concentrated in one city, Ulaanbaatar. Therefore it is an amazing place for rapidly growing economic opportunities and it has a high need for ministry impact. There is a particular need for BAM businesses that reach the influential rich of the country. There are also many opportunities for business in more remote areas, which definitely welcome foreign businesses.

Opportunities in rural areas

  • In the countryside people are still buying cakes (tourte) from the city and travelling long distances with them or requesting them when they have a relative visiting from Ulaanbaatar! There could be an opportunity for bakeries in the rural areas.
  • Because transportation infrastructure is poor there are many opportunities for green houses and growing vegetables for local markets. Even as transportation improves many people prefer Mongolian grown produce for health reasons over Chinese imports.

Opportunities in cities and mining communities

  • Western-style products and services for expats.
  • Apartment renovation services.
  • Venture capital and business mentoring for Mongolians.

BAM as an indigenous movement

The young church, though small, has grown from 4 people in 1990 to over 50,000 in 2013. Members are keen on sharing their faith not only with fellow citizens but they are sending mission workers to China, North Korea, Russia, Afghanistan and other regions which are traditionally hard for other nations to send mission workers to. This makes BAM an exciting prospect, as there is the opportunity to get in at the ground level and disciple Mongolians through business, for business.

Overall, we need to aim for more businesses run by Mongolians for Mongolians so they can meet the needs of Mongolian society through business and be a witness in the market place of Mongolia and beyond.

Mongolia presents itself as a BAM mission field that holds many opportunities. Mongolia is a country where BAM workers could have a significant influence to disciple Mongolians who are building their nation. They could help those who have caught the vision to share the Good News beyond Mongolia’s borders.

This post was adapted from original material published in the BAM Global Think Tank Regional Report on BAM in Mongolia.

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BAM is a global phenomenon. God is on the move around the world, calling men and women from all continents to start businesses for His Kingdom purposes. To highlight just some of what He is doing, and emphasise that business as mission is a global movement, we will take a tour around the BAM world for the next six weeks or so. We hope you enjoy the trip!

 

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