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During COVID-19, B.C.-based social enterprise Farafena saw its supply chain dry up. But creative thinking—and a boost from Amex—helped the fledgling business survive, and even thrive

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For Farafena founder Oumar Barou Togola, the coronavirus pandemic has forced a period of reflection as they navigate a way forward.Lucas Oleniuk/The Globe and Mail

In June 2013, just two months before his wedding, Oumar Barou Togola had a very frank discussion with his fiancée.

“I came home and said, ‘I quit my job,’” he recalls. The reason? He wanted to focus on his passion project: Farafena, a social enterprise that brings African superfoods and grains to Canadian consumers.

“I told her, ‘I want to do this full time and I’m not going to make any money for the foreseeable future.’ She looked at me [and said], 'if this is where your heart is, I 100 per cent support you.”

With his now-wife’s blessing, Barou Togola officially launched the company with his co-founder and friend Dylan Beechey the following year. Its name means “Africa” in Bambara, the official language of Barou Togola’s home country, Mali, and the business is a love letter to the continent—and the women who live there: The duo buys crops from female farmers in Mali and Malawi, then sells them in Canada.

“Women are the primary educators and in African culture, women don’t have a lot of voices,” he says. “So, this was an opportunity for women to decide their own destiny [and] provide for their own families without any sort of interference from the men.”

During COVID-19, B.C.-based social enterprise Farafena saw its supply chain dry up. But creative thinking—and a boost from Amex—helped the fledgling business survive, and even thrive

But despite Farafena’s feel-good approach and the growing popularity of superfoods, it wasn’t easy to get retailers to take them seriously. In fact, Barou Togola has plenty of experience in being flexible and thinking creatively, something that has come in handy recently. Early on, he found himself knocking on doors—literally. After three months of unsuccessfully trying to set up a meeting with one of the biggest healthy grocers in the country, he took destiny into his own hands. He used Farafena products to make moringa and baobab smoothies and fonio cookies, then took the goodies to the company’s headquarters, then located in Vancouver.

“I knocked at the door, told them, ‘Hey, my name is Oumar and I’d love to speak with the buyer to present our company and our products.’ They gave me a few minutes and after [our pitch], they thought it was a really compelling story and said they’d give us a chance.” The grocer became the first retailer to stock Farafena products.

It was in this infancy stage that Amex first stepped in to help Farafena increase their purchasing power. “We were fortunate enough to have the support of American Express from the outset of starting the business,” Barou Togola says. As he built Farafena, flexible spending limits aided in buying supplies upfront.

Soon, they were working with 850 farmers across Mali and Malawi and the company’s products could be found in 600 grocery stores across Canada. But now Farafena is facing another hurdle: adapting to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“2020 was supposed to be our biggest year yet,” Barou Togola says.

Instead, the small company was hit hard. With borders closed, its supply chain effectively dried up, leading to the cancellation of partnerships with companies in the U.S. and Europe, as well as the cancellation of a large purchasing order from the U.K. The team also had to give up their office in downtown Vancouver. And they’re not the only small business that’s facing challenges. According to a recent Amex survey*, 64 per cent of SMEs say they are facing cash flow and financing problems due to the pandemic. More than a third (37 per cent) have reduced operating costs, and 21 per cent have implemented cost savings programs.

To overcome these challenges, Farafena has pivoted to new product offerings. They’re using tiger nuts, which they started to import from Mali a year ago, to make new products like a pancake and waffle mix and nut butter.

They’ve also been able to lean on Amex. “Amex has helped us manage our expenses for the last six years,” Barou Togola says. “Especially this year, with all the challenges due to COVID, Amex helped provide the cash flow needed to purchase goods from our suppliers.”

And that has given them the space to reflect on their impact, both in Canada and Africa.

“Most of the time, we just go to grocery stores, buy our apples, buy our avocados and don’t think [about it],” Barou Togola says. But shortages are causing people to consider where their favourite ingredients actually come from—maybe for the first time ever. That’s even the case for Barou Togola and Beechey, who are very plugged in to food imports.

“It made us reflect, because we’re bringing all of these amazing foods, thousands of miles away from a completely different continent to feed people here, while the local people are dying from malnutrition and famine,” Barou Togola says.

They’re now trying to figure out what the company can do on-the-ground in Africa when it comes to food security. “Africa has always been a place of extraction,” he says. “Goods have been extracted out of Africa on a daily basis, so there’s not a lot of building, just taking. And that’s when we realized that even Farafena was not immune to that. [We were] doing the same thing, taking all these good food sources out of Africa to sell it in the west, where so much food goes to waste on a daily basis.”

That’s why, in addition to pivoting to offer new products, Farafena is also taking a hard look at their own supply chain. “We have decided to focus on shorter supply chains within Africa that directly support Africans feeding Africans,” Barou Togola says. “This is an exciting and ethical direction for us.”

Clearly, there are a lot of changes on the horizon for Farafena, but one thing remains the same: the connection Barou Togola has with the farmers in Africa, whom he calls family.

“The most rewarding part is sitting down with these farmers [and talking about] what we’ve been able to accomplish together,” he says. “We are humbled to see their resilience and their strength, because this has been a generational thing.”

*The American Express Business Resilience Survey was conducted by The Nielsen Company on behalf of American Express from September 16 to October 2, 2020, among 500 Canadian business owners or partners in small or medium enterprises. More details can be found here.

Advertising feature produced by Globe Content Studio. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.