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Naledo CEO Umeeda Switlo (far right) and her team with a bag of harvested turmeric in Belize.Supplied

A fortuitous cultural connection was the genesis of a business opportunity for Vancouver-based mother-daughter entrepreneurs Umeeda and Nareena Switlo.

While working with development organization CUSO International, Umeeda Switlo was sent to Belize to advise the government on potential economic opportunities. As a person of Indian origin, she sought out the Indian diaspora in Belize, which represents three per cent of the population in the Central American country.

Thanks to that connection with the Indo-Belizean community, Umeeda came across an unexpected agricultural product: turmeric, an integral ingredient in Indian cuisine.

“[The plant] was a beautiful colour and 10 times bigger than anything I had ever seen,” she says.

Umeeda had an “aha” moment. She would create a new product – turmeric paste – a fresh and bioavailable alternative to the standard dried and ground turmeric, and she and her daughter would export the product to Canada and beyond.

“I have always looked for resources that are underutilized,” she adds.

Umeeda and Nareena formed Naledo in 2016, deriving the name from a combination of Nareena and Toledo, the district in southern Belize where the turmeric grows. As CEO, Umeeda oversees manufacturing of their Truly Turmeric products and works closely with the growers, while Nareena is COO, focused on sales and marketing.

The duo researched the regulations for their new export product, but Nareena says being women in the export industry has been daunting.

“I can’t count of the number of times I’ve been belittled by buyers or custom brokers,” says Nareena. “We’ve often had to explain how the rules apply to our product, but they won’t believe us because we’re women.”

With a team of eight employees in Belize, Naledo is a social enterprise, embracing the belief of “better business for better lives.” In 2020, the company became a certified B Corporation, a business that embeds their social and environmental beliefs in their day-to-day operations and regularly has independent verification of their social and environmental impacts on community.

Working with 350+ growers across Belize, Naledo pays six times the fair-trade price for turmeric plants. By listening rather than assuming, the Switlos are committed to changing the “locals versus foreigners” stereotype.

“I asked the growers if they wanted a co-op,” says Nareena. “[But] they wanted individual contracts. Asking the right questions made the difference for us.”

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Vancouver-based Naledo COO Nareena Switlo says that listening rather than assuming has helped the company make the right choices when working with growers in Belize.Darryl Dyck/The Globe and Mail

Growth in women-owned export businesses

Naledo is an example of a growing segment of women-owned businesses who are exporting into the international market: There are currently 12,700 Canadian women-owned companies, with the number of small- and medium-sized businesses who export doubling between 2011 and 2017, according to Export Development Canada (EDC). Women-owned small- and medium-sized enterprises represent 11 per cent of Canada’s export activity.

Recognizing this growth, EDC created Women in Trade in 2018, working with women-owned and women-led businesses to scale up their export.

Catherine Beach, national lead for Women in Trade at EDC, notes that access to capital can be one of the main barriers for growth for women entrepreneurs.

“We focus on helping women entrepreneurs by sharing our export knowledge and providing finance and insurance solutions,” says Catherine Beach, national lead for this program. “We’re also connecting them to international opportunities, networks and trade programs.”

Women in Trade is part of EDC’s inclusive trade strategy, with a team of advisors focused on engaging and supporting entrepreneurs who are women, Indigenous, Black and other racialized communities, persons with disabilities and the LGBTQ+ community.

More than 1600 companies have benefitted from the Women in Trade program in the past year, resulting in $1.7 billion in business, says Ms. Beach.

“For 2023, our target for Women in Trade is serving 2000 customers, with $6-billion in business by the end of the year,” she says.

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Umeeda Switlo and Naledo team members with turmeric crops in Belize.Supplied

Maintaining connections with international partners

Government programs can be critically important in helping female entrepreneurs access global markets. For example, Naledo received funding from CanExport, the trade commission service of the Canadian government.

Vegan perfume company The 7 Virtues is another social enterprise that benefitted from the support of government programs – specifically Nova Scotia Business Inc., the province’s export development agency, and the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency.

When CEO Barb Stegemann launched The 7 Virtues in 2010, she sourced essential oils in Afghanistan, supporting farmers growing orange and rose essential oil crops instead of illegal poppy crops. Ms. Stegemann now sources ingredients from 750 farmers in Afghanistan, Rwanda, India, Madagascar, Nepal and Haiti.

Ms. Stegemann says it’s been a goal in all her business relationships to provide families in developing nations with livable incomes and encourages other women entrepreneurs to join her in the global marketplace.

“If you pay on time, no one cares about your gender, religion or where you live,” she says.

Social responsibility is a big part of The 7 Virtues – the products have been included in Sephora’s Clean + Planet Positive program – products committed to climate, sustainability and responsible packaging that donate one per cent of profits to an environmental charity. Working with Nepal-based nonprofit organization Days for Girls, The 7 Virtues is also working to eliminate period poverty, providing financial support for washable pad kits and education for girls and boys.

The founders of both Naledo and The 7 Virtues have focused on developing personal relationships with their international partners. Both Ms. Stegemann and the Switlos make regular trips to see and spend time with their growers, with the Switlos spending up to six months at a time in Belize.

Digital tools like Skype, Facebook and email have also kept their connections strong, particularly as they have had to deal with pandemic-related disruptions to the supply chain.

“Shipping right now is a bit of a nightmare globally,” says Ms. Stegemann.

Despite the challenges, with a great deal of research, ample support and an enduring respect for international partners, international business can be rewarding for all involved.

“I want to see more Canadians doing trade with nations [that are] rebuilding,” says Ms. Stegemann. “Women are the ones who will do it.”

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