IMPACT STORY: As conflict rages in Ukraine, SEED program aims to revitalize entrepreneurial spirit

The global community has stood in admiration of the resilience and strength of Ukraine and its people under fire.

But such determination should come as little surprise after meeting Ukrainian agrarian entrepreneurs who have built businesses and realized dreams as part of the SEED educational project of the UN Global Compact.

Under the slogan “Ukraine needs agrarians,” SEED – which stands for Sustainable, Empowering, Ethical, Diverse – supports small businesses working in agricultural entrepreneurship and sustainable development. It offers up-to-date knowledge of business processes and tools to entrepreneurs creating jobs for themselves, their families and their communities.

The SEED program, launched in September 2021, helps promote Sustainable Development Goal 8 which calls for decent work and economic growth, SDG 9, which advocates for sustainable industrialization and SDG 12, which includes responsible and sustainable production, as well as the Ten Principles of the UN Global Compact which promote human rights, labor rights, anti-corruption and the environment. SEED grants are funded by the PepsiCo Foundation, MHP, Syngenta in Ukraine and the UN Global Compact Network Ukraine. 

From all over Ukraine, 150 participants were selected for the SEED program. These businesses underwent a month of interactive training and expert strategic sessions with experienced specialists and managers from leading companies, studying project management, social media marketing, communications, financial literacy, investment and legal issues. They also had individual mentoring sessions.

The project has taken on particular significance with the full-scale invasion by Russia which has caused huge losses to Ukrainian businesses, including those in the SEED project, said Tatiana Sakharuk, Executive Director of the UN Global Compact Network Ukraine.

Describing the preservation and well-being of Ukraine as “a common cause,” Sakharuk said: “The task of entrepreneurs now is to ensure Ukraine’s economic performance.

“It is the modernization of the Ukrainian agricultural sector that will allow it to overcome today's extremely difficult challenges,” she said.

At the conclusion of the training, companies pitched their best projects, and 15 received SEED grants to help fund their development.

One of the entrepreneurial business leaders benefitting from SEED is Victoria Kryveshchenko, who built a thriving quail poultry and egg company called Charivnyi Ptah (or “Magic Bird”) with her husband and family in the village of Peremoha, near Kyiv, starting in 2008. Their company was one of the top five producers of quail products in Ukraine and sold its fresh produce to French, German and Ukrainian supermarket chains.

That came to a terrifying halt when Russian soldiers occupied their farm in March 2022.

The Russians decimated the business, and 70,000 birds died, shot by soldiers or felled by blasts of shelling. Soldiers destroyed the premises and ruined the equipment, the furniture, the car and more, Kryveshchenko said. 

“They tried to steal everything,” she said through a translator. Only 2,000 birds survived.

But the company stayed put and is rebuilding its stock, and now it is up to some 15,000 birds.

“The Russian soldiers at our place said Ukrainians are crazy that they can stand this situation. They expected us to run away, to surrender,” Kryveshchenko said.

The tiny quail chicks are raised in incubators powered by a generator because the region often does not have electrical power for more than 10 hours a day. But running the generator is expensive, given the war-time cost of fuel.

The staff of 16 wants to work, but there’s not enough birds or business to keep them  busy.

“Step by step, we are trying to sell, but with small portions, not with the numbers before the Russians occupied,” she said.

A grant from the SEED programme in November provided funds to buy much-needed feed for the birds, which eat a mix of corn, wheat and vitamins.

“We try to live day by day, just to survive, to stay a bit normal,” Kryveshchenko said.

“We are very strong,” she said of her fellow Ukrainians. “We can survive even under such circumstances.”

Photo caption: Victoria Maslova and her mother Inna Skarzhynska started their skin care business in 2015.

Russian forces’ occupation of Bucha, about 30 km northwest of Kyiv, in March forced Victoria Maslova and her family to abandon the gardens, lab and manufacturing facilities where they produced herbal skin care products. Their business is called VESNA, which means ‘Spring.’

Maslova and her mother Inna Skarzhynska started VESNA in 2015, hoping to find solutions to skin problems they saw in their family and in others such as acne and pregnancy pigmentation.

“We couldn’t find it in the supermarkets, so we started doing it by ourselves,” she said. “We had no money. We had only an idea. We started in the kitchen.”

Maslova studied cosmetology and marketing, and her mother learned chemistry. They grew coriander, nettle, rose amaranth, turmeric and even algae. The business combined ancient recipes with modern techniques, and it expanded to 10 employees producing plant-based facial care, body care, hair care and a children’s line as well as private label products for other brands.

The last year before the full-scale war erupted, VESNA had three branded stores and more than 50 partners. It was distributing cosmetics in beauty salons and hotel complexes and selling its products on the international online marketplace Etsy.

VESNA was based in Bucha, which was invaded and occupied by Russian forces early in March 2022. The company managed to distribute all its goods to families hiding in nearby bomb shelters just one day before the Russians destroyed its store, office, laboratory and production facilities.

“After the occupation, everything was stolen. All the equipment was destroyed,” Maslova said.

The business has relocated to Lviv, but the rebuilding process is difficult, she said.

Equipment needs to be replaced for making cosmetics. That is very specific and very expensive, she said, and the business needs production facilities and trained staff. Many distribution and retail partners have closed or moved abroad, and delivery logistics are troublesome, she said.

Maslova said SEED funding helped VESNA replace equipment for making essential oils, a key component of its products.

When the war began, Maslova said she expected to pare production down to making  healing ointments and hand creams for Ukrainian troops, including skin care for female soldiers.

“They want to be beautiful, even in the army,” she said.

But customers who took VESNA products in their luggage when they fled the invasion are now asking for more, she said.

“They say their skincare care helps them. The beauty routine helps them psychologically,” she said.

In rebuilding, VESNA is not only making all its previous items but has added products called for by the circumstances, like aroma candles in demand by so many Ukrainians without electricity, she said

Then there's a new men's skin care line, designed especially for those in the military, she said.

The line is called “I need ammunition, not a ride” after the resolute statement by Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky when he rejected offers for him to leave the country at the start of the invasion.

Other SEED nominees and winners in Ukraine include the brand "Berry Side of Life" that grows produce in the Kyiv region. In spring of 2022, its village fell under Russian occupation, and the planting of berries was delayed.

In the Kherson region, Volodymyr Zhdanov’s family-owned business of loofah cultivation, another SEED winner, also was thwarted by occupying forces. The family could not reap its loofah crop and suffered losses, but Zhdanov is anxiously hoping for his native village to be liberated to begin business once again.

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