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Neither age, background nor war has stopped Serhiy Kuzmenko from setting up and developing his own business

At the age of 47, Serhiy Kuzmenko was already thinking ahead to retirement. But there was a problem.

"Retirement was on the horizon, but I had earned almost nothing to live on,” he says. “I had to worry not just about other people, but also about my own family.”

It was clear that radical changes were in order. But what was he to do?

Business instead of vacation

Kuzmenko, from Donetsk, had already seen upheaval in his life. A priest by calling, he was a chaplain in places of detention – prisons and penal colonies. The call to do such work comes from heart, though morally it is a difficult vocation, and hardly lucrative.

So in order to earn more money for his family, Kuzmenko would do odd jobs: He would do home repairs, and install water filter systems.

But then came war in 2014. When Russian separatist forces seized his native Donetsk, Kuzmenko’s family had to move to Dobropillya, a small town in the west of Donetsk Oblast that is on territory controlled by Ukraine. There Kuzmenko worked as a chaplain for several more years, and he and his wife managed to save up some money.

"My wife and I had a small amount of savings,” Kuzmenko says. “We dreamed of a vacation in Spain. But in the end we decided that it would be better to invest this money in a business. I had some experience in installing water purification systems. So we thought we could go into business in water purification on our own.”

With the money they’d saved, they rented some workspace and purchased equipment for water purification. They started by retailing bottled water, and then began a delivery service, suppling drinking water to offices and enterprises.

What kind of water do we drink?

Water purification involves a complicated, multi-stage process, says Kuzmenko. In addition to purely mechanical filtration, the water is put through ion-exchange systems to get rid of certain salts and organic sediments. Then the water goes through a process of reverse osmosis to remove extraneous odours and other contaminants. The resulting, distilled, “dead” water is then treated further through the addition of minerals that are useful for maintaining health.

"We use only naturally occurring minerals: calcium, sodium, and magnesium,” says Kuzmenko. “Thus, we get water that can be used not only for cooking, but also for drinking. It is balanced, full of minerals. In addition, we pass it through a silicon filter just for good measure.”

After a little more than a year of work, Kuzmenko's company had won some regular customers. Soon they were increasing in number and the company started to deliver well beyond Dobropillya. To speed up deliveries, the company needed another water treatment plant in another city – but that required a lot of capital.

So Kuzmenko decided to apply for a grant from the European Union’s EU4Business project, within its programme for supporting entrepreneurs in the east of Ukraine, which is implemented by UNDP, the United Nations Development Programme in Ukraine.

To win the grant, Kuzmenko drew up a business plan, presented it to the grant awards panel, and obtained about UAH 190,000 from European institutions.

"We added more money, 25% of the total sum we needed, and set up another workshop for water treatment in Novodonetske (a town about 20 kilometres to the north of Dobropillya),” says Kuzmenko. “We installed the necessary equipment for a full cycle of water filtration. That helped us a lot. We were able to significantly increase our production volumes."

The business also managed to hire two new employees, raising the total staff to six. This was important, because the company also had a social mission – to provide jobs for internally displaced people from the Russian-occupied parts of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. In addition, Kuzmenko spent part of the profit’s made by the company on helping temporarily displaced persons, large families and pensioners. He also provided them with drinking water for free.

By the beginning of this year, the company had managed to increase sales to more than 80 cooler bottles of drinking water per day ­– that's from 5,000 to 7,000 litres. They also planned to open a third workshop in Donetsk Oblast. But early on 24 February, Kuzmenko recalls, he got a telephone call from a friend with the words "Wake up, a full-scale war has begun!”

Fleeing war again

"My wife and I were still sleeping,” Kuzmenko says. “We woke up in a panic, but we pulled ourselves together and after two days we decided to move to Lviv. We thought the main hostilities would still happen in the Donbas.

Kuzmenko’s family was involved in volunteering. His wife administered a temporary accommodation centre for migrants in Lviv. Kuzmenko himself went to Kyiv Oblast and helped evacuate people from Bucha, Irpen, and Vorzel, which were occupied by invading Russian troops for most of March. He also delivered humanitarian aid there.

The business in Dobropillya, meanwhile, was still working, and the employees remained there. But in April, Kuzmenko returned, talked to them, and they decided to leave. There were no active hostilities, but the town was occasionally shelled by the Russians. The entrepreneur stripped all of his equipment from the workshops and moved it first to Lviv, and then to Kyiv.

Now Kuzmenko's family is settling down in the capital. Here they have already rented a space for a workshop, and they’re setting up a store in a residential complex. There they plan to sell water purification systems, bottled water under their own brand, Dzherela Zdorovia, along with health food products. Kuzmenko plans to apply to European Union programmes again to get money for new equipment to increase his production volumes. Most likely his family will stay in Kyiv, but they plan to restart the company’s operations in Dobropillya, as company employees and regular customers remain there. And soon, Kuzmenko says, they will definitely open a new office in their native Ukrainian Donetsk Oblast. After Ukraine’s victory, of course.

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