Ukraine is asking companies to invest in an unexpected area: minefields.
As the most mined country in the world according to the Ministry of Economic Development and Trade, Ukraine is seeking to develop a business model for demining by bringing in the profit motive to speed up a process that could span decades.
Ukrainian officials say about a third of the country’s territory is likely laden with landmines and unexploded ordnance, posing serious risks to civilians for years to come. State agencies and foreign charities currently do most of the demining, but at the rate the government’s 16 demining teams are working, 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 sector entrepreneurs and encourage innovation. The first test of its commercial demining initiative was at a site in central Ukraine on Wednesday, where three companies gave demonstrations of their methods for detecting and destroying mines.
“We need to look for different ways of how to remove mines from our territory,” said Yulia Sviridenko, Ukrainian Minister of Economy. “Otherwise, clearing the mines will take hundreds of years and we need to live and develop our economy now.”
The initiative covers mine clearance for humanitarian purposes, or the removal of mines that remain for years or decades after the end of battles. It is different from clearing mines during combat, which is a task performed only by the army.
Establishing a free market for demining is a priority for the Ministry of Economy. Its plan is for private landowners — farmers or local governments — to auction off contracts to clear their sites in forest or open field areas, which may involve varying degrees of difficulty and risk. The ministry now has 69 applications from private companies; When a company is approved, it can submit a proposal.
The initiative involves encouraging local innovations that create products for export to other countries affected by mines, rather than simply allowing Ukraine’s minefields to be used as a testing ground for existing foreign defense industry companies.
“Our goal is not to make money because we want to remove mines from our country,” said Ryabchenko Ruslan, a designer at the Postup Foundation, a group involved in the project. “But once the war is over, we will be able to export our technology” for mine clearance and other specialized applications, such as archaeology.
Among the proponents of this concept is Howard G. Buffett, the son of billionaire investor Warren Buffett and director of the global group Berkshire Hathaway. Mr. Buffett’s Younger Charitable Foundation supports demining efforts in Ukraine.
“It’s really important to create the environment in which people will try to provide their best services and the best innovations to accomplish that,” Buffett said.
Buffett said that in addition to saving lives, removing mines from farmland will play a role in reducing global food prices.
On Wednesday, Mr. Buffett met the first Ukrainian farmer to participate in a mine-clearing auction, and observed the three companies that were showcasing their work, including a display of drones designed to detect mines.
They were working in a field of dry, unharvested soybeans, surrounded by white and red ribbons and signs with small skulls warning of the danger of mines, a common sight in Ukraine. Deminers, using traditional methods of careful screening and walking with metal detectors, have been working in just this field for two months, clearing about 120 acres.
The drone detection presentation was intended for an industry in which no country wants to excel. However, it was a sad and hopeful moment at the same time. “You’ll see Ukraine lead the world” in such technologies, Buffett said.
“Infuriatingly humble analyst. Bacon maven. Proud food specialist. Certified reader. Avid writer. Zombie advocate. Incurable problem solver.”