Ukraine: Say Cheese!

Published: Feb 22, 2016 Reading time: 3 minutes
Ukraine: Say Cheese!
© Roman Lunin

“What is a natural product? It’s a product made with love.”

Lyudmila wakes up at 5am to start preparing the equipment, sanitizing the pots and pans and cleaning the kitchen. Meanwhile her husband and her brother get into the car and set off to collect the freshest milk from local farmers. When they come back at 9am, everything is already prepared, so they can begin one of the most ancient processes done by man – cheese making.

Lyudmila, her husband Vladimir and her brother Sergey are IDPs living in eastern Ukraine. After they realized that the conflict was not going to end soon, they moved to the old house in the suburbs of one of the industrial towns in Donetsk region, where Lyudmila’s grandmother lived long time ago. It was a difficult decision for both families. Back in peacetime, Lyudmila and Vladimir were landscape designers with a decent income and Sergey was a builder.

When they left their home, they found themselves in front of a slowly crumbling house and a desolated garden. “We were in despair, we didn’t know what to do”, says Lyudmila, while Vladimir stirs steaming milk in a huge aluminum pot. “One day we decided to make some cheese just to eat it, and it was delicious. A friend asked if we could make some more for him to buy. I didn’t know the price so we agreed on a figure that seemed fair to both of us. Then my husband and I sat and calculated how much a liter of milk would have to cost for us to make our money back. It turned out that it would have to cost five hryvnia. But the typical price around here is twelve. That evening we got in the car and went in search of cheaper milk. About four kilometers from here, we found a village where local farmers agreed to sell us milk for five hryvnia per liter. Considering that a local milk factory buys it from them for 3 and half hryvnia per liter, it was a fair deal for everyone”.

Making the first deal in their new place, Lyudmila and others realized that it is something that they would like to do for living. Still, they needed equipment in order to move beyond private consumption and start making a profit. They found out about People In Need (PIN)’s livelihoods project, which is funded by the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA), and decided to apply.

Soon after, Lyudmila and Vladimir received 24 thousand hryvnia (1000 USD) and the opportunity to build their own start‐up from scratch. They bought a cheese‐making machine, a vacuum packaging machine and gas conversion equipment for their car, as using petrol is too expensive for day‐to‐day journeys in countryside.

Today, only a few months later, Lyudmila, Vladimir and Sergey produce about fifty kilograms of cheese of different kinds every day. Their impressive hard work and enthusiasm have helped them to create not just a product but a brand, which they called “Say Cheese”. In this short time, they have developed a business model, a stylish logo and a distribution network. Recently they hired an assistant in order to meet the growing demand. They sell their products in several surrounding towns and even send them to Kiev. They are planning to launch a website and to open several new branches in different parts of Ukraine.

Recently Sergey applied for a new grant as they want to automate the process more and they need at least two new fridges to do this. They also support at least 25 local families, buying milk from them on a daily basis. After the planned expansion, they say, they will support no less than 60 local families. “I would never have believed that I would be a cheese maker”, Lyudmila says. “What is PIN’s contribution to that? Well, I can’t give you the percentage share, but what I can say is that without PIN we would not have made it”.

Author: Roman Lunin

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