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She's got it 12:25 21 Mar 2023

Microgreens and long-term storage meals: displaced entrepreneur building a business amid war

On February 24, 2022, they were the only suppliers who brought products to Kharkiv supermarkets in the morning. Tetiana Chernikova and her sister Valentyna are co-founders of the city farm for growing microgreens and the enterprise for producing meals with long-term storage Green for You.

In 2016, after moving from Donetsk to Kharkiv, Chernikova decided to develop her own business. Despite not knowing any details at the beginning, in two years, they grew into a solid microgreens supplier to the city's largest supermarkets.

Plans, perspectives, and training captivated them and took them on a wave of entrepreneurship. But 2022 was the year they lost their future for the second time due to war. Then, in 2014, when russia started its aggression in the east of Ukraine, Chernikova did not believe that she would have to leave her home. This time, she realized all the inevitability and horror of reality.

Тетяна Чернікова

Source: Tetiana Chernikova's personal archive

Rubryka tells the story of an IDP entrepreneur who, despite being deprived of her home for the second time due to the war, is building a business and looking for ways of development in a small village in the Poltava region.

Donetsk — Kharkiv: a two-year road

Today, Tetiana Chernikova lives with her family in the village of Orzhytsia in the Poltava region in central Ukraine. She moved here from Kharkiv after the start of the full-scale invasion. It was a second move for Chernikova, since in 2014, she moved from occupied Donetsk. Then, in 2016, after moving from Donbas, she and her sister Valentyna decided they needed to work for themselves despite having neither experience running their own business nor a starting capital. Their only wish was to develop, get back on their feet, and start a family business.

"I was born in Horlivka, the Donetsk region, but I moved to Donetsk after getting married. My children were born there, and I worked there as a supermarket manager. I did not take the events of 2014 seriously at first. I was too busy with a job and a newborn baby. I thought that our government would settle everything and there would be no conflict. And then, when the military operations started in Slovyansk, a little more than 100 km from Donetsl, I felt anxious."

Events developed quickly, and the war came to Donetsk. My sister and her family left for Kharkiv almost immediately. And the Chernikov family lived under shelling for another two years. The chain of stores where the woman worked was closed, and the family was struggling financially. The couple had to rent apartments in different city areas and constantly move away from shellings. Chernikova recalls:

"In 2016, I was pregnant again. And at some point, I realized I did not want my children to live there. People with weapons on the streets became the new reality, and we could not feel free. My sister told me everything is completely different in Kharkiv. It was peaceful and calm there. Therefore, we dared to leave immediately after my second child's birth."

The entrepreneur says she was shocked by how warmly they were welcomed in their new home. People helped, asked if something was needed, and supported. At first, the two families settled together, but almost immediately, Chernikova started thinking about what to do next. They wanted to create their own family business, albeit a small one.

"Girls, everything will work out! You have a great idea"

The sisters did not have money for an active and confident start. But they believed finances would be found if the idea was worthy and justified. At that time, Tetiana and Valentyna were planning to enter the agricultural market.

The entrepreneurs started to study the market: what is available, the suppliers, where what is grown, and how it is consumed. They researched markets and supermarkets, both retail and wholesale stores. And then, they realized they had a chance in the segment of microgreens.
"We thought that we could surprise people with this particular product, and the threshold for entering the market is not that high," shares Chernikova.

Microgreens are young sprouts of vegetable plants and herbs. They are harvested immediately after the first two leaves have grown. They are used as taste and aesthetic ingredients for dishes. Tetiana and Valentyna realized there was a niche in the market for such products, which was their chance.

бізнес в умовах війни

Source: Tetiana Chernikova's personal archive

Of course, in addition to finances, the sisters also lacked knowledge. They found a 10-day program that could help them fill that knowledge gap — and off they went to learn.

"It was a training program for budding entrepreneurs from one of the funds. There we created our first-ever business plan. At the same time, we realized that we would start with the cultivation of microgreens because it is easier and cheaper than other options for agricultural production. We did not receive financial support, but the project mentors encouraged us to develop. We were told: "Girls, everything will work out! You have a great idea."

Tetiana shares that the most difficult thing was the money issue — the sisters did not have a financial cushion to invest in the business. In addition, it was necessary to provide for two families: rent apartments and somehow live in a big city. But the solution found them — a friend offered them a small greenhouse to use.

бізнес в умовах війни

Source: Tetiana Chernikova's personal archive, photo: Nakypelo media outlet

"We took her offer and rented a house with a plot of land near Kharkiv. There were 30 acres of land there, but that's not bad for a start. And so in the summer of 2018, we began to grow microgreens."

Later, the businesswomen won a grant to build another greenhouse and were able to expand production to a larger scale. But the technology was not so simple — especially for beginners. Growing something once is one thing, but establishing a regular production and maintaining the range, volume, and continuity of cultivation is an entirely different matter. But over time, the sisters mastered this science.

бізнес в умовах війни

Source: Tetiana Chernikova's personal archive, photo — Ukrinform

Chernikov sisters established year-round cultivation of microgreens: equipped greenhouses with heating systems and implemented automated control of lighting, watering, and heating processes.

The sisters were constantly looking for where and from whom they could learn. They attended the greenhouse economy school in Khmelnytskyi and met a microgreen producer who shared his experience and taught them how to grow microgreens on an industrial scale.

"When the production was more or less settled, we went to the owners of Kharkiv restaurants and offered them our products. They were already familiar with the product and ordered salad mixes from us to decorate dishes. But we wanted more — be represented in the supermarkets," Chernikova shares.

бізнес в умовах війни

Source: Green for You Facebook page

Tetiana remembers the first time she saw her products on the shelf of a large store:

"It flashed in my head: 'Wow! Such a cool supermarket took us!' This success motivated the sisters to take further steps.

бізнес в умовах війни

Source: Tetiana Chernikova's personal archive

Entrepreneurs began to enter other supermarket chains, offering salad mixes of different compositions for sale. Quite quickly, all major chains of Kharkiv supermarkets became their customers. In addition, Green for You products were also presented in national chains of grocery stores.

"At the end of 2022, we were selling about 500 kilograms of products per month. This is not much for a producer of ordinary greens, but for microgreens, such volumes are huge."

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Source: Green for You Facebook page. Radish microgreens

The next step for the business partners was to expand the assortment and open a line for the production of salad dressings. They wrote a business plan and won a grant from USAID Agro, which provided funds to install a professional kitchen to produce a wider range of products.

"In 2021, we wrote an application, and at the beginning of 2022, we already started to receive equipment, rented premises, and made repairs there. We were ready to start production. But February changed everything," says Chernikova.

"This is the time when we can help people"

On February 24, 2022, all plans disappeared, and once again, the settled life fell apart at the seams. For the second time, the sisters' families experienced war. But the businesswomen quickly got their bearings and began to act. Chernikova recalls:

"We waited on the first day of the war. And on the second, we went to see what was left of the greenhouse. The heating was off, but the greens were not completely frozen yet. We began to cut what remained, pack and take it to supermarkets. The staff was stunned because we were the first supplier to arrive."

There were no further orders, but the sisters did not want to throw away the fruits of their labor. Although it was very scary, they harvested under shelling and took the greens to volunteer kitchens.

Many restaurants, our clients, have become volunteer hubs. They started preparing food and delivering it to bomb shelters, the subway, the military, and hospitals.

"We supplied them with our greens. People should receive vitamins, and this may make them feel better," Chernikova explains.

At first, the businesswomen delivered greens, and later they began volunteering in the kitchen. Many people left, and there were not enough hands. While Chernikova was volunteering, her children and mother were sitting in a bomb shelter. Neighbors were moving out, and fewer and fewer people— especially with children — remained in the city. Therefore, after two weeks, the Chernikov family also decided to evacuate from Kharkiv. They went to the village of Orzhytsia in the Poltava region because they had acquaintances there who helped Valentyna's sister leave Donetsk in 2014.

So Chernikova, her children, and her husband moved to a new place. But Tetiana's sister and her family stayed in Kharkiv. Valentyna continues to work in greenhouses and volunteer. Even before the full-scale war, the sisters started the NGO "Greenlandia," which supports families with children with disabilities. They teach children with Down syndrome how to grow microgreens and prepare light meals from greens.

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Source: Green for You Facebook page. Workshop for children with Down syndrome

"When the war started, we realized that this is when we can help people. And Valya stayed in Kharkiv — she has continued to develop our organization and supported the operation of the greenhouses. And I moved to Orzhytsia and am setting up production here."

"We are re-settlers with experience." A new development direction of Green for You. Food

Arriving in Orzhytsia, Chernikoa almost immediately turned to the local authorities for help finding a place. She decided to move the equipment they bought with grant money and set up production in the Poltava region. Premises were found and rented on preferential terms, and a production line was installed. But the production of salad dressings was out of the question — now was not the time.

бізнес в умовах війни

Source: photo from the archive of Tetiana Chernikova

"We are displaced people with experience, so we perfectly understand how it is to live under shelling, without gas, electricity, water. And when thinking about what products to make, I chose something that could help people in such difficult times — ready-made food in a package for long-term storage," the businesswoman shares.

бізнес в умовах війни

Source: photo from the archive of Tetiana Chernikova

Thanks to sterilization, food in retort pouches is suitable for consumption for a long time. It can be stored even without special conditions. Tetiana says these packages are designed according to military standards, and dry rations are stored in them.

"We bring the dishes to a half-ready state, pack them in these pouches, and then sterilize them in an autoclave. Thus, food can be stored in them for up to two years. It's basically like home canning. For example, we have a line of jams, apple juice, zucchini, beet caviar, and pickles. We also make main dishes: rice, buckwheat porridge, cabbage rolls with mushrooms and meat, vinaigrette, and dumplings," explains Chernikova.

бізнес в умовах війни

Source: photo from the archive of Tetyana Chernikova

Green for You. Food focused on traditional Ukrainian dishes. They started working already at the beginning of the summer of 2022 — when the vegetable season opened and the first cucumbers and zucchini riped. They purchased the vegetables from the population and tested the technology, creating the recipes. Later, the company began to produce porridges, cabbage rolls, and jams.

Mainly, Chernikova focuses on charitable, volunteer, and non-governmental organizations that buy such products to distribute to people as humanitarian aid. They also sell food through their own website. Chernikova shares that now their task is to develop marketing and tell people about themselves:

"Such a product has the right to be famous. We work with designers and develop the site and social networks. Our task is to reach a retail buyer. Because in today's conditions, every Ukrainian is looking for opportunities to provide themself with what is necessary for extreme conditions. And our products are created for this purpose."

бізнес в умовах війни

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Source: photo from the archive of Tetiana Chernikova

Chernikova is planning expansion, launching a new workshop, and establishing work with trade networks. She says that now there is more work than ever — after all, who will help the Ukrainians if not themselves?

The article was prepared with the assistance of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting

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