When entrepreneur Betti Eskedar made two new friends in Toronto around 30 years ago, they bonded over shared experiences and community: all three women were born in Ethiopia and had immigrated to Canada. For years, they talked about the idea of launching a business to sell teff (a grain native to Ethiopia) with a mission to help support their communities at home. Two years ago, they decided it was time to bring their dream to reality. They launched Ethio Organics with a nutritious, gluten-free pancake mix made from teff. “We decided it would be a good way for us to continue our friendship and work on something that we all believe in,” says Eskedar.
A tiny grain that’s smaller than a poppy seed, teff was first cultivated in Ethiopia more than 5,000 years ago. Today, it’s grown by nearly seven million farmers across the country. “It’s a staple food for Ethiopians. We grew up eating it three times a day,” says Eskedar. For her, sharing coffee and foods made from teff represents “a time of coming together, checking in and talking about the neighborhood gossip.” Packed with fibre and protein, teff is a versatile superfood. It’s used for Injera (Ethiopian sour bread), pancakes, cookies, cakes, porridge, bread and even smoothies.
Ethio Organics’ vegan pancake mix is available in four different varieties, from pure teff as well ones mixed with flaxseed, oat and almond. “It’s very nutritious and well known for health issues,” says Eskedar. It’s gluten-free, which makes it ideal for people who have celiac disease, and its high-fibre content makes it a good option for people who struggle with diabetes.
What really drives Eskedar’s passion for the business is a commitment to fair trade. She points out that Ethiopian farmers work hard to produce teff, but often aren’t able to make ends meet because they struggle to get a fair price. “There are women that we know, even within our families, who own small businesses and get pushed out of the market because they can’t compete with big corporations. They lose their livelihood and their income,” says Eskedar. The company works with small, female-owned businesses in Ethiopia, paying a fair price for the product and thereby helping farmers support their families. Eskedar and her cofounders are also very engaged in their Toronto community, working as volunteers with various organizations, including one that sponsors orphans with HIV and AIDS.
“We always talk about how we can offer community support in addition to donating during crises,” says Eskedar.
After struggling with stock and other issues selling their product on Amazon, Eskedar looked into Digital Main Street’s ShopHERE program powered by Google. She found a lot of helpful support and guidance from Shopify, where coordinators set up their online store for free. “Shopify has been great,” says Eskedar. “Every time I’ve had a question or needed help solving an issue, they’ve been available.”
Since the Shopify site launched in May, Eskedar has been focusing on social media marketing on Instagram and Facebook with lessons learned through her ShopHERE training. She recently attended two marketing webinars through the program to help Ethio Organics amp up its advertising.
Eventually, Eskedar says, Ethio Organics plans to also start selling coffee, too — another staple of Ethiopian culture. She acknowledges that the coffee business is competitive, but their hope is to import premium grade coffee via fair trade to further help support farmers in Ethiopia. In the meantime, Eskedar and her cofounders are approaching grocery stores and health food stores to grow their customer base and expose more people to the many benefits of teff.
This article is sponsored by Shopify. Learn more about the Digital Main Street’s ShopHERE program powered by Google and get the help needed to create a beautiful online store for free.