The Faces of Ukraine: Food Biohackers

Over the past months, we have presented you with the effect of the war through the eyes of Bulgarian entrepreneurs and analysts. Through the series of stories "People from Ukraine", we will build on the topic by meeting you with people from Ukraine who have chosen to live in Bulgaria and develop their business or career here.

The year is 2017, the Ukrainians Irina Gavrilova, Ksenia Zazhigina and her husband Volodymyr Lanin leave the comforts of the corporate world in Kiev to come to Bulgaria and start their own business. They don't know anyone and they don't know the language. However, their research shows that this is where they have the best chance to innovate in the food industry.

"People think that the conflict in Ukraine started at the end of February 2022. Any local can tell you that the tension has been going on since 2014. We were expecting this kind of escalation at any moment. It was not a place to do business there," says Ksenia Zazhigina.

On paper, Bulgaria looks like a good choice. What the three don't expect is that it will take them three years to get a visa, during which time they will be taking tourists. So they will live three months in Sofia, then three months in Kiev. In the end, they achieve their goal and with CMYK Ingredients they create products that the market does not know. Their technology involves natural fermentation and with it they create liquid cooking spices, a new generation of diabetic chocolates with sprouts and syrups that are suitable even for people with diabetes.

Gavrilova (42) and Zazhigina (40) laughingly tell Forbes about the challenges that have brought them this far. However, their stories would make many others nervous or at least put off doing business in Bulgaria.

Despite the last few years outside the country, CMYK Ingredients has not forgotten its Ukrainian roots. In March, Sofia Tech Park gave the team one of its buildings to turn into a refugee center. Now 30 women and 20 children live there, and the second floor is adapted for social activities, career counseling and integration is encouraged. These are things the company's founders never imagined they would do.

Help yourself and others

Ksenia Zazhigina and Irina Gavrilova met in 2009 at a marketing conference, at which they were both speakers. They have been in touch ever since. In 2013 and 2014, the two narrowly missed death due to acute allergic reactions.

“I was on a raw vegan diet and only ate nuts and fruit for about half a year. I thought I was doing something good for my body. I had no idea that dried fruit contains many chemicals that our body cannot handle. Over time, accumulation occurred and my body refused," says Ksenia Zazhigina.

Gavrilova also started with the idea of ​​doing something useful for herself. When she was pregnant, she took frequent baths with essential oils. At one point, she had an acute attack and spent several days in the emergency room. “I have no allergies to any plants, but I still have a strong intolerance to any essential oils. The reason is that most of them are extracted by heating the respective plant. This leads to the breakdown of useful ingredients and changes the structure of the substance. Such products are poisonous for our body."

The hard way, Gavrilova and Zazhigina understand that we think of useful products, which in fact are not. Over the years, the idea of ​​a joint venture to solve this problem has at least partially matured. The two want to innovate by hacking biofoods so that they last longer but can also be safely given to children.

In 2016, they conducted market research in Poland, Romania, North Macedonia, Turkey, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic. They choose developing countries because they have about 100,000 euros of personal funds. "In Germany, just to start a conversation with lawyers, they ask you 15 thousand euros." Bulgaria wins them with the availability of raw materials, low prices and people who are always ready to help.

Not knowing the language, they came to Sofia with six suitcases. "We didn't know who was where. Some passers-by didn't know how to orient us, so they directly took us by the hand and led us," says Ksenia Zazhigina.

This is how they managed to rent production and an office and found the company "CMYK Ingredients". Irina Gavrilova takes over management, Ksenia Zazhigina - marketing and finance, and Volodymyr Lanin - engineering and production. They invest all their money in buying machines and creating a prototype. A few months later, they found 150,000 euros in the face of business angels.

They are just taking a breather from the financial part, when difficulties with the state administration begin. The lack of permanent residence documents eats up their capital in a trip between Kiev and Sofia (at that time, low-cost companies do not have a direct connection). CMYK Ingredients is forced to sell some of its shares to cover extraordinary expenses.

"We wanted to get a loan from the bank, but they told us that, as tourists, they can only sell us levs for euros," Gavrilova says. She explains that it was not an option to take a loan from Ukraine because the interest rates were three times higher there.


After the fact that they are on the verge of bankruptcy, in order of priority comes the fact that they cannot sell until they create a product. The process of developing such technology takes between four and five months. Due to the relocation, they become seven.

However, Irina Gavrilova does not give up. She looks at the man and how he eats. So does a two-step process. The first is cold pressing of fresh spices, as in extra virgin olive oil, and then the resulting liquid undergoes natural fermentation. This intensifies the aroma of the plant, and to improve the texture, the consistency is diluted in rice oil. The resulting spice has a shelf life of up to three years. The process is far different from the ones known on the market and takes two weeks instead of a few hours.

Meanwhile, tourist entrepreneurs receive three more tranches of 150,000 euros each from private investors, but they continue to fight for permanent residence. They decide to seek help on Linkedin by connecting with other people who make organic food in Bulgaria. That's how they met other entrepreneurs already known to Forbes - Zhivko Dzhamyarov from Ancestral Superfoods and Yani Dragov from Smart Organik.

They lead them to the BESCO office and thanks to the association, after three years of wandering, in January 2020, the founders of CMYK Ingredients received the status of doing science and permission to stay as investors in Bulgaria. However, there is a condition - next year they must increase their investment in Bulgaria to 1 million euros. At the moment, they have 600,000 euros. A month later, happy to get a chance, they went to biotech expos in Germany and Dubai.

There is no time to waste

CMYK Ingredients' stand looks more like a restaurant. Irina says that all producers of bioflavors, extracts and oils claim to use organic products, but not everyone would put a drop of them in their mouth. With these words, Irina grabs a bottle of liquid coriander, raises her head and empties the full dropper down her throat. “If this was an essential oil, I would have just killed myself quickly.” Companies like this honesty, and the Bulgarian startup is in talks with five potential customers. However, in March, covid starts and everything freezes.

CMYK Ingredients used this time to expand its portfolio, and in addition to liquid spices, began to offer soft drinks, herbal essences, sauces, ice creams and liquid sprout chocolate. The company starts to produce for other brands with their label as private label.

During Sial Innovation Paris that year, CMYK Ingredients won four awards for its products. In addition, he received a certificate from the EC for a food technology center and raised the cherished 400 thousand euros.

In September 2021, the startup creates the Leckar brand, but something unexpected happens. Despite the growing portfolio, revenues did not increase and the company ended the year with a turnover of BGN 207,000. The CMYK Ingredients team realizes that there are not many people who look at food and would, for example, pay BGN 9 for 90 g of liquid sprout chocolate.


In 2022, with this attitude, they start working with influencers, do corporate courses and a subscription program that starts in May. With it, customers receive every month a box with several CMYK Ingredients products, a recipe book and access to over 100 short videos with useful information.

Irina Gavrilova and Ksenia Zazhigina share with our team that they do not expect to revolutionize the Bulgarian market and for everyone to start eating healthy. However, their goal is for people who are ripe for the idea to have an easy source of information. Something that they themselves did not have in Kiev.

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