Ukraine is asking companies to invest in an unlikely arena: landmines.
As the world’s most mined country, according to its Ministry of Economic Development and Trade, Ukraine is seeking to develop a business model from demining with the profit motive to speed up a process that could stretch for decades.
Ukrainian officials say a third of the country may be littered with landmines and unexploded ordnance, posing a grave danger to civilians in the coming years. Government agencies and foreign charities are currently conducting demining operations, but at the rate the government’s 16 certified demining teams are operating, they say it will take hundreds of years to clear the country.
So the Ministry of Economic Development of Ukraine is trying to attract private entrepreneurs and encourage innovation. The first test of its commercial demining initiative was on Wednesday at a site in central Ukraine, with three companies demonstrating their methods for detecting and destroying mines.
“We need to look for different ways of demining our land,” said Ukraine’s Economy Minister Yulia Sviridenko. “Otherwise, demining will take hundreds of years. We should live now and develop our economy.”
This effort involves humanitarian demining, or the removal of mines that persist for years or decades after wars end. This is different from demining during war – a job only done by the military.
Creating a free market for demining is a priority of the Ministry of Economy. Its plan calls for private landowners — farmers or local governments — to auction off contracts to sell their sites in forested areas or open spaces, which poses various difficulties and risks. The ministry now has 69 applications from private companies; Once a company is certified, it can bid.
Rather than allowing established foreign defense industry companies to use Ukraine’s mines as a testing ground, the initiative includes incentives for domestic innovation to create products for export to other countries struggling with mines.
“Our goal is not to make money because we want to demine our country,” said Riabchenko Ruslan, a designer at the Postup Foundation, a group participating in the project. “But once the war is over, we can export our technology to other key applications such as demining and archaeology”.
Howard G., son of billionaire investor Warren Buffett and director of Berkshire Hathaway. Buffett is one of those who support this idea. Young Mr. Buffett’s charitable foundation supports demining efforts in Ukraine.
“It is very important to create an environment where people try to bring their best services and best innovations,” said Mr. Buffett said.
Beyond saving lives, demining farmland can play a role in reducing global food prices, Mr. Buffett said.
On Wednesday, Mr. Buffett met and observed three companies touting their work, including providing drones designed to detect landmines.
They worked in a dry, unharvested soybean field with white and red ribbons and small skulls, a common sight in Ukraine. Demining experts have been clearing around 120 acres in this one field for two months, using traditional methods of careful inspection and walking with metal detectors.
The presentation for drone detection was for an industry that no country wanted to excel at. However, it was a sad and hopeful moment. “You’re going to see Ukraine leading the world” in such technologies, Mr. Buffett said.