How Canadian potato prowess could help bolster Ukraine’s economy

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At a potato warehouse in the Kyiv area, two PEI businessmen demonstrated some of the fruit of their efforts to improve Ukraine’s potato production and quality-control processes.Olga Ivashchenko/The Globe and Mail

In a cool, climate-controlled warehouse outside of Kyiv, former Prince Edward Island MP Wayne Easter picks up a potato from a large bin, explaining that they should be handled as carefully as you would eggs.

Mr. Easter and his business partner, Allan Parker – both of whom have experience in farming – have been working in Ukraine since last year, hoping to help the country bolster its economy and its future agriculture viability by investing in planting, harvesting and selling potatoes.

As they work to improve the quality of potatoes, which will ensure they get a better price for their crop, the two men are also helping to develop an official Ukrainian seed potato certification program for quality control. Eventually, they hope to bring in Canadian equipment and expertise. “We are trying to establish Canadian credibility on the ground in Ukraine, which would foster better trading relationships and hopefully raise the economy of both countries,” said Mr. Easter.

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Former MP Wayne Easter and Allan Parker are the president and director, respectively, of Razom Invest Canada Inc. The company was formed to help facilitate the export of Canadian goods, services and technology in support of Ukraine.

Mr. Easter, a long-time beef and dairy farmer before entering politics, said he was inspired to help Ukraine after attending the 2022 Rebuild Ukraine conference in Toronto, where Canadian businesses learned about investment opportunities in Ukraine. There, he heard Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal stress the importance of the economic front during wartime.

He and Mr. Parker, who has been in the potato business in Canada and abroad for decades, along with two other partners, created Razom Invest Canada Inc., which is headquartered in PEI.

Its mission is to establish an investment and trading platform that facilitates the export of Canadian goods, services and technology in support of Ukraine.

“Canada has to get its act together and get on with supporting business in Ukraine,” said Mr. Easter. “We’re on the ground here and we’ve seen some of the needs.”

Mr. Easter said there is an opportunity to improve the quality of potatoes in Ukraine, many of which go on sale full of cuts and bruises – a problem related to harvesting conditions, handling and storage.

Razom has brought in equipment from the Netherlands for their operation, but plan to introduce Canadian-made potato farming equipment, and find Ukrainian partners who want to buy licenses from Canadian manufacturers and build machinery in Ukraine.

Right now, the country’s operation involves importing potato seed from Scotland and planting the seed in western Ukraine. From there, the potatoes are brought to the storage facility in Kyiv region and then transported to a farm in Slavutych, near the border with Belarus, where they are washed and bagged before being taken to grocery stores.

Mr. Parker said a lot of potatoes harvested in Ukraine get damaged through the harvesting process, and Canadian equipment operated properly is going to minimize that.

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Mr. Easter and Mr. Parker hope to bring Canadian equipment and expertise to Ukraine, assisted by the PEI government, to get the potato industry up to a higher standard.

As with any business, start-up costs will mean it will take two to three years to get into profitable numbers, Mr. Easter said, but he added that they also believe there’s a longer-term value in showing support for Ukraine with on-the-ground business ventures.

Razom received $40,000 from the PEI government, which helped the company market Canadian expertise in Ukraine and fund overseas travel. Apart from that, the investment has come from the four partners.

Thomas Carpenter, the Irish-born head of Ukraine’s Potato Association, runs the farm in Slavutych where potatoes are brought to be washed and packed. He said the poor quality of potatoes in Ukraine supermarkets brought him to the country in the first place, and he’s encouraged by Razom’s initiatives. “If you understand potatoes, potatoes is like a drug, you can’t get them out of your system,” he laughed. “And when I see potatoes being damaged I nearly cry because there’s no need.”

Mr. Carpenter believes a country the size of Ukraine should not rely on Europe for seed. Having its own regulated seed production, he says, is important for food security, and he commends Mr. Easter and Mr. Allan for their help to establish that.

“They’re doing it for Ukraine. If you start a seed industry, that’s there for life, that’s there for many generations, many lifetimes.”

But they need financial help, Mr. Easter said, adding that he hopes the Canadian government will support their initiative.

If all goes according to plan, the construction of a campus to train scientists and technicians on how to create high quality seed, would start in 2025, and closely resemble programs in Europe and Canada.

The program would mean crop inspections, post-harvest tests for viruses, and bagged potatoes would have an official seal, guaranteeing they meet a certain quality.

“It would give Ukraine the opportunity to sell certified seed potatoes to the rest of the world, and it would give Ukrainian farmers the assurance that when they are buying potato seed to plant, it is of the variety stated and the quality required for good production free of diseases and viruses,” Mr. Easter said.

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Ukrainian legislator Dmytro Natalukha’s work on the potato project is part of a larger strategy to bring investment that can strengthen his country.

Dmytro Natalukha, a member of Ukraine’s parliament and chairman of the economic affairs committee, said he met Mr. Easter and Mr. Allan at the Rebuild Ukraine conference. Part of his job, he said, is to persuade businesses to consider Ukraine as a place of opportunity.

Mr. Natalukha said he believes that once the war is over there will be “an incredible pilgrimage” to Ukraine of all kinds: business, religious, scientific and tourist.

For this reason, he said, businesses established before the war ends will have an advantage over others because they can discover opportunities, make connections, and help shape industries.

Investing now is also important in the country’s fight, Mr. Natalukha said, and shows Ukrainians that others support their nation’s future. He said that while not all businesses that invest in Ukraine are critical, the fact that they’re here sends a strong message.

“I think this war has shown us who the enemy is by all means, but now it’s also showing us who a true friend is – and this is precisely an example, people who are not afraid to share the risks with us because they’re risking as well.”

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