Community over profit: Meet Toronto’s women-led businesses that give opportunities to those who need it most

Community over profit: Meet Toronto’s women-led businesses that give opportunities to those who need it most
To plant a new seed in Canada, three best friends, Betti Eskedar, Amira Aboubaker and Zewdi Redaey, looked back to their Ethopian roots.

It began with an issue that nearly two out of 100 Canadians face: gluten intolerance. One of those Canadians was Eskedar’s daughter, who found it difficult to find gluten-free foods that were affordable and flavourful.

The trio spent years researching gluten-free dietary options and landed on teff, an ancient grain packed with vitamins, protein and fibre that is a staple of 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 healthfully. The company offers ready-to-make pancake and waffle mix but says the grain is so versatile it can also be used to make baked goods like muffins and bread.

While many companies try their best to source 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 more than 12,000 kilometres to Toronto.

“The women get employed (and) can compete with big corporations to keep their business alive. So, this opportunity of working with us means they can keep their business going and they will have some earnings for their families,” Eskedar says. “That’s really important to us.”

The health of a community is a pillar of Ethiopian culture. Aboubaker says the strong personal connections they have with the 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,” Aboubaker says. “That’s where we create opportunity.” She says the company helps Ethiopian women entrepreneurs make enough money to hire more people.

“It’s just a cascading effect that we can have in their future and in their day-to-day life. That was important for us here in Canada,” she says.

It wasn’t easy for the three women to start the business from scratch with their own money. Despite encountering challenges as a Black-owned business, including facing harsh rejection and trouble getting their products on store shelves, they’ve continued to work hard toward progress.

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

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

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

Despite the hardships, Cajas is proud of the work, knowing that she didn’t compromise on her commitment to community.

While Pacha does operate as a store, it’s also been a hub for people to learn the stories behind the products that have been crafted by Indigenous artists, families and collectives.

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

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

Pacha is the result of more than 30 years of working with Indigenous communities in Canada. Cajas says the family travelled across the country going to different powwows and community gatherings to connect with them.

They decided to create a storefront to showcase the art and creations of Indigenous communities within a larger city where Indigenous representation is needed, she says. The space was intended to highlight artists’ authentic work for everyone to access. The recognition and proceeds go directly to the artists themselves and avoids appropriation.

“Indigenous peoples from different places have a lot of things to connect with, but at the same time we also celebrate the fact that we’re from different places and that we do have different ways,” Cajas says.

“So while we work together, we’re effectively breaking down all of the (colonial borders) that were built up. . . We’re taking matters into our own hands. We’re actually going to keep trading like we used to and sharing like we used to,” she says.

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

“There’s this conception that if it’s a native earring, then I can’t wear it. . . But you should be purchasing from artists that are making those items or designing those items. That’s the whole point behind this,” she says. “Every product we carry is open to everyone of all backgrounds and histories,” she adds, explaining that cultural appropriation happens when someone benefits monetarily from a culture that is not their own.

Being a part of Pacha has allowed Cajas to connect with people and discuss similarities in their communities’ cultures.

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

“I think (Pacha) provides a good example for how to create good relations and support artists from all over the world.”
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