Read caption Igor Rishko's family produces nearly 1.5 tonnes of various cheeses a month, which they sell across Ukraine, thanks to a business start-up grant from NRC. Photo: Anastasiia Karpilianska/NRC

Rebuilding their lives on Ukraine’s frontline

Anastasiia Karpilianska|Published 15. Jun 2018
“If someone had told me four years ago that I would become a cheesemaker, I would never have believed it,” a smiling Ihor Rishko, 34, says.

Just a few years ago, Rishko operated a cargo transport business in eastern Ukraine’s Luhansk city. The armed conflict that erupted there in 2014, however, turned his family’s life upside down.

The violent conflict has displaced more than three million, both inside and outside Ukraine. About 800, 000 of them have permanently relocated to government-controlled areas. Many Ukrainians, especially those living along the frontlines, lack basic services, including healthcare. Likewise, employment is scarce, and people often lack adequate food or shelter.

Ihor lost both his home and his business in the conflict, leaving his family no other choice than to flee.

Forced to move from city to city

“As the fighting became more intense, it became much harder to get out of the city. We had to leave most of our belongings behind. We had to start from scratch,” he recounts.

While his wife looked after their one-year old daughter, Rishko struggled to find a stable job that could provide for the family, causing the family to move from city to city in search of a steady income. After a year of unsuccessful job hunting, the high cost of housing forced he and his family to travel to his wife’s parents’ home in Stanytsia Luhanska, a town on the frontline. But the small village had few jobs to offer.

A new start

“Initially I was helping my father-in-law with his trucking work, but after a while I realised that I needed to have my own business,” Rishko says.

Shortly after, he started producing dairy products.

“At the time, it seemed like a lot for me. We made sour cream, butter and cottage cheese, and travelled 45 kilometres to sell the products at the market, but I soon understood that there were no prospects for growth.” He then went on to make sulguni, a popular Georgian brined cheese.

His first customer was a café franchise owner, who soon became a regular, followed by cheese sales on the internet, where they attracted more customers from other regions of Ukraine.

As the demand for cheese was growing, the family business struggled to keep up. To increase productivity they needed to buy expensive equipment, which proved too high for the small family.


Read caption Igor makes sulguni, a popular Georgian brined cheese. Photo: Anastasiia Karpilianska/NRC


An opportunity for self-sufficiency

Our Ukraine country programme supports displaced people with grants to boost small agricultural businesses in frontline areas.

“We applied for the grant, but it is fair to say that I did not expect it would be possible to receive such support for free,” he says.

“Later on, NRC's representatives made a visit to see how they could support us. I had a clear business plan. When I finally received a grant, I added my savings and bought equipment necessary for cheese production.”.

Today, Rishko's family produces nearly 1.5 tonnes of various cheeses a month, which they sell across Ukraine.

Now, the patriarch looks forward to expanding the family business.

“I am not yet an experienced cheesemaker; I am still learning. For now I basically make soft cheeses, but I am planning to expand my product range and I am trying to produce hard-pressed cheeses too,” Rishko says.     

NRC’s early recovery activities

As part of our early recovery activities, we support the internally displaced and families living close to the frontline to boost their small or micro business. This stimulates economic growth at the household and community levels in Luhansk region, eastern Ukraine.

Since May of 2017, 974 displaced and conflict-affected local residents have received livelihood grants from $1,000 to $4,000 USD to start or restart their own small or micro business. With this assistance, conflict-affected families acquire a stable income, allowing them to transition away from a dependence on humanitarian aid. To promote a smooth business start-up, our lawyers provide legal advice on how to register a business and pay taxes.

This project is co-funded by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Swedish International Development Agency.