Thu. Jun 30th, 2022

To plant a new seed in Canada, three best friends, Betti Eskedar, Amira Aboubaker and Zewdi Redaey, looked back to their etopic roots.

It started with a problem that almost two out of 100 Canadians face: gluten intolerance. One of these Canadians was Eskedar’s daughter, who found it difficult to find gluten-free food that was affordable and tasty.

The trio spent years researching gluten-free diet options and landed on teff, an old grain filled with vitamins, proteins and fiber that is one of the main ingredients in Ethiopian cuisine. The women grew up eating it daily there.

After successfully experimenting with the grain, they started their business, Ethio Organics, to serve those who are gluten intolerant or interested in eating healthy. The company offers ready-made pancake and waffle mix, but says the grain is so versatile that it can also be used to make baked goods such as muffins and bread.

While many companies do their best to provide low prices, Ethio Organics focuses on quality and community. The company works with female business owners in Ethiopia, who buy teff from local farms and send it more than 12,000 kilometers to Toronto.

'In Ethiopia, small farmers are the people who earn the least profit,' says Amira Aboubaker.  'That's where we create opportunities.'  Ethio Organics helps Ethiopian women entrepreneurs make enough money to hire more people.

“Women are hired (and) can compete with large companies to keep their business alive. So this opportunity to work with us means they can keep their business going and they want an income for their families,” says Eskedar. “It’s really important to us.”

The health of a community is a pillar of Ethiopian culture. Aboubaker says the strong personal ties they have with Ethiopian farmers and business owners and that they know how they live motivate them to work harder.

“In Ethiopia, small farmers are the people who earn the least,” says Aboubaker. “That’s where we create opportunities.” She says the company helps Ethiopian women entrepreneurs make enough money to hire more people.

“It’s just a cascade effect that we can have in their future and in their daily lives. It was important to us here in Canada, ”she says.

It was not easy for the three women to start the business from scratch with their own money. Despite facing challenges as a black-owned company, including facing tough rejection and problems getting their products on store shelves, they continue to work hard toward progress.

In the midst of the pandemic, Ethio Organics has sold its products via Shopify with a marketing team.

“The challenge is not just being marginalized, racialized women, but also the biggest challenge may be COVID because our food should be in restaurants and supermarkets,” Aboubaker says.

The story of Samay Arcentales Cajas is similar. Her family owns and operates the Pacha Indigenous Art Collection. As the pandemic forced small businesses across the country to turn around, they had to move their physical store online in July 2020.

Despite the hardships, Cajas is proud of the work, knowing that she did not compromise on her commitment to the community.

While Pacha serves as a store, it has also been a hub for people to learn the stories behind the products that have been made by original artists, families and collectives.

Samay Arcentales Cajas, left, and her family posing outside their store, Pacha.  The business focuses on bringing different indigenous culture to the world.

Cajas’ family comes from the Kichwa community of Peguche in northern Ecuador. Their people have always been mindalae (traders), a term as Cajas says, recognizing that creating objects with their hands and trading with them is something their ancestors have done for generations.

“It’s part of our mission to keep it going, to keep that tradition strong,” Cajas says.

Pacha is the result of more than 30 years of work with indigenous communities in Canada. Cajas says the family traveled across the country to go to various powwows and community gatherings to get in touch with them.

They decided to create a storefront to showcase the art and creation of indigenous communities in a larger city where indigenous representation is needed, she says. The space was intended to highlight artists’ authentic works for everyone to access. The recognition and the proceeds go directly to the artists themselves and avoid appropriation.

Some of the objects on the Pacha that celebrate the diversity of native art.

“Indigenous people from different places have many things to connect with, but at the same time we also celebrate that we come from different places and that we have different ways,” Cajas says.

“So while working together, we are effectively breaking down all the (colonial boundaries) that were built…. We’re taking matters into our own hands. used to, ”she says.

Cajas says she has been able to have open conversations with people who ask if it is cultural appropriation to wear native products.

“There’s the perception that if it’s a native earring, then I can not wear it… But you should buy from artists who make these items or design these items. That’s the whole point behind this,” she says “Every product we carry is open to everyone with all backgrounds and stories,” she adds, explaining that cultural acquisition occurs when someone benefits economically from a culture that is not their own.

Being a part of Pacha has given Caja the opportunity to connect with people and discuss similarities in the cultures of their community.

“It’s really cool to see how many people associate the things we do because they’re also on their own journey to find their own ancestry,” she said.

“I think (Pacha) is a great example of how to create great relationships and support artists from around the world.”

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