The travel tech entrepreneur on the front line of the Ukraine data and logistics war

The travel tech entrepreneur on the front line of the Ukraine data and logistics war

Irra Ariella Khi, chief executive of Zamna, has set up humanitarian aid organisation Sunflower

Lee Hayhurst spoke to Irra Ariella Khi who has stepped away temporarily from running her travel technology firm Zamna to solve problems with getting humanitarian aid to her fellow Ukrainians caught up in the war with Russia  

When we caught up over messaging app Telegram travel tech entrepreneur Irra Ariella Khi was burning off some adrenalin on a walking machine in her home.

The Ukrainian-born founder of Zamna Technologies, which verifies traveller identity and health status, has been working around the clock trying to help her fellow Ukrainians under attack.

As the invasion began she founded Sunflower – named after the national symbol of Ukraine – to fundraise and which now finds itself on the front line of the logistics and data front of this war.

To date £150,000 has been raised. Public donations are being sent direct to Ukraine to help the aid effort while backing from institutional partners is being used to scale efforts in the UK to coordinate the delivery of aid to the people who need it most.

“Doing nothing was not an option,” she said, “imagine if it was your home town, your parents, what are you going to do? You are going to try to do whatever it takes to help.

“Whatever I can do is not enough. I feel guilty taking a break because my life is not in danger and if I stop I worry something will go wrong and I won’t be able to help.

“Right now it’s been two weeks and the reality is with the chaos as bad as it is, it’s hard to know what the pieces of the puzzle look like, let alone what we can piece together and what we cannot.”

Khi’s father remains in Lviv in the relatively safe west at the moment. Her grandparents live in Dnipro, in south east central Ukraine, which has come under attack today for the first time.

Here in the UK Sunflower has a small band of 10 Ukrainian and Russia speakers to coordinate from her home the delivery of aid to people who choose to, or who cannot, leave their homes.

The problem is that while many tonnes of aid is being flown to Poland, that’s as far east as it can go by air and taking it across the border and into the towns a cities under siege is incredibly difficult.

In the early days of the invasion Khi was receiving messages from people saying their aid truck was stuck at the Polish border and as a Ukrainian, Russian and Polish speaker could she help.

She says the invasion of Ukraine, although threatened by Putin for many years, was still a shock so there was no infrastructure on the ground ready to deal with an international crisis.

Even as the war started, Khi said there was disbelief it was actually happening or that it would last for more than a few days, so the relief effort has had to be built manually from scratch mid war.

Sunflower is working tirelessly to verify where the need is in Ukraine, to match that with supply of the right sort of aid and the to find a ‘relay team’ of local contacts able to deliver it.

Khi described it as a “logistics, linguistics and security nightmare”. “Bringing logistics into a foreign country is difficult enough without a war.

“But when the road we were using has just got bombed and does not really exist anymore, it’s even harder. Coordinating these thongs is going to require a lot of real-time updates.

“During COVID a lot of companies had to quickly build new demand and supply logistics, but that was in peace time.”

Khi’s contacts in the aviation industry have helped with cargo flights to Poland – Zamna, previously V-Chain, and was one of two winners of BA parent IAG’s first Hangar 51 start-up accelerator.

And she says her experience as founder of Zamna is being used to apply her technology expertise automate some of the work verifying where the need is most acute.

There is a danger unscrupulous actors may seek to defraud or undermine the aid effort so there’s a need to verify the credentials of the people offering to help on the ground.

“It’s been a very strange experience having to ask my network for favours, but I have no fear asking for resources or contacts.

“You don’t want aid ending up in the wrong hands and being sold for a profit,” said Khi. “So many people have been displaced from one side of the country to the other.

“A guy running a network of schools which is host to 3,000 children a day reached out and found me on Facebook so one of my volunteers had a video call with him.

“We are using technology to do very manual checks like this, using apps, devices, anything that works. This is a smartphone war.

“Like Zamna organises data behind the scenes, we are trying to organise people into a system that works. We’re 80% there.

“This is going to be a data-driven war where we are bringing structure to an overwhelming stream of information.

“I need Russian, Ukrainian or Polish speaking volunteers who can do quite long shifts, not just two or three hours, but five or six hours a couple of days a week.”

The flip side of helping to bring aid into Ukraine is information coming back out, so Sunflower has set up a production team that is offering authentic eye-witness content to the media for a donation.

Khi says while the scenes on our television screens of the bombing of Ukrainian cities are horrific it’s hard to get across the true nature of the humanitarian crisis unfolding in the country.

“It’s really difficult to get reliable first-person eye-witness sources. It’s not something we see right now. In English the word shelter might give you the impression of a place that’s quite cosy.

“But the basements in cities with Communist-era apartment blocks where people are sheltering for up to 30 hours at a time are actually where the trash shoots for the whole building go.

“When I was growing up we were always told not to go into the basements because the rats will bite you and give you tetanus.

“It’s winter, it’s minus ten degrees, it’s snowing and people are making these basements their homes. It’s inhumane. It’s a humanitarian disaster happening right now.”