My one-on-one interactions with people across the country, has borne out what some reports on Ukraine state. There are strong and divergent sentiments among different regions and communities. A simplistic analysis may state that the Ukrainians are mainly divided along linguistic or geographical lines – this is not the case on the ground.

                                                             A soldier walks past a toy vendor in front of the Kiev Central Railway Station.
                                                             (Photo Courtesy: Ekaterina Oganesian, Kiev, May 8, 2015)

Learning that my Kiva Fellowship would be in Ukraine, some well-meaning friends and associates shared their thoughts about people in Ukraine being quite insular, and not necessarily friendly to foreigners. My experience was the exact opposite. Right across the country, I found strangers and others I interacted with to be kind, warm-hearted and very hospitable.
From the stunning landscapes, the woods, streams and overall natural beauty, the history and heritage, Ukraine is a blessed country. Its greatest wealth is its potential.
Riding on trains and buses across different oblasts (regions), and seeing greenhouses, farms and fields of all types and sizes, it is clear that Ukraine’s reputation as a breadbasket is well-deserved. People with the help of their kids preparing plots of land is a common sight, even in urban areas, and agriculture is part of the DNA of the country.
Despite the many challenges with costs of inputs rising in tandem with the Hryvnia’s devaluation, Kiva borrowers I met were confident that their farming businesses had a good future. With 30% of world’s fertile black soil, agribusiness will form the bedrock of prosperity for Ukraine, as reforms take effect. 

A Kiva borrower’s greenhouse in Oroseyvo, Western Ukraine, planted with cucumber in early April 2015

Interesting? …….Very…..even intriguing, perhaps.
Sometime ago, a Ukrainian magazine profiled an old lady. She was born in Austria, grew up in Hungary, was educated in Poland, worked in the Soviet Union and retired in Ukraine…….and all the while, she had never left her village in Western Ukraine.
The random list of Kiva borrowers which I needed to verify, was spread out across Ukraine. Visiting museums, castles & cathedrals, interacting with people and reading up on the country, gives one a flavour of the diversity and depth of Ukraine. The ongoing war is a part of old fault-lines playing out, and despite the current troubles, I see a bright future for Ukraine.

Exchange rates on 24th February, 2015, the day I arrive to start my Kiva Fellowship in Ukraine……….

1 USD to the Hryvnia at 11am......

…….at 5.30pm, after the Central Bank frantically intervenes

One of my predecessor Kiva Fellows, started a blog of his by wondering whether Ukraine needed microfinance. On the late February evening when I arrived in Kiev to start my Fellowship, the same thought crossed my mind while on the drive from Boryspil airport to my hotel, as I observed the good infrastructure and the general veneer of well-being and comfort.
In the course of the next few months, the need to support traders, farmers and other borrowers through well directed lending became apparent. The on-going war, with over a million internally displaced Ukrainians, only accentuates the need for this support.
Access to finance is a challenge, especially in the rural areas, and the Kiva lending community’s loans are critical in helping a diverse group of Ukrainians improve their well-being and realize their potential.
Not being able to speak a word of Ukrainian or Russian, I was advised to approach younger people in case I got stuck – assuming there was a better chance that the younger folk would understand a bit of English. This did work on occasion, and even then, only in the cities. 
My lack of diligence in learning a few useful words/phrases in Ukrainian/Russian came to a head in a café in Truskavets, while on a Borrower Verification exercise. The menu was only in Ukrainian, nobody understood English, and after much trying and sign language, the waitress and I communicated the order through animal impersonations……..which fortunately, is a universal language.

About the author

Charles Selestine

Hailing from eastern Malaysia, Charles has travelled extensively in the course of his studies and work. As a means of understanding and absorbing values from different cultures, he has worked in seven countries and speaks six languages. Most of his career has been within financial services, garnering multi-functional experience in wealth management. Combining his keen interest in social finance and Islamic finance, Charles researched Islamic Microfinance as an investable asset class, as part of his Master’s course. Most recently, Charles served as a Senior Product Manager with the Private Banking division of Barwa Bank, one of four Islamic banks in Qatar. He holds an MA in Islamic Banking Finance and Management from the University of Gloucestershire, and a B Com (Finance) from Loyola College, University of Madras. His wide range of qualifications include certifications in Islamic Finance and Investments.