Ukrainian co-operators: “We are not ordinary people any more”

Co-op developers in the war-torn country share experiences as support from global co-op community increases

The 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine has seen many deaths and hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians fleeing the country. On 1 March two co-op developers shared their experiences from within Ukraine in an interview with, describing a “catastrophic situation” for agricultural co-ops in the country.

Sofia Burtak and Iryna Volovyk are members of Cooperative Academy, which promotes and develops co-ops in Ukraine with a focus on agriculture. Ms Burtak told Sarah Vicari of “Right now our producers are stuck with the produce and no channel to actually sell [it on], and no means actually for their life.”

Ms Burtak said some farmers are now under occupation and cannot proceed with production, and others have had to flee their homes. She added: “Agriculture production is very tied to the land and you cannot put your land in your bag. So that’s why the co-operative movement is in a very catastrophic situation right now.”

Over the past 10 years, Cooperative Academy has been supporting Ukrainian co-ops through the development of a network of marketing channels, to increase market access and get better prices for small scale producers.

Iryna Volovyk said: “It’s not just a catastrophic situation for economics and for agri-business – it’s a catastrophic situation for [everyone] … Nobody can imagine that it can happen, in one morning, you just wake up [to] war. Rockets, bombs, everything.”

Ms Volovyk said the Russian army is destroying “everything, not just economics. They destroy people’s values, all over the world. So I would like to share with co-operatives all over the world – this is true. I’m here. I live here with my parents in Dnipro…. it’s true.”

Ms Burtak said the action that needs to be taken right now to support Ukrainian farmers is local. “We need more ideas and facilities to process production very locally, at least in the places where it is safe. For example, if we have local farmers of dairy production, we need to process their milk – we cannot transport it or do any kind of logistics. But we need to process it right away, to a product which can be stored for longer than milk can … And then we will think more globally at the level of the federation of the co-operative, how we can market or how we can supply the food where it is needed.”

Ms Burtak also outlined a need for expertise around crisis management as well as material support and investment to keep small producers in Ukraine alive.

Ms Volovyk said it is important to share the stories of ordinary people working in Ukrainian co-ops, but warned: “After these six days, they are not ordinary people. I feel that they are heroes, because they are staying, to earn money, to feed their families, to heal their communities, to protect communities and to share food with people, with refugees and with military soldiers. So we are really heroes, we are not ordinary people any more.”

Copa-Cogeca, which represents farmers and agricultural co-ops in Europe, released a statement on the Russian invasion of Ukraine and its implications for EU agriculture on Monday 28 February, later shared by Cooperative Academy. In it, Copa-Cogeca urged EU decision-makers to act “decisively and swiftly” to preserve European agriculture by safeguarding food security and supply chains in Ukraine. Ukraine is the EU’s fourth-largest external food supplier, providing the EU with 25% of its cereal and vegetable oil imports, including almost half of its maize.

A statement was also made by Cooperatives Europe president, Susanne Westhausen, on 1 March, calling for peace and diplomatic solutions to the crisis: “As the pan-European association of co-operatives, with members not only in Ukraine but also Russia, Cooperatives Europe is convinced that this collaboration surmounts political or cultural barriers, enhancing prosperity and strengthening security. But our co-operation relies on a stable international community, based on rules and principles that should not be undermined.”

Cooperatives Europe said it is in contact with local organisations to provide support for Ukraine’s displaced people, and “calls upon co-operators all over Europe and worldwide to initiate efforts to provide humanitarian aid and support for those affected by this war”.

Crises like this are the true test of international co-operation, said Ms Burtak. “We had a lot of alliances in the world. We had a lot of international agreements, but in real life, with these kinds of conditions, they didn’t stand. That’s why it’s a big exam for all international alliances and all international organisations.”

The Japanese Consumers’ Co-operative Union (JCCU) also released a statement on 1 March, in which JCCU’s CEO Hiroyuki Shimada said: “As citizens of Japan, the only nation hit by atomic bombs, we cannot condone the fact that Russian president Vladimir Putin has suggested the use of nuclear weapons in this series of events. We express our strong concern as the Japanese consumer co-operative that has been working for world peace and the abolition of nuclear weapons, which is the common wish of the people of the A-bombed country. 

“In its ‘Founding Declaration’, JCCU states ‘For peace and better life’. We reaffirm the preciousness and importance of our daily life and hope that the citizens of Ukraine and also the people of Russia who do not necessarily support this military invasion will get back their daily life as soon as possible. To this end, we call on the international community to do its utmost through dialogue and diplomacy.”

Other global co-op responses have come from members of the International Cooperative and Mutual Insurance Federation (ICMIF), showing support in different ways. Finnish ICMIF member LähiTapiola has donated EUR 300,000 to the Finnish Red Cross and Unicef to help those affected by the war, and Danish ICMIF member LB Forsikring announced on 1 March that it has expanded the coverage on its contents and liability insurance so that displaced Ukrainians who move in with one of the insurer’s policyholders will also be covered.

Meanwhile German ICMIF member R+V Versicherung provides non-contributory insurance cover to refugees and volunteers who are working with them.

“For us as a co-operative company, it goes without saying that we will make a contribution and support people,” said Klaus Endres, executive board member at R+V Versicherung. “That is why R+V offers an unbureaucratic solution: refugees who are taken in by R+V customers in the same household are automatically included in private liability, residential building and household contents insurance.” Displaced Ukrainians who live in the same household as an R+V customer are automatically insured. 

The insurer and its employees have also donated more than €800,000 for the victims of the Ukraine war.

On 1 March, ICMIF made a statement on Twitter, saying: “We stand in solidarity with the people of Ukraine. Key mutual and cooperative values include democracy, equality, equity, and solidarity, as well as social responsibility and caring for others. These values are fundamentally violated by war. #PeaceforUkraine.”

In the US, a fundraising drive has also been set up by the National Co+op Grocers (NCG), Cooperative Development Foundation (CDF) and NCBA CLUSA. NCG has pledged a 100% match for donations up to USD$100,000 made by the food co-op retail system, and CDR has also committed funds to support Ukrainian co-ops in need. 

In an email to NCBA CLUSA’s CEO, Doug O’Brien, the board chair of COOP Ukraine, Illia Gorokhovskyi, said: “The sense of support and solidarity we feel from around the world gives us strength … Despite these circumstances, consumer cooperatives are making efforts to provide the population with the necessities of life – primarily food – and delivering them to where they are most needed.” 

The number of people fleeing Ukraine since Russia’s invasion has been on the rise. In response to the humanitarian crisis, FairBnB is creating a platform to connect potential hosts and displaced Ukrainians. The co-op is currently looking for NGOs and people working for national authorities who can pre-register to help. Those wishing to register can do so at A platform co-op, FairBnb is an alternative platform for person-to-person vacation rentals.

Fund launched by Ukrainian co-operators 10 March

On 10 March, Sofia Burtak and Iryna Volovyk from Cooperative Academy launched an online fundraiser to help agricultural co-ops in Ukraine. They have used the funding platform because it allows funds to be collected in polish currency (ZŁ) and is not currently taking a commission for crowdfunding for Ukraine.

The money collected will be spent on equipment to support co-ops continuing to work during the crisis as well as supplies to help the Ukrainian community stay safe in the bomb shelters.