What to do when you can’t visit the field: MEDA’s first virtual trip to Ukraine

The image was taken pre-COVID.

Ladies and gentleman, this is your captain speaking…we are now approaching Kyiv, Ukraine where the time is 11:30 am. Please gather your belongings and prepare for landing. Please ensure your video camera is on and your mic is working properly. We look forward to spending time with you. My name is Bethany Shue Nussbaum, Sr. Development Officer at MEDA, and I will be your host on the first-ever virtual Zoom visit to Ukraine!

With international travel largely grounded this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we have missed spending time with our supporters through field experiences which demonstrate the impact of MEDA’s work to the supporters who make it all possible.

Enter our first-ever virtual field experience to our Ukraine Horticulture Business Development Project (UHBDP). This project is working to develop the horticultural sector and increase incomes for over 44,000 farmers, and small and medium-sized businesses in southern Ukraine. UHBDP bridges the gap between Ukraine’s elementary agricultural business practices and low yields with technological incentives, e-commerce platforms, and business skills training while also provide market linkages to increase yields and incomes.

The virtual trip spread over two days and included 15 supporters from across the USA and Canada. We were joined by Ukraine’s Country Director, Dmitriy Nikolaiev, 4 staff members from the Ukraine team, and our tour guide Leonard Friesen.

To welcome everyone to their first virtual experience and set the stage for the trip, each traveler received a box of Ukraine goodies in advance with items to be referenced and used throughout the trip such as tea, Ukrainian cookies, dried fruit, a travel booklet outlining MEDA’s project, and a candle to be lit for the closing tea ceremony.

“MEDA set the stage and mood with the food, tea, and travel box. I really felt that the experience in Ukraine was unfolding as if we just stepped off the bus,” said one traveler.

“Market development is a key activity for our team,” explained Dmitriy. “Smallholder farmers have multiple barriers that prevent them from accessing and participating in markets. MEDA aims to partner with smallholder farmers, increase their production volume to reach new markets, and improve their post-harvest and supply chain processes.”

Dmitriy speaks with passion about his work and is an expert that we trust, honor, and admire.

But it wasn’t the language lesson or the history of Ukraine or the breakout room “bus seat” conversations that the travelers loved most; it was having tea and conversation with several of our clients and learning directly from them about MEDA’s impact on their lives.

A multi-generational Ukrainian family of hardworking entrepreneurs crowded around a laptop to share their story of owning Saperavi Farms with our travelers. Their joy and passion for the work were evident.

For the Saperavi family, a sudden loss of local markets for their fruits and vegetables caused overproduction and a drastic decrease in price in 2014.

“We needed to quickly gain access to new markets for the business, but needed to change business models in order to do so,” explained Igor Zdaniuk, the owner and head of Saperavi.

Because the produce wasn’t selling, they had to build cooling chambers to service and preserve their goods. Now, instead of just selling fresh produce, they precool and freeze their berries for sale in the market.

In 2019, the Saperavi Farm was a recipient of a highly competitive MEDA grant of approximately $8,000 USD, which they used to expand their business capacity and purchase a “bubbling and washing machine” used to clean berries. Before the purchase of the berry washing machine, all the produce on the property was washed by hand; about 2 tons per shift. Now, they clean their produce 5 tons per shift and know they are adding real value to their goods with a more thorough cleaning process, readying them to be exported to foreign markets.

During this story, one of our attendees, Ed Nofziger swiftly left his office to welcome several colleagues to sit in on the virtual conversation. “This is just too cool,” Nofziger said of the opportunity to connect with the Saperavi family. “This is just wonderful.”

Raising our cups of hot tea to one another from across the world, connected by a MEDA’s mission and a Zoom link, there were many big and heartfelt smiles exchanged as the Saperavi Family signed off.

We sat for a moment with the knowledge of the gift that is technology and reflected how good it feels to connect with others even during a pandemic. Attendees departed our trip with a keen understanding of the vast economic and social impact that their support has, and how business is a sustainable and empowering solution to poverty.

Interested in learning more about our work in Ukraine? Read how one bee farmer is combating climate change, learn how one entrepreneur is dreaming big and adapting to change, and how our Ukraine project is supporting our clients navigate the COVID-19 pandemic.



  • Bethany Nussbaum

    Bethany is a Sr. Development Officer at MEDA in her 14th year of professional fundraising. She comes most recently from Central Christian School in Kidron, Ohio, where she provided leadership to fundraising and marketing efforts as advancement director. Prior to that, she served as development associate and communications coordinator at Mennonite Mission Network. Bethany earned her Bachelor of Arts in communication and public relations from Goshen College, a certificate in fundraising management from Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis, and her MBA, in leadership from Goshen College.

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