To sow a new seed in Canada, three best friends, Betty Eskader, Amira Abubaker and Zvedi Rede, look to their roots.
It started with an issue that almost two out of 100 Canadian Face: Gluten intolerance. One of those Canadians was Eskader’s daughter, who found it hard to find gluten-free foods that were affordable and delicious.
The trio spent years researching gluten-free dietary options and landed on teff, an ancient grain full of vitamins, protein, and fiber that’s a staple of Ethiopian cuisine. The women grew up eating there every day.
After successfully experimenting with cereals, he started his own business, Ethio Organics, to serve people who are gluten intolerant or interested in eating healthier. The company offers ready-to-make pancake and waffle mixes, but says the grain is so versatile it can also be used to make other baked goods like muffins and breads.
While many companies do their best to source at low prices, Ethio Organics focuses on quality and community. The company partners with female business owners in Ethiopia who buy teff from local farms and ship it over 12,000 kilometers to Toronto.
“Women get jobs[and]can compete with big corporations to keep their businesses alive. So, this opportunity to work with us means that they can continue their business and they will have some earnings for their family,” says Eskader. “It’s really important to us.”
The health of a community is a pillar of Ethiopian culture. Abubekar says he has strong personal ties with Ethiopian farmers and business owners, and knowing how they live motivates them to work harder.
“In Ethiopia, small farmers are the people who make the least profit,” Abubekar says. “That’s where we create opportunities.” She says the company helps Ethiopian female entrepreneurs make enough money to hire more people.
“It’s just a massive impact we can have on their future and their daily lives. It was important to us in Canada,” she says.
It was not easy for the three women to start a business from the beginning with their own money. Despite facing challenges as a Black-owned business, including facing harsh rejection and trouble getting their products on store shelves, they have continued to work hard towards progress.
Amid the pandemic, Ethio Organics is selling its products via Shopify With a marketing team.
“The challenge is not only of marginalized, racialized women, but the biggest challenge may be COVID, as our food should have been in restaurants and supermarkets,” says Abubekar.
The story of Time Arsentales Cajas is also similar. his family owns and operates Pacha Swadeshi Art Collection. As the pandemic forced small businesses across the country to pivot, they had to move their physical stores online in July 2020.
Despite the difficulties, Kajas is proud of the work, knowing that it did not compromise his commitment to the community.
While Pacha operates as a store, it has also been a center for people to learn the stories behind the products created by indigenous artists, families and collectives.
The Cajas family comes from the Kichwa community of Peguche in northern Ecuador. Their people have always been minded (traders), a word kajas says that manufacturing and trading items with their own hands is something that their ancestors have done for generations.
“It’s part of our mission to keep that tradition going, to keep it going,” Kajas says.
Pacha is the result of more than 30 years working with Indigenous communities in Canada. Kajas says the family traveled across the country and went to separate pavs and community gatherings to join them.
They decided to build a storefront to showcase the art and creations of indigenous communities within a larger city where indigenous representation is needed, she says. The purpose of the space was to expose the authentic work of the artists to all. Recognition and proceeds go directly to the artists and appropriation is avoided.
“Indigenous peoples from different places have a lot of things to do, but at the same time we celebrate the fact that we are from different places and we have different ways,” says Cajas. .
“So when we work together, we are effectively breaking down all the[colonial boundaries]that were created . . . We are taking matters into our own hands. We will really continue to do business as we used to do and share, as we used to,” she says.
Kajas says he has been able to have an open dialogue with those who ask whether wearing indigenous products is a cultural appropriation.
“There is a perception that if it is a native earring, I cannot wear it. . . But you should buy from the artists who are making those items or designing those items. That’s the whole point behind it,” she says. “Every product we carry is open to everyone of all backgrounds and histories,” she adds, explaining that cultural appropriation occurs when someone benefits economically from a culture that is not their own.
Being a part of Pacha has allowed Kajas to connect with people and discuss commonalities in the cultures of their communities.
“It’s really nice to see how much people add to the things that we’re doing as they too are on their journey to find their own ancestry,” she said.
“I think (Pacha) provides a good example for building good relationships and supporting artists from around the world.”