Coronavirus Affects Every Business in Ukraine, But Social Enterprises Might Struggle the Most
27 April, 2020
Andriy and Valentyn work at the "Stare misto" ("Old town") cafe in the western Ukrainian town of Lutsk that was founded by their parents. Courtesy

One in five small businesses in Ukraine can shut down as a result of the coronavirus quarantine. Social businesses are also at risk. Hromadske tells the story of three social enterprises from different cities of Ukraine that continue operating during the quarantine.

“Old Town”, Lutsk. A confectionery and a coffeehouse where people with Down Syndrome work

Andriy is 20 years old and he has Down's syndrome. Together with his friend Valentyn, he works at a cafe opened by their mothers in January. The boys only had time to work as baristas for two months – since March 14, they haven’t been working because of quarantine.

"We have been wanting to find job for our sons for a long time so they don't just sit at home. People with Down's syndrome find it very difficult to find jobs, they are mostly sitting in their apartments and living for a pension," says coffeehouse co-founder Olena Melnyk.

Olena is an English teacher at a school in Lutsk, western Ukraine. For 15 years she has been working for the NGO Parents of Children with Down's syndrome and Other Developmental Disorders. As her son was growing, the problems that had to be solved – such as education, socialization, and job search – were changing, too. First there was the project "Children of the Sun One Day at Work" – Andriy spent two days at a toy factory. Then Andriy was promised a position of a cashier in a movie theater, but eventually the employer changed his mind.

The "Old Town" cafe was opened in the building previously used for a cafe that was run by Donbas war veterans. Although they tried to negotiate with the owner of the premises, they didn’t receive a discount for rent.

Within two months, the coffeehouse started getting regular customers. They were organizing workshops and charity events, and people with disabilities were frequent guests. Olena and her colleague accompanied their sons to work, helped them learn the new profession. And eventually, the boys learned to brew coffee and work with clients.

“Old Town” coffeehouse in Lutsk, where people with Down's syndrome work. Photo provided to hromadske

“Quarantine came as a shock to us, we do not have a cushion. In April, we received a discount for rent, but we don't know what will be in May,” said Olena.

In order for the coffeehouse to have at least some income, they started to bake customized Easter cakes – but they got just over 10 orders. In February, the project received support from the Ukrainian Venture Fund for Social Investment, so Olena continues to apply for grants for social businesses.

"We really want to get back to work for our boys," says Olena.

“They are so used to the fact that there are people around, used to work, they really liked it. They have new friends. And now they are home all the time again. Andriy keeps asking me every day when will this be finally over and he can return to the cafe. This job is an attempt to find the meaning of life, not just sit in an apartment. We are all in quarantine right now, and it is difficult  but people with such a diagnosis sometimes spend their whole lives like that.”

"InvaFishky", Kyiv. A store of goods for disabled persons

Vitaliy Pcholkin started using a wheelchair in 2007, he was in his second year of university. Vitaliy was injured as he was sliding down a water slide in his hometown Yevpatoria, Crimea. Fracture of the cervical vertebrae, a typical “diver's injury”. Two years later, Vitaliy first visited a camp for active rehabilitation – he was brought there and left, and he could not imagine what would happen next.

"I knew nothing. But the camp worked on a peer-to-peer basis, so I saw what I needed to learn. I came home, started practicing, looking for information on how it works abroad. Then I realized that there are very few information resources for people with disabilities in Ukraine,” recalls Vitaliy.

Over time, people began seeking his advice, but the questions were mostly the same. So he created a platform for tips and ideas for useful gadgets that many people created themselves.

"I thought this model would work, but I didn't consider that people have nowhere to buy such products. I advised them to do it themselves, but people with disabilities are often passive. So I decided to sell the finished product - to get the product as close as possible to the audience,” told Vitaliy.

Vitaliy Pcholkin, founder of the store of goods for disabled. Photo: Facebook

This is how the idea of a social business came about – a shop and a consulting center-workshop where they choose the necessary products for people with disabilities. For instance, Vitaliy says, the inability to find the right wheelchair is a major problem, as it can lead to posture distortion.

Vitaly bought a 3D printer using grant money, but realized that he would not be able to run the business on his own – so two of his friends joined him. The team planned to open an offline store in March, but the quarantine started.

“Our idea is to create a consulting center where specialists help to choose rehabilitation products, and teach how to use them properly. Such [centers] exist, for example, in Norway. It is with selecting the right equipment that Ukraine has the most problems. But so far, we only work online," explained Vitaliy who himself helps choosing the products. He holds a World Health Organization certificate, has undergone wheelchair selection courses, and worked in active rehabilitation camps. 

Currently, InvaFishky order wheelchairs, men's urine collectors and catheters from suppliers, and print accessories for enhanced independence – such as cutlery holders or gadgets for typing on a computer keyboard – with their own 3D printer. In total, they have produced more than 20 models – they found some ideas on the Internet and developed some models on their own.

“Our customers are not wealthy, but because of quarantine, these people have even less financial ability to buy something,” says Vitaliy.

“There are also difficulties with suppliers. For example, we were unable to order a batch of urine collectors from one of two Ukrainian companies. So now we're focusing on testing the existing models and finding new ideas."

InvaFishky team, Vitaliy Pcholkin, Denys Maistrenko and Oleksandr Kashcheiev. Photo: Facebook

When the quarantine is over, the team is planning to open a physical store in Kyiv. But they will still be delivering products across the country. 

In addition to employing people with disabilities, InvaFishky donates 10% of their profits to active rehabilitation camps. Currently, Vitaliy is the Executive Director of the NGO Active Rehabilitation Group.

“The approach to rehabilitation has changed. Previously, the main task was to put a person on feet. But now doctors understand that in most cases it is impossible to restore the condition 100%. So now the goal is to adapt the person to [such] life as much as possible. That's why we offer, for example, spoon accessories, so that a person can eat without assistance. Because only when basic needs are met, a person may want more  to study, to work, to build a family,” explains Vitaliy.

MAMA 1. A bakery for single mothers

The bakery operates at the shelter “Rukavychka”, home to women with children who have been in difficult circumstances or who have suffered domestic violence. The shelter is located in the village near the Dnipro River, and the cafe is in the center of the Dnipro city.

Within three years, over 50 mothers and more than 150 children received assistance there. Women study, work in a bakery and live in the shelter which is financed with profits. Residents leave the shelter when they can rent an apartment on their own, or live with their relatives or get a stable job.

Viktoria Fedotova runs the Martin-Club NGO which has been helping mothers and their children for 20 years. Because of the Donbas war, the organization moved from Donetsk to Dnipro.

A cafe bakery for single moms is located in the center of Dnipro, Ukraine. Photo provided to hromadske

Viktoria says that there are far fewer customers during the quarantine. The cafe sells out of the window, and volunteers who also work in the field of women's protection work instead of the usual staff.

“These are psychologists, people from the NGOs. They help for free, because in normal life we ​​all work in the same sphere, so we have to support one another,” says Viktoria.

Before Easter, the bakery had many orders – 400 Easter cakes and hundreds of servings of cookies. They also bake croissants, biscuits and meringues, and, since the quarantine started, bread. 

Often the clients are friends who want to support the project. Viktoria says that with so few orders, they will only survive for another month – the loans for the cafe were repaid before the quarantine, but utilities have to be paid, and they have to finance the shelter and pay the residents their wages.

Before Easter, the bakery had many orders. Photo provided to hromadske

“We are not the kind of business that can be repurposed overnight, or that can start doing webinars. We have been dealing with the problem for 20 years now, and women who live at our place have nowhere else to go  for example, we have people with mental disorders. They are not accepted into homeless shelters now. As a shelter we will hold out for a while, but as a business  I don't know,” says Viktoria.

The cafe is still delivering orders by mail or themselves. The project has no grants – only the bakery's income and donations.

/By Oksana Rasulova

/Translated by Vladyslav Kudryk