Bringing Online Fitness to Turkmenistan

Speeches Shim

Monday, December 28, 2020
Leila Khalilova exercising in a park, August 2020
USAID's Future Growth Initiative

Interest in physical fitness has surged in recent years in Turkmenistan. This spring, however, the COVID-19 pandemic drastically altered routines as fitness clubs, swimming pools, and sports centers were forced to close their doors. People had to look elsewhere for safe alternatives – and many were unsure where to turn. 

Enter Leila Khalilova, an economist by training and an athlete at heart. Leila is a member of Turkmenistan’s National Basketball Team, a nationally-recognized ‘master of sports’, and a multiple medal-winner in international tournaments. This year, she had her sights set on competing in the Olympic Games in Tokyo – plans that were brought to an abrupt halt when the pandemic led to the cancellation of the 2020 games. Despite her disappointment, she vowed to remain optimistic and continue training at home.

“I regularly go to the gym, and I had noticed that people were starting to exercise more often after work or school. It is a good trend. But because of the situation with COVID-19, fitness centers and swimming pools were closed, and people started working remotely. They had to stay at home all the time,” she recalls. Leila worked with her professional fitness coach Nigar Nagieva to find a way to stay fit without leaving home. The idea of an online fitness center was born.

“It was a great idea. But we lacked the know-how and skills,” Leila admits. “We did not know where to start, how to build classes, or how to recruit an audience. We had a lot of doubts and fears.” In search of support to bring the online fitness center concept to life, Leila applied to the MCT Agency Startup Academy.

MCT Agency Startup Academy is part of the Start-up Ecosystem Program, Turkmenistan’s first-ever collaborative start-up initiative, jointly supported by USAID Enriching Youth for Tomorrow, USAID’s Future Growth Initiative, and the Union of Economists of Turkmenistan. The six-month program engages local companies as start-up mentors; companies gain experience as start-up accelerators while connecting promising entrepreneurs with accomplished start-up experts.

Because the course was designed for entrepreneurs, Leila knew she was in for a challenge. “Despite my doubts, the classes at the Startup Academy turned out to be informative, engaging, and easy to comprehend. My understanding of where I can apply my knowledge and skills has expanded.” Mentors from MCT Agency provided Leila and her peers in the program with the theoretical knowledge, methods, and practical tools needed to build a business, identify client needs, and market to target audiences. “I realized how I could reach underserved markets such as homemakers and moms with children and help them maintain physical fitness and strengthen their immune systems from the comfort of their home,” says Leila.

By the time she completed her training at Startup Academy, the idea of ‘online fitness’ had become a working venture. On August 1, Leila and Nigar launched an Instagram account to promote the Center and attract their first clients. “In the beginning, we recruited a small audience, launched an advertising campaign on social media, and organized master classes on Zoom to attract clients and show them the process of online training in real-time,” says Leila. “Homemakers, having tried the training, were convinced they could find time for an active lifestyle while at home with their children.”

During the concept stage, more than 5,600 subscribers signed on to the project’s Instagram account to follow the online fitness venture. Today, the program works with ten clients who train individually three times a week and another six clients who train by appointment. Leila plans to grow to 50 clients, two additional full-time staff members, and 50,000 followers on Instagram and YouTube by the end of 2021.

Leila is one of 122 residents and 42 start-up teams to complete the training program, and her online fitness venture is one of 13 start-ups from the program with products or services already on the market. An additional 12 start-ups are waiting for COVID-19 restrictions to be lifted before they can be launched. To date, the program has created or improved 38 jobs in Turkmenistan.

According to the MCT Agency and other companies which provided mentorship through the Start-up Ecosystem, the public success of Leila and her peers from the program has helped generate greater interest in entrepreneurship development, including among women. “We feel like we’re pioneers, having started our digital businesses and helping people in various ways in this challenging year,” says Leila about her cohort of start-up entrepreneurs. “Through our project, we wanted to turn sports into a lifestyle by bringing online fitness to Turkmenistan and, unbelievably, it seems to be working!”

Leila and her peers from Start-up Ecosystem prove that while the pandemic closed physical doors around the country, it opened up possibilities never before considered – both for budding entrepreneurs and for all of those in need of new ways to stay connected.