Brussels Ukraïna ReviewOriginalSociety

To Start from Scratch: Business Stories of IDPs

migrants

Business speaks the language of numbers. Life speaks the language of human stories. In particular, the stories of internally displaced persons (IDPs). In recent years, the world has seen tectonic shifts in forced displacement. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the number of IDPs today almost equals the size of the population of such countries as Colombia or Spain, South Africa or South Korea (about 40-50 million people). Outside the most critical region – the Middle East (Yemen, Iraq, Syria) – Ukraine made the list of countries with the largest number of internally displaced persons.

As of 6 July 2021, according to the Unified Information Database on Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), 1,473,650 IDPs from the temporarily occupied territories of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions and the Autonomous Republic of Crimea were registered in Ukraine. The highest dynamics of IDP registration was recorded in 2015 (up to 942,000 people). These are only registered IDPs. Their actual number may be higher.

According to the Vostok SOS Charity Foundation, the Concept of the State Targeted Programme for Restoration and Peacebuilding in Eastern Regions of Ukraine, approved in 2016, does not solve many problems of IDPs, including the exercise of the right to participate in elections and the right to free temporary accommodation, regulation of the movement of people across the line of contact, and compensation for the value of destroyed housing or property. At the same time, the state paid IDPs UAH 252.5 million in financial aid to cover living expenses, housing and communal services (June 2021).

The second most important problem for IDPs after obtaining their housing is the problem of employment. According to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), “employment is a crucial problem for IDPs as only 35% of people, who moved, have found a job in a new place. People, whose enterprises were completely centrally transferred to the territories controlled by Ukraine (banks, large retail chains, educational or medical institutions), had the least problems with employment”. According to IOM, since the onset of the occupation of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the start of the Anti-Terrorist Operation in eastern Ukraine, 69,600 people have applied for assistance in employment. At the same time, less than 30% of IDPs have been employed. In June 2020, the share of employed IDPs was 46% among all IOM respondents. Out of 46% of employed IDPs, 2% were self-employed or entrepreneurs.

The most active, highly educated and qualified share of able-bodied people left the zone of temporary occupation. During the resettlement, they relied on their abilities, not only on the state. They did not sit idly by but started their own business, often by taking advantage of grant support. And now, they can share their own business experience.

That’s what Oleh Bozhko, 48, did. In December 2014, he and his family left occupied Alchevsk (Luhansk region) and moved to a village near Kyiv. Landscape design and gardening were his life’s work. They moved in off-season December, so there was nothing to do for several weeks. The family’s savings and a small financial reward for helping other families of IDPs to move from Alchevsk to the Kyiv region helped them to survive without income. In January 2015, Oleh began to “patrol” the surrounding villages in search of orders, to offer winter tree-trimming services. After a brief silence, he started to receive phone calls. Oleh began to fulfil orders for trimming, planting, and, later, complex landscaping of houses and gardens. The main tool of business marketing at that time was (and remains now) the so-called word of mouth – recommendations from grateful customers. Before moving, Oleh had four landscaping workers who quit with the start of hostilities.

Oleh has never applied for grants, relying in the development of his small business entirely by his efforts, demand for landscaping services, and business success in a new place. He even paid off in full the bad tax debt, which could be written off due to the beginning of the Anti-Terrorist Operation in eastern Ukraine.

For the first four years, Oleh worked on his own. Only five clients’ estates were under Oleh’s gardening care. This brought a monthly income of UAH 10,000. As the number of customers was growing, the issue of attracting new employees arose. “And my thought immediately ran upon young guys from Alchevsk, who might still have stayed there. It was fundamental for me to try to get at least a few more young people out of the occupation who were born in independent Ukraine and for whom the occupation came as a shock. I managed to transfer and invite several guys from Alchevsk to work. I believe that my small business became a kind of springboard for their careers, and Ukrainian passports are not just a piece of paper,” Bozhko, already a resident of Kyiv, modestly states. Oleh considers himself not so much a businessman as a self-employed person who will find a job that will feed and make provision in any circumstances. He calls his experience a kind of belated test of humanity, an ability to start from scratch, and his own identity. During these years, Oleh only once risked going to his parents, who stayed in occupied Alchevsk. Once, in the summer of 2014, before moving, he was summoned for questioning by the administration of the self-proclaimed “Luhansk People’s Republic” because of an incident when journalists of the Ukrayinska Pravda online media outlet had been hiding in his office during the battles for Debaltseve. Oleh did not want to be summoned anymore, so he left the past in the past and moved.

“I was made certain once again that I can start my landscaping business anywhere. Well, except for Mars or the Moon,” Oleh jokes. Now, the income of his family from the family business, with the eloquent name Green Terra, has reached UAH 40,000 without taking into account the salaries of hired professionals and tax payments. Oleh is more concerned with ensuring that customer service is provided in a quality and timely manner, not with scaling the business. “Don’t get too carried away with someone else’s success stories, small or big. Always assess your strengths and capabilities before starting a business. Set yourself up to the difficulties. This will make it easier to perceive them,” Bozhko advises beginners.

The largest number of grant programs for IDPs in Ukraine has been implemented with the support of IOM and its territorial offices in the regions of Ukraine. The peak of grants provided fell in 2015-2016. Svitlana Oleynikova, 41, head of NGO “International Agency for Change,” shares her personal experience. In the summer of 2014, Svitlana left not only her occupied native Torez (since 2016, Chystiakove, Donetsk region) but also several successful businesses, including a mini English school.

In Kyiv, in July 2014, she started working for Crimea SOS, a non-governmental human rights organisation that provides social and integration support to IDPs. It was Svitlana who in those turbulent times was in the “grant” movement for entrepreneurs from the occupied territories. She helped to get financial assistance for the development of business within the activities of Crimea SOS. Svitlana gained experience in fundraising as a way to attract financial and other resources for business projects before the occupation by assisting her community. She helped to start 150 mini businesses. Later, this experience and deep mastering of fundraising in Kyiv resulted in several business areas: consulting assistance and training on obtaining grant funding “Synergy development consulting,” online fundraising training game “TM Funds hunter,” and online educational fundraising academy “Synergy academy.” In particular, the educational fundraising game, which was released in 2020, became the first proprietary product of Svitlana and her team after several years of hard work in Kyiv.

Svitlana did not consider work as an employee, saying that “an entrepreneur can be no one else but an entrepreneur.” However, there were some fears that advanced Kyiv would not need her experience and knowledge of fundraising will. However, orders for advice on how to properly apply for a grant kept coming. A need arose to bring private consultations to the level of a business project and recruit teams. Now, Svitlana’s projects employ 50 specialists, and the average monthly turnover of companies starts from UAH 500,000. Svitlana did not feel any special difficulties in adapting to the new place because she plunged into a familiar area. She tries to cover her longing for her hometown with entrepreneurial workaholism. She even says half-jokingly that people become entrepreneurs when they are ready to work for their success twice as much as the standard 24 hours. She believes that the best advice for entrepreneurs is “not to be afraid to take responsibility for yourself and others, to be ready for almost constant difficulties, not to give up, never get to work without a business plan and a sober understanding of what you move towards.” Mrs. Oleynikova claims that the number and quality of grant aid for the business development of active entrepreneurs among IDPs have significantly decreased compared to the first three years since the beginning of the occupation. There may be a lack of informational support for the fact that it is still needed, and people need resources like never before. Perhaps, this is a natural decline in the interest of donors. However, in order not to forget about the need for grants, Svitlana, for her own pleasure, manages the NGO “International Agency for Change” which also conducts fundraising and training sessions. Given the fact that more grant opportunities have emerged, especially after the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement came into force in 2017, people just need to be able to see them. There are grants for the start and socialisation of business, grants for business development in the five years after the start. The main thing is to find a business path and a grant that would suit you.

Some IDPs continued doing business as they had before the war. But there are also real business start-ups among IDPs, for whom new entrepreneurship has already become life-work. Maryna and Oleksandr Blonsky, 40 and 33, now own the Blonsky Family Estate, a craft cheese factory and goat farm. Until 2014, they lived a “home – family – restaurant job” life in Luhansk and there were no plans about crafting, business, farming, cheese making, or leaving Luhansk. As in the stories of other IDPs, the Blonskys left the occupied city at the end of 2014 and moved to Maryna’s parents in a village in the Luhansk region to survive the shelling, wait, and then return. Hoping that the war would end soon, all savings were “eaten away” in a year. In good time, Oleksandr suggested the idea of buying fresh milk from neighbours and making craft cheese in their home kitchen. But such a side job of necessity was not enough for a young family. And among thousands of ideas on how to make a living (whether to go abroad or search for a job), the idea of owning a house in a village and starting a cheese dairy won. This is how the village of Vovnianka, Myrhorod district, Poltava region, appeared in the life of the family from Luhansk.

In 2015, the idea of making cheese from goat milk and making craft products as a profitable business in general was perfectly new. Goat milk, for the production of the necessary amount of cheese for sale, was extracted almost as minerals in all neighbouring villages and estates. Later, Oleksandr brought the first goat, then another one. Together, they learned how to raise goats and make cheese. Oleksandr had basic knowledge, thanks to his profession as a food industry technologist. The experience of making cheese in a Georgian friend’s restaurant also came in handy.

And his own experiments with milk and periods of ageing cheese resulted in the launch of a signature line. There was no time to go somewhere to study cheesemaking or farming. Therefore, practical business knowledge was obtained by immersion in a real business process. Officially, the business itself, including the purchase of the first equipment and furniture, was launched thanks to the first EUR 6,400 grant. Subsequent grants allowed both to increase livestock and to purchase professional cheese-making equipment. The family even built the only two-storey cheese cave in Ukraine. The locals met the new family and the new business with understanding and help. The issue of allocation of grazing land was not settled with the village council, so the Blonsky family bought an empty plot in front of their house for the farm and goats. At present, these homestead plots are no longer enough for grazing and fodder procurement, and the Blonskys do not yet have a land share. Therefore, fodder is bought, and this is a significant disadvantage.

“Before becoming a renowned cheesemaker, don’t be afraid to start making your first cheese in the kitchen and just try to sell it. So to speak, check the romance of cheesemaking against the business practice. Start small. It is important not only to make a high-quality product, but it is also important to learn how to sell it,” Oleksandr Blonsky advises beginners. The first orders came from Facebook, including from IDPs like them. And over the past three to four years, local Myrhorod residents have also become customers. Cheeses and their makers came to fame, among other things, thanks to news reports on well-known Ukrainian TV channels (Inter, ICTV, Tsentralny, Ukrayina, etc.). In 2020, a popular Ukrainer project released a YouTube video. For the first few years, customers had to wait months for their cheese. In 2016-2019, cheese turnover increased from 80 kg to 200 kg per month. In 2019, the average monthly sales revenue fluctuated within UAH 50,000. However, the COVID-19 period suspended participation in offline fairs and forced people to save on craft products, so sales dropped. Currently, the Blonskys have two assistants for taking care and milking goats. Oleksandr controls all the processes on the farm and is engaged in the procurement of fodder. The milk of their own production is not enough, so Oleksandr also searches for additional suppliers to buy raw material for cheese. Maryna deals with sales, communication, and product marketing; applies for grants; and arranges tours and cheese tasting for the farm visitors.

“Competition in craft cheese making is growing. We have found our niche; we try to hold it. We prepare our cheese in an utmost natural way: we use milk, salt, enzyme, and different ageing periods. Nothing artificial. We do not try to ‘get on the assembly line’ and get into big retailers, although we have all the necessary operating permits. We just want to make such a cool and fresh cheese that it is bought up right from the cave without reaching a store. We plan to develop the farm, the estate as a centre of gastro- and eco-tourism. We have ambitions to scale up, expand the line, register our brand. That is why we are actively looking for investors and are seriously considering adequate proposals,” says Maryna as shares her plans. From now on, the farm is their lifestyle.

Here is another story of IDP Olena Mialuk, 46. She left Donetsk in July 2014 with three children aged 13, 2 years and 1 month. The occupation forced the conscientious Ukrainian to leave her house and close a small business – a lingerie store. No matter how strong the desire was to stay in her native town, the fear for the fate of children, especially when the shelling started, was overpowering. The woman packed only summer belongings and documents.

The town of Koziatyn in the Vinnytsia region became a new place of residence. They went for “a little.” For the first months, Olena communicated only with her children, immersing herself in them. Neighbours in Koziatyn set their watches by her very precise schedule of her children’s lives – sleep, walks, and fairy tales. Apparently, this is how our compensatory brain capacity works – it creates a certain order around us to brush off chaos in the head caused by displacement, stress, and uncertainty. The difficulties of adaptation were compounded by a certain distancing of people, their undisguised caution towards an IDP with three children, difficulties with renting an apartment. In order not to lose control of her nervous system, to settle in a new place that now was her home, Olena decided to attend meetings for IDPs to communicate. There she found out about a possibility to write to the Source of Hope organisation (Vinnytsia) which helped vulnerable groups to get grant assistance and taught them entrepreneurship. Olena had to refresh her memory on her somewhat forgotten profession as a dressmaker. After receiving the first, basic EUR 2,500 grant from IOM for the purchase of equipment, Olena started her business. She opened a mini-workshop for sewing and repairing clothes. Initially, she got small orders on the website rabota.ua. Then, the orders came from neighbours. But later, in addition to local orders, Olena started to receive corporate ones: to make branded clothing for restaurants, shops, and cafes. In total,  the businesswoman received three grants: two from IOM to start and expand business and one grant from USAID. The three grants totalled EUR 6,500. The obtained resources allowed Olena to survive, start her business, fully staff the workshop, and raise the children. The entrepreneur worked almost 24 hours a day for two years. Later, she hired assistants. Olena also opened an online page for her business on the popular marketplace prom.ua and managed to register the LENELI trademark. In 2019, her monthly turnover reached UAH 70,000-100,000. Unfortunately, the assistants quit during the quarantine period due to insufficient orders. Now, Olena resorts to the help of assistants only when necessary. She feels that being busy constantly relieved her sadness and depression and is her main success. Now, the businesswoman knows how to start life from scratch, even at the age of 40, to plan and dream. The experience of displacement and new business perked up the peaceful life of a mother of three children. “Indeed, it’s an unpleasant experience, but it gave me the impetus for something new. Sometimes, looking at the stable life of people in peaceful Ukraine, I feel grateful that it was in my life that I found a place for a business adventure to find myself again,” says Olena. Of course, she is also grateful for the financial help in the form of grants and business knowledge that she managed to obtain as an IDP. “Never look back, even if the past was good for you.” It is now the motto of Olena Mialuk, an entrepreneur and mother who finds time to look beyond the horizons of Koziatyn in pursuit and dreams of a better life for her family.

INNA KRUPNYK, FREELANCE JOURNALIST, COMMENTATOR AND COPYWRITER

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