Many Belgian businessmen want to do business in Ukraine, but they do not know exactly how to get in the door, says Jo Vanbelle, Honorary Consul of Ukraine in the Kingdom of Belgium and Managing Partner at Vanbelle law firm. In an interview with Brussels Ukraїna Review, Mr. Vanbelle revealed his plans to the journalist Natalia Richardson to organise a summer business school for Ukrainians who want to work abroad and for Belgians who plan to operate in Ukraine. The Honorary Consul also spoke about his great fascination with Ukrainian F&B (Food and Beverage) concepts, architecture and cities.
Mr. Vanbelle, how did you become Honorary Consul of Ukraine?
I was asked. An Honorary Consul is a position that is usually only open to nationals of the guest state and it is the country – in this case, Ukraine – which decides whom it would like to have as an honorary consul. Why did I accept? Well, first of all, there is a profound sympathy that I have for the current ambassador, Mr. Mykola Tochytskyi, his close family, and the staff. We met each other several times at the Cercle Royal Gaulois (an artistic and cultural private club in Brussels that also welcomes heads of foreign countries delegations), where the ambassador organised a truly amazing dinner with wine and food prepared by Ukrainian chefs. I was very impressed by that and did not expect such food and wine to exist in Ukraine because, to be honest, we knew very little about these aspects of the country. Then I visited Kyiv specifically to discover the hotel and restaurant activities of the country, to see if it was really this innovative and special as what I saw in Brussels. And it was.
Do you mean hotel and restaurant design?
Yes, design and concepts, but the food as well. There are chefs in Ukraine who are just exceptional. If you had Michelin already in Ukraine, which is one of the things I would like to see happening, I know for sure that some of the chefs that I have met in Kyiv, and probably elsewhere in Ukraine too, would instantly get a Michelin star.
Could you give an example?
Don’t make me say names, because that would be not fair to the others. But not only the quality of the food, but also the concepts, decoration, and atmosphere are amazing! I didn’t know that. And I said to myself: if I don’t know all that – and I have travelled a lot – most Belgians won’t know either. That was one of the main reasons to accept the mission: if you can help people from other countries, especially European countries, to discover little secrets and treasures that are only a few hours away, then you have to do it!
So your aim is to introduce Belgians to Ukrainian culture?
Of course! The primary reason for doing this is indeed to open Ukraine up to the world, especially to the European Union. I think Ukraine has the ambition to become as close as possible to the European Union, where its natural place actually is, because, after all, it’s a European country. A good part of Western civilization comes from there. People need to be reminded of that. So, as much as Ukraine wants to become closer to the EU, the citizens of the EU should also be assisted in coming closer to Ukraine: better knowledge and mutual understanding usually make people closer and help to collaborate.
The idea is to open up Ukraine to Belgians with specific actions. For instance, restaurants are something that everybody understands: everybody goes out to restaurants, everybody likes nice things. I have a lot of experience in that area – as a concept creator and investor in restaurants, but also as a lawyer and consultant. If I say to people over here: “Go to Ukraine if you want to try nice food,” they will say: “Really?” Their interest is piqued, and then they go.
You became Honorary Consul of Ukraine last year. What are your main achievements during this time?
Together with the services of the counsellor and diplomatic services of the embassy, who are of course our main partners, we wanted to create and put in place a kind of exchange program. Let’s call it a “summer school”, although it can also take place in winter. It will be based on a collaboration between one or more Belgian universities and probably one or two Ukrainian universities or similar institutions. Participants from Ukraine will learn how to export their knowledge and their products – for instance, IT products – effectively. I noticed something when I tried to make things happen with people who live in Ukraine (and it’s the same problem in many countries): they have a lot of experience and know-how about their product or their service but only in their own country, only in their language, only within the business concepts of their own country. That is the problem if you want to go further and abroad. And usually, countries which are working in a very particular way only export their knowledge to neighbouring countries. That doesn’t help either because it’s not so different to do business with a country close to your own, where traditions might still be similar. There’s a difference, for instance, in doing business in Ukraine and Germany, or Belgium, or Holland. The business rules, the languages, the way business or things are done, can vary. So, there is a demand from Ukrainian people, entrepreneurs but also private people who simply say: “I would like to learn more about how to set up a business,” or “I have my business, and I want to go further, and I would like to have a store, an office, an activity, for instance, in Brussels”, which is a good place to do it because we are the centre of Europe. “How do I start? What should I know?”
The “summer school” I would like to set up would be open to all mentioned businessmen or women. We would create a team of professors from Belgian universities and similar institutions, the courses will be in English, and they would take place in Brussels and Kyiv and other relevant locations. The idea is that after an intense training of, let’s say, a few weeks or a month (maybe partially online), we can offer a certificate so people can feel more confident to do what they want to outside Ukraine. And we would help them afterward as well as to make it happen and to implement what they want and where they want to be.
Obviously, you were already in contact with Ukrainian business people. What do they need to learn first of all? Foreign languages, Western mentality?
It is a mix. There are many people, both in Belgium and Ukraine, who have a decent level of education and knowledge of foreign languages. However, a lot of local entrepreneurs have been essentially connected=tied? to their own country or region and previously didn’t feel the urge to learn more or to open up to the world. This has changed now: the world is one big open market space, and e-commerce will not disappear. On the contrary, its importance and relevance were proved by COVID-19. Local businesses will therefore have to reinvent their concepts and their owners will have to learn new tools and skills: languages, international business culture, legal and financial rules, business practices (what to do or not to do; what to say or not, how to address an issue correctly, etc.).
The “summer school” would attract therefore not necessarily young students, but also experienced business owners from both countries. The idea is not to compete with international business schools, but to offer a decent basic training to get people going, to show them that things can also be done differently and to make them hunger for more, and all this at a low cost and within a friendly and safe environment.
Will it be very practical?
Yes. The professors will not give too much theory, it will be mostly practical. The teachers will all be experienced international professionals. COVID-19 changed our plans for this year, but we will try to get things moving again soon.
We also wanted to do a similar educational exchange for younger children. This program now also got delayed because of the sanitary situation in Europe.
What age for the younger children’s summer school?
We are considering organising it for the last two or three years of secondary school (16 and onwards), students who are old enough to be more or less independent. Of course, we would find guest families for them.
Do you see much interest from the Belgian side, from Belgian businessmen and women, to invest in such a huge market as Ukraine is?
Yes, it is a huge market. I still have a lot to learn about the regional markets. At this point, I don’t know much more than the major cities because of current travel restrictions. But there is much more that I have to learn and to know. A big help are my two colleagues, the honorary consuls Mr. Christian Stoop (who has been doing this for a very long time now in the Antwerp area) and Mr. Kris Beckers, who is very active in Ukraine, especially because of his personal professional experience and interest in agriculture, machinery and products export.
So there is a big demand from Belgian businessmen – they just don’t know exactly how to get in. I have been talking several times to the Belgian association of retail companies. An economic mission towards Ukraine should be possible as soon as we can travel again. Meanwhile, we try to help with the exchange of relevant information, contacts, etc. We organise meetings and talk to the press; anything to help out people from both sides who want to get in touch.
Mr. Vanbelle, you mentioned COVID-19 several times. Have you done anything specific to support Ukraine during the pandemic?
Yes. We have offered to facilitate the delivery of certain medical materials during the COVID crisis thanks to our foundation Unitas (www.unitas-foundation.com).
We also had a lot of local people who got stuck in Brussels or somewhere else in Belgium and could not travel. There was also a – logical – confusion within the Ukrainian community in Belgium because of very confusing Belgian governmental communication. We tried to explain what was happening, and why, we referred people to the embassy or consular services, etc. It was a quite stressful time.
You visited Ukraine several times. Besides restaurants, what is your best experience or memory?
I was very much surprised by Ukrainian International Airlines. I think they are doing a great job: they have new planes and the people working there do their best to make your short trip nice. The first thing you often see when you travel to another country is its airline, so that’s quite important: when the national carrier is good, you are already willing to discover more. And the first time I arrived at the airport in Kyiv, it was winter, it was very, very cold, there was about one meter of snow. But then you have a car waiting for you, the driver takes you through one meter of snow to your hotel without any problem. In Belgium, when the snows is one centimetre high, it’s a total drama. So, actually, everything was efficient. And of course, the city is beautiful – what can you not like about Kyiv? Sure, there is still a lot of work to do, but it’s happening. And people are hospitable, they try to give the best they have when you’re there. Our mission as honorary consuls is to support these efforts, make them known to the world, and provide them a little bit of extra help.