I wear many different hats in the Ukrainian community here in Canada, one of them as а member of the Board of the Canada Ukraine Chamber of Commerce (CUCC). In that capacity, last week I attended an investment trade show that featured some of the most dynamic companies from Ukraine showing off their impressive array of products and services to potential investors and clients here in Canada. These were as advanced, modern, high-tech, and innovative as any you will find here in North America, Europe, or for that matter anywhere in the world. The image of Ukraine being painted by these companies is one that your immigrant baba would have a tough time relating to.
Most of us Ukrainian Canadians, as the children or grandchildren of Ukrainian immigrants, have been bequeathed a somewhat distorted picture of our ancestral homeland, as being primarily a rustic, rural country, rich in agricultural and natural resources, but somewhat behind the more industrialized and modern nations of free world. Even when Ukraine became independent some decades ago, and we were finally able to freely visit our relatives, this image did not change much. That is because most of our older relatives in Ukraine still lived in the “selos”, the rural villages that formed the bedrock of the society and culture that our immigrant forebears came from.
I can remember my first visits in the early 1990’s to the “selos” that my parents came from. The houses had not changed much over the past century. Indoor plumbing was rare, water came from a well, and almost everybody kept cows, pigs and chickens to keep their families fed. Most of the labour on their small plots of land was back-breakingly manual, and the farmer that owned a horse was considered well-off. I can remember being ferried around the village in a horse-drawn wagon.
Of course, things were much more advanced in the larger towns and cities. For all the evils of the Soviet era, education and industrialization made huge advances in Ukraine during the past century. When Ukraine finally gained its freedom in 1991 there was a reasonably advanced base of industry, technology and skilled resources. Once the borders opened up, western expertise and investment capital created strong momentum for Ukraine to catch up with the rest of the free world, and to a large extent it has, far more than many of us realize.
While it is true that agriculture is still one of the largest pillars of the Ukrainian economy, this is agriculture that your baba would not recognize. Large farming enterprises in Ukraine make use of all the latest technologies including GPS, robotics, automated control systems, AI, genetic optimizations, sophisticated R & D labs, and much more. Ukraine is one of the world’s leading producers of wheat, corn, soy, canola, sunflower seeds and honey.
Over the past decade, Ukraine has also become one of the world leaders in outsourced IT software development. There are currently an estimated 50,000 software developers in Ukraine doing work for companies such as Microsoft, Google, Samsung, IBM, eBay, Oracle and many others. Ukrainian schools graduate almost 30,000 IT specialists every year.
Innovative Ukrainian companies manufacture products that are state of the art and are rapidly penetrating world markets. One interesting example I became aware of at the trade show last week was a company by the name of Kodisoft which manufactures smart interactive table tops for restaurants. By using touch sensitive surface controls, diners can order their meals, pay for them, play games, surf the net and engage in a wide variety of functions.
On a more practical level, a Vynnytsia based company by the name of UBC makes refrigeration equipment, beverage and draft beer dispensers and distribution systems that are marketed in over fifteen countries (including Canada) on three continents. Its client list includes such companies as Coca Cola, Heineken, Carlsberg and Molson Coors.
It is obvious that Ukraine is rapidly shedding its image as a stodgy third world country stuck in a Cold War era economy and is rapidly joining the ranks of some of the most advanced and modern countries in the global market for goods and services. Ukraine can compete with the best, and when Ukraine finally cleans up its political issues, the rest of the world better look out.