Believing in people and Ukraine: how the grant project " Heading towards the Independence" supports Ukrainian entrepreneurs

Ukrainian small and medium-sized entrepreneurs, winners of the 'Course to Independence' project, can do it all - they produce dried fruit and cheese, tend gardens, grow vegetables, raise poultry and take beehives to the fields. Despite the most unacceptable conditions, they continue their business and even increase their capacity.

Entrepreneurs who are restoring the economy in their communities are supported by the "Course to Independence" grant programme, which provides assistance not with money but with the equipment they need to develop their business. We tell you about this unique charity project and share the stories of its winners.

About the project: how big business supports small businesses

Last autumn, the partners - the Believe in Yourself Charitable Foundation, Astarta-Kyiv Agro Holding and the German Development Bank DEG - announced the launch of a unique grant programme, the Course to Independence. Looking for ways to support small entrepreneurs and communities during the war, they wanted to jointly organise a project to help Ukrainians who have their own business and need money for equipment to develop it. The Light of Hope NGO and AMEP, a local economic development agency, also became co-organisers.

In addition to helping small and medium-sized businesses, the initiative also aims to create new jobs and provide products for vulnerable groups of people - under the terms of the project, the winners must create jobs and donate 10% of the cost of the equipment received to the community every month in the equivalent of their own manufactured products.

The first wave started in November 2022. The conditions were simple: participants had to be registered entrepreneurs, have been operating for at least three months prior to the competition announcement, and do business in the communities of Poltava, Khmelnytskyi, Ternopil, Zhytomyr, Vinnytsia and Kharkiv regions. In addition, the participants' business had to be related to the agricultural sector, such as food production or agricultural processing.

As the project organisers admit, they did not expect to receive so many applications - more than 240. For a month, the applicants took part in special trainings where they were taught how to write business plans. In December, 60 winners with the best business ideas were selected. A grant fund of €720,000 was set up for them, and each winner received €12,000 worth of equipment and materials.

The implementation of the project clearly demonstrates how socially responsible big business supports communities and helps Ukrainian entrepreneurs to develop their businesses. However, the assistance of the agricultural holding and partners is not over: the second wave of the project is scheduled for September 2023. In the meantime, we are telling the stories of the winners of the first wave.

Antonina and Oleksandr Kompaniets - Green Up eco-farm

Antonina Kompaniets and her husband, Oleksandr, have been growing vegetables organically in the Poltava region for five years. Initially, it was a hobby for Oleksandr, but over time, Antonina became interested in the business.

"Initially, my husband was the one who grew vegetables. Back then, we lived in an apartment in the centre of Kremenchuk, and Oleksandr made a special installation of stones in the kitchen and started growing strawberries. Later, we started doing it together and decided to move to a private house in the village of Pishchane and grow vegetables there," the entrepreneur recalls. This is how the Green Up eco-farm was born.

At first, the couple grew herbs in the open field, then gradually switched to vegetables and set up a small greenhouse complex. They began planting young and late cabbage, corn, red, yellow and cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, radishes, bell peppers, and aubergines. The entrepreneurs have about 16 hectares for a vegetable garden and about 300 square metres for greenhouses.

The farmers had a big idea: they wanted to grow vegetables that would be really tasty. They did their best to ensure that the vegetables were of high quality and fresh.

"For example, we've been growing corn for three years now - a special French variety, and we have a waiting list for it for the next year. People say that it has never tasted sweeter. The feedback on our products is always positive. People thank us for the tasty and healthy vegetables and keep ordering again and again. It's very motivating," says Antonina.

The farmers delivered vegetables to retailers, taking orders from customers via Viber on the principle of "from garden to table in two hours".

When the Great War broke out, Antonina and Oleksandr were shocked at first and did not know what to do. However, the difficult conditions did not stop their activities, but rather intensified them. "We began to care even more about our business and think about how to develop it," says Antonina.

The couple found out about the Course to Independence project by chance at the employment centre where Antonina was registered as an entrepreneur. The grant seemed interesting to the couple for several reasons - it was an additional opportunity to develop their business, but they also liked the condition of donating 10% of their products to people in need.

"As the winners, we bring vegetables to the community, where our products are distributed to the military and nursing homes. When we arrive, the receptionists tell us that the old ladies say hello and that the cucumbers are great. It's really cool that the project has such a condition. On the one hand, it's a great opportunity for entrepreneurs, and on the other hand, it's about introducing a social component into business," Antonina explains.

The couple took writing the business plan very seriously, attended trainings and memorised new information - the part about financial planning was especially useful.

"Of course, we were nervous. When they sent the list of winners, I thought it was a defeat at first. But we won, we just weren't at the top of the list, we were number 34. We were very happy," the entrepreneur recalls.

As part of the grant, the farmers were provided with a greenhouse structure and components for the heating system - pipes and a boiler, as well as special lamps for illuminating the plants. In the first greenhouse, all processes are already automated, and in the second, the grant one, they are still at the installation stage. "This greenhouse structure consists of two layers of film and is already partially automated. There is a pump next to it that pumps air in. It switches on and off automatically depending on temperature changes. Now we are completing the heating, and later my husband will automate the lighting and watering to use natural resources and our money more economically," Antonina explains.

Oleksandr's first degree was in programming, so he is writing a software module that allows him to monitor the need for and automatically switch on lighting, heating, watering and fertiliser. For example, the boiler will only be switched on when the temperature is below +17, and the lighting in winter will be switched on after 18:00. Special sensors will measure the moisture level in the soil and give a signal to the irrigation system.

Although the automation is still in progress, vegetables are already growing in the new greenhouse, and the grant assistance has yielded tangible results.

"We were able to expand the range of vegetables and, accordingly, increase our income. While in the first greenhouse we grew only tomatoes and cucumbers, in the second we planted other vegetables," says Antonina.

Thanks to the expansion of the range of products, the eco-farm's customer base has expanded to include catering establishments - the best restaurants in the city have found the entrepreneurs and offered to cooperate. Now the farmers are also suppliers of raw materials for HoReCa.

Antonina and Oleksandr's plans do not end there: they want to take part in the second wave of the grant project. "We are currently facing a situation where we do not have enough products. We receive so many orders, and we simply cannot meet all the demand. Others have a problem with where to sell, and we have a problem with what to sell. We cannot process all the orders because we only have a certain amount of vegetables we can grow. So next year we plan to install two or three more greenhouses to be able to meet the demand," says Antonina.

The entrepreneurs' big goal for the future is to set up a large greenhouse complex on five hectares of land with the possibility of organising farm tours and a small restaurant nearby so that people can taste the products. The couple sincerely want to demonstrate that growing vegetables can be attractive and modern.

Rostyslav Ivashchenko - delicious honey from Pasika Bees

Rostyslav Ivashchenko from Hradyzk, Poltava Oblast, has been keeping bees since 2019, when he bought his first bees. The entrepreneur admits that at that time he had no idea about these insects - only that bees produce honey.

"A friend of mine who had experience in this area helped me. We went with him and bought three families - three boxes with frames where the bees live and their queen lays larvae. My friend showed me which bees were workers and which were drones. Until a certain point, I didn't even know what a queen bee looked like," Rostyslav recalls.

At first, the bees stung him a lot, it was very unpleasant. Then Rostyslav got used to it, and later bought a special suit. Gradually, he got the hang of it and started breeding non-vicious families, as it turned out that bees have a certain character that depends on the queen. He learned that bees can even distinguish the face of the person who is constantly looking after them. The entrepreneur now has more than a hundred families.

The main work of a beekeeper is in the warm seasons: cleaning hives, inspecting nests and frames, keeping an eye on the honeycomb, preparing and transporting the apiary to the honey plants, and pumping out honey. In addition, there is work to breed queens and form products for sale. In winter, bees also need to be looked after, because they don't sleep, they just go into a state of rest.

"Insects gather in a large layer, inside which they maintain a temperature of +37, and on the surface - about +5. This is how bees preserve their uterus. So in winter, once every one or two weeks, I check for food. In addition, when it's cold, we make frames and hives," Rostyslav explains.

The entrepreneur found out about the Course to Independence project on the Internet - a post about the grant was published by the village head. Rostyslav decided to give it a try because he needed help with his business. He applied and was selected. When he received the news that he had won the project, he did not believe it at first. By coincidence, it was his wedding anniversary that day, so it was as if the couple had received a gift to celebrate.

In his business plan, Rostyslav described in detail that he needed materials for making beehives and trailers for transporting the apiary. When he won the grant, they were ordered and manufactured for the entrepreneur. A total of three trailers were delivered, which was enough to transport the entire apiary.

"This equipment has made things much easier, because beekeeping is hard work. This is especially true when it comes to pumping out honey and transporting hives to honey collection sites. You need to understand that hives are heavy: in summer they weigh 30-40 kg, and in autumn - 60-70 kg. It is extremely difficult to move this weight many times. Each time they need to be loaded, secured and unloaded on site. It takes a lot of effort and time," Rostyslav says.

With the purchased trailers, this is much faster and easier, because after delivery to the fields, the hives remain on the platform - they do not need to be moved every time. When it is necessary to change the location, the beekeeper simply hooks the entire platform to the car and drives to the new location.

Rostyslav has his own car to transport the apiary, so now he is completely autonomous with the trailers. "When I see that the honey harvest is over, I move to another field, and I don't depend on anyone," says the entrepreneur. For example, this year the season started with rapeseed: Rostyslav took his bees to a nearby rapeseed field. Then he travelled a hundred kilometres from his village to the border of Kirovohrad and Dnipro regions to collect acacia honey. Next came herbs, then sunflower.

"Thanks to the new equipment, this year I travelled to more locations and significantly increased my honey production. Today, honey is a profitable business, but it depends on the volume of production: the more pumping, the higher the earnings. I used to take out only 20 families at a time, now I take out almost twice as many - 39. Now, I spend most of my time not transporting them, as I used to, but fixing the hives to the trailers so that they don't fall apart on the way," Rostyslav says.

The entrepreneur is developing his business and is not going to stop. He plans to expand his apiary to 300 families and purchase equipment for pumping out honey. Over time, Rostyslav dreams of reaching an industrial scale

Liudmyla Panfilova's garden with sea buckthorn, raspberries and medicinal plants

Liudmyla Panfilova from the town of Volochysk in Khmelnytskyi Oblast has an unusual garden - a sea buckthorn garden. It was her husband's idea to plant the "golden berry". An acquaintance of his worked in sea buckthorn gardens in the Czech Republic, returned and planted one in Lviv region. Liudmyla's husband visited the experimental plot and liked it. He became interested in the plant, did the maths and decided that it was a promising business, as sea buckthorn berries are very popular and in demand even abroad.

In addition, the couple's daughter is engaged in the production and sale of natural cosmetics Pranuka. She orders most of the ingredients abroad because they are not available in Ukraine.

"We thought that in the future we could also supply her with some raw materials, because sea buckthorn is used to make oils or, for example, to use the cake in scrubs. In general, sea buckthorn is tasty, healthy and can be used in the food industry, pharmaceuticals and cosmetics," explains Liudmyla.

The entrepreneurs have planted about two hectares of sea buckthorn orchard. The main challenge is that the shrub gives the first "test" fruits in the third year after planting, and begins to bear fruit steadily only in the fourth year. That is, it takes a long time to get a return. To get working capital earlier, last autumn the family planted about fifty acres of raspberries, and now they are harvesting them. They grow Polana and Joan Jay raspberries - with proper care, these varieties allow them to harvest more berries on smaller areas.

The entrepreneurs also have up to two acres planted with medicinal plants - sage, oregano and St John's wort. The plants are mown, dried and sent to Kyiv region to make herbal teas. The raspberries are sold at local outlets and given to shops for sale. Cafes buy Lyudmyla's products to make teas, cocktails, and fruit drinks. The rest is delivered to the procurement base, where the berries are frozen and sold in large volumes for processing at enterprises.

"According to the terms of the grant, we give part of the raspberries to the community, in our case it is 500 kg. We have already delivered almost half of it - for example, we gave some to kindergartens," adds Liudmyla.

But there are some problems with raspberries at the moment. Last year, the price was good, but now it has almost halved. "This summer, we sell raspberries in bulk for 23 UAH/kg, of which we pay 15 to the person who picks them, leaving only 8 UAH for us. But raspberries don't just grow on their own: we fertilise them, we dig them up, we water them, we prune them, we treat them for pests. It also takes time and resources," says the entrepreneur.

According to her, the price decline depends on several factors, including low consumption and a decrease in demand for our exports abroad. In addition, the raspberry business has a certain cyclical nature: at first it is profitable, competition increases, so after five or six years the price is bound to fall, people start cutting raspberries en masse, and then the price starts to rise again. Despite the crisis, entrepreneurs still continue to work. In such circumstances, business support is extremely important, so the grant assistance was very appropriate.

"When we were planning to plant a sea buckthorn garden, we were looking for programmes for entrepreneurs, as this idea requires quite a lot of money. Our daughter applied for a similar project from Astarta, which helped us buy sea buckthorn seedlings for the first plot. For the second one, we bought them on our own," says Liudmyla.

They learned about the current initiative in the Viber community of entrepreneurs. At that time, Liudmyla and her husband needed equipment for the irrigation system: drip tubes, pumps, and watering tanks. As many of their seedlings failed to take root and died without watering last year, the couple had to plant new ones. "In addition, we needed equipment to cultivate the garden. We have an old tractor, and we needed a tiller, a trunk cutter, a sprayer, and so on," explains Liudmyla.

She formulated a business plan and sent it for review. It was a very difficult time with blackouts. Lyudmyla even had to watch the mandatory training on tape because there was no electricity or internet at the time of the training. Nevertheless, the entrepreneur won and received the equipment.

"Thanks to the 'grant' irrigation system, our trees have grown so well and survived despite the heat. And the processing equipment for the tractor makes working in the garden much easier. Now we are thinking of applying for another grant to replace the tractor with a new one, because ours is very old and constantly needs repairs," says Liudmyla.

Next year, the sea buckthorn should produce the first test fruits, and in another year, the entrepreneurs will have a full harvest. The maximum plan for that time is to receive another grant to purchase equipment and develop production, process sea buckthorn and obtain ingredients for natural cosmetics. And when the war ends, Liudmyla and her family's business will definitely expand.

"We live in a time when it is difficult to plan anything long-term. But we still keep going. The people who stayed in Ukraine and work hard despite such a small margin are really keeping our economy going. They took something to the shop, someone bought something, someone earned something. A café bought raspberries from me, made a cocktail for a customer, we earned something from this, they earned something: this is how the economy is slowly turning, held together by such entrepreneurs, despite all the difficulties," Liudmyla is sure.