London: In the European ski resort of Davos, nestled in the Swiss Alps, the wealthy and willing had gathered to hear a rousing speech from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and discuss what they, as private individuals, could do to aid his cause.
After a standing ovation, it was Andrew Forrest, introduced to the gathering as one of the world’s most successful businessmen, who sprung to his feet and issued a rallying call to his fellow influential corporate leaders.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky meets with Andrew Forrest in Kyiv.
“We have a food crisis that will overwhelm the energy crisis heading our way,” the Australian mining magnate warned in May.
He offered to lead an effort to establish an international investment group for Ukraine as soon as tensions died down and projected that a public call for funds could raise around $100 billion. But first, he said, Vladimir Putin needed to make an “unselfish decision” and stop blocking food supplies from leaving the Black Sea and prevent millions of people from starving.
Weeks later the executive chairman of Fortescue Metals Group, determined to put his vast resources and networks to good use, had talked his way into a face-to-face meeting with Zelensky in the presidential palace in Kyiv. The meeting was supposed to be brief, but it went for over an hour and was followed by several phone calls in the following days.
Storage and shipping, Zelensky told Forrest, were the two critical things needed to save his country’s record harvest and help feed an increasingly starving world.
Zelensky and Forrest met for over an hour in the presidential palace.
So, when The Brave Commander, a Lebanese-flagged freighter, left Ukraine’s Yuzhny Port on Wednesday morning, Forrest was a relieved man. The shipment of 23,000 metric tonnes of wheat grain is the first for humanitarian needs out of the conflict-hit country.
The vessel is bound for Djibouti, in the Horn of Africa, where the threat of famine stalks the drought-hit region. It will eventually make its way to Ethiopia, one of many nations around the world where the near complete halt of Ukrainian grain and food on the global market has made life even harder for families already struggling with rising hunger.
Forrest and wife Nicola’s Minderoo Foundation pledged $1.8 million to the United Nations World Food Program to enable the chartering of a bulk carrier vessel. They have handed over a further $4.21 million to address the ongoing grain storage crisis in the country, where the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, is coordinating with the Ukrainian Ministry of Agrarian Policy and Food to target grain and oil seed producers with temporary and permanent solutions.
The Forrests’ charity, plus contributions from former Goodwill Ambassador Howard G. Buffett and governments around the world are aiming to cover an estimated 4.07 million tonnes, or 25 per cent of the estimated additional storage needed by farmers in strategic locations this year.
“We have a food crisis that will overwhelm the energy crisis heading our way.”
“I have a fundamental view in situations like this that all of us should do what we can with what we have,” Forrest, universally known as “Twiggy” says. “And I feel a responsibility to do that.”
“This is tangible stuff. Stopping that grain rotting so it can eventually go to nations who are in real trouble is so important and something that can be solved if we direct our efforts towards it.”
Nicola says that people across the world are “going hungry and suffering unnecessarily” through no fault of their own. “We hope our support helps to alleviate this.”
Ukrainian grain is estimated to have fed 400 million people last year, however, a blockade by Russian forces has left 345 million people in 82 countries facing acute food insecurity while up to 50 million people in 45 countries, mostly in the Middle East and Africa, are on the edge of famine and risk being tipped over without humanitarian support.
The Brave Commander bulk carrier makes its way from the Pivdennyi Seaport near Odesa.Credit:AP
Last month, Russia and Ukraine signed an agreement to free millions of tonnes of grain stuck in blockaded Black Sea ports, a deal with global implications for bringing down high food prices and alleviating shortages and a mounting hunger crisis.
“Getting the Black Sea Ports open is the single most important thing we can do right now to help the world’s hungry,” UN food program executive director David Beasley said. “It will take more than grain ships out of Ukraine to stop world hunger, but with Ukrainian grain back on global markets we have a chance to stop this global food crisis from spiralling even further.”
Forrest has been outspoken in his support for Ukraine since war broke out on February 24. In March, he referred to Putin as “a murderer” who was trying to “take an entire other country for his personal ambition” and urged his fellow chief executives and investors to “get out” of Russia and stop taking “blood money”. It earned him a place among Moscow’s blacklist of Australians.
Having grown up on a remote Australian cattle station before building a career in investment banking, mining and agriculture, Forrest has felt a natural affinity with Ukraine’s farmers.
The seed to help was originally sown during a conversation with Mathias Cormann, a fellow West Australian who is now secretary-general of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, a forum of 38 member developed economies founded to stimulate economic progress and world trade, in Paris in March.
Cormann had heard Forrest was looking to help Ukraine in any way he could and suggested he put his efforts towards solving the food security challenges, especially for the world’s poorest, caused by the war. At first, the pair spoke about helping to gather farm machinery from neighbouring Europe, before meetings with members of the Ukrainian cabinet, and agriculture ministry officials changed that path.
“Keeping its production levels up in the current very difficult circumstances and getting its agricultural products to market is important for Ukraine, but is even more important for food security,” Cormann said. “This has been a very challenging and evolving situation, but it is so good that Ukraine can now get more of its wheat out by shipping it to key markets in Africa in particular.”
Vasyl Myroshnychenko, Ukraine’s Ambassador to Australia, first met Forrest in April, within weeks of being posted to Canberra.
“He told me his story, about how many times he has been to Ukraine, about how he has been to Mariupol,” he said. “And he said: Look, I am a farmer. I come from a farm. I really want to support Ukrainian farmers. And I could tell he took it seriously.”
Seventeen commercial vessels have set sail from the Ukrainian ports covered by the UN-brokered grain deal — Odesa, Chornomorsk and Pivdennyi.
Myroshnychenko said while finally shifting the grain would help feed millions in developing nations, it would also boost the spirits of Ukrainian farmers, many of whom are now facing bankruptcy because of adverse conditions from the ongoing war, the lack of fuel and fertilisers, and extremely low prices for their crops.
He said Forrest’s leadership on the issue should serve as an example for other private individuals in Australia and globally to follow suit.
“It’s a great example of what could be done on the level of a citizen to help Ukraine in these dark times,” he said.
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