Entrepreneur Umeeda Switlo came to Canada from Uganda as a refugee when she was 15-years-old. She held a suitcase in one hand and $100 in another. Now, 61-years-old, Umeeda has built a career in launching businesses—she says entrepreneurism is in her DNA as a woman of Indian ancestry, but her latest venture, a District Ventures-funded startup, founded with her daughter and CEO Nareena Switlo, begun unexpectedly in rural Belize.
In 2016, while Umeeda was visiting Belize for an international assignment with CUSO International, she discovered a wildcrafted turmeric. Having long relied on the traditional orange powder, she took to the kitchen to experiment and created a whole root turmeric paste.
The duo pitched Dragons’ Den on Season 13 to introduce Truly Turmeric by Naledo, and the startup entered the Canadian market just as turmeric was becoming popular within North America. In 2015, Canada imported close to 965,000 kg of turmeric, according to United Nations data, which is a 26 per cent increase from 2014.
The first shipment was 2,000 bottles by air to Canada. Two years later, Truly Turmeric is sold in two different flavours and sizes in 700 stores across Canada, the US, and Belize. In a short amount of time, Umeeda and Nareena have had to adapt quickly to meet an increasing demand for their product, under an industry category that is taking pace as consumers realize the health benefits and versatility of turmeric.
On a recent afternoon, with Nareena in Vancouver and Umeeda in Belize, we spoke about how they launched Naledo, expanded into new markets, and are realizing their vision for what’s next:
YouInc: Take us back to the moment when you knew you had a business idea.
Umeeda Switlo: I was on Granville Island before I left for my CUSO International assignment in Belize, and for the first time I saw turmeric in its raw root form. When I went to Belize to advise the government on youth enterprise, I was looking for ideas and since agriculture is such a powerful thing in Belize, I went to see Indians, people of my ancestry and saw that they had this turmeric; it was four or five times the size of turmeric I’d seen on Granville Island. So, I took it, ground it up, and made a paste like my mom would. I added it to curries and started to try different things. When my sisters came to Belize, we cooked with it, and they said it was way better than turmeric powder. Then my mom used it and she’s a darn good cook, so when she said it was amazing and I talked to Nareena about it, I knew I had a business idea.
YI: How is your turmeric different from the orange powder turmeric found in grocery or health-food stores?
Nareena Switlo: When my mom saw the turmeric colour of the root in Belize, she brought some of it back and connected with a team at the British Columbia Institute of Technology. They were doing a study on turmeric. The researchers took the fresh root and compared the curcumin levels compared to roots from India, Hawaii, and other parts of the world. The turmeric root of Belize had three times the curcuminoids.
YI: Curcuminoids; can you tell us more?
N: They’re thought of the active molecule in turmeric that has medicinal properties; so, an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory. The tricky thing about these molecules called curcuminoids is that they’re not super bioavailable. Your body doesn’t absorb them easily in their powder form; they need a fat and different oils and minerals, which are already present in the fresh root, but they’re lost in processing. Naledo’s paste is a beautiful combination of the fresh root, coconut oil, and black pepper, which makes those curcuminoids more bioavailable.
We were feeling intimidated as the show began, but within minutes we had a lineup of people.
YI: Have you had any challenges marketing the product, because we assume people often associate turmeric with India?
N: Educating consumers to incorporate that paste into their daily recipes has been the biggest hurdle. Then when that ‘a-ha’ moment happens, they buy jar after jar.
U: The first showcase of our product to the industry was at Canadian Health Food Association (CHFA) West Vancouver in 2016. We hand-bottled it [the product], and Nareena beautifully managed the design of our labels with Fluid Creative. We had a little table and there were huge companies with big, beautiful displays; we were feeling intimidated as the show began, but within minutes we had a lineup of people. What the market understands is that turmeric is really good for you. We were the first to bring a turmeric paste to market worldwide, especially wildcrafted, that's where we got from people, “wow, they get it.”
YI: How did you get signed with a distributor?
N: We didn’t have a lot of money [laughs]. I was trying to think of anybody in the food industry. I started Googling and I came across CHFA. It was going to cost us $3,000-$4,000, and we were going to be in front of buyers, grocers, distributors, and brokers. No public. I figured this is one event, if it’s going to take off and people are going to be interested, so hopefully we get a distributor and a list of retailers—that’s actually what happened. We partnered with Ecoideas, a Toronto-based national distributor. We went from zero stores to 600 stores across Canada within the first year.
YI: Were there enough growers to supply the first 600 stores, or did people in the community need to start growing more?
We pay more than double the minimum wage, and we train youth in business and enterprise.
U: We found enough growers. Indians came to Belize 200 years ago; they planted turmeric and it went wild. It only takes nine months to harvest, so it’s fast growing and was everywhere. I went out with our young team and looked for it. People started coming to us, “we have turmeric.” We’d say, “no we can’t buy it. We have to look at your farm and make sure you don’t use pesticides and herbicides.” In the beginning I thought there were only four growers, and in the end there were more than 600 growers.
YI: Tell us about the social enterprise side of your business; you’ve helped create work for growers?
U: Our social enterprise has three legs: profit, community, and environment. The population of Belize is 400,000 and seventy per cent of people are under the age of 29. Imagine what that looks like: there are few jobs, so we thought, “how do we engage youth in our organization?” We hired and train youth; we pay more than double the minimum wage, and we train youth in business and enterprise.
We could have been the real entrepreneurs and said, “we’ll pay you 10 cents a pound.” We actually dug up turmeric and measured the amount of time it took to ensure it was a fair wage. Instead of 10 cents a pound we buy at $1.50 BZ per pound.
N: The third leg, the environment, has real benefits: no pesticides, no herbicides, no agriculture input, not even watering. Farmers throw turmeric, it grows, and they harvest. It’s sustainable. People use that word often, but this is real.
ON EXPANDING INTO NEW MARKETS
YI: How many stores are you in now?
N: We’re well over 700 now in the world. There's a trade show in Anaheim called Natural Products Expo—it’s the largest in North America for the natural food industry. I booked a ticket, walked the show, and got a meeting with the distributor and broker. The distributor is United Natural Foods, a US national distributor. We’ll be starting our work with them in the Pacific Northwest.
In the food industry, the US is always seen as this prize. You want to get into the US, but you have to be cautious about the market because it can easily eat up your time. The US is far more litigious than Canada, so we’ve had a lot of caution, “don’t do it until you're ready.” I feel we’re ready now.
YI: How do you know you’re ready?
N: We have one product at the moment, we feel like we have a foothold in the Canadian market and now our job is to educate, and grow our fanbase and sales, but we didn’t want all eggs in one basket. We started to get requests from people in the US for our product. Our production facility is a little less artisanal, we have better machinery, and our food safety standards are up to what is required, so we can produce the capacity now.
YI: Did you test the product to see whether people would want it?
N: The turmeric market in the U.S. took off like crazy. In 2016, I didn’t see anything other than powders on the shelf, and when I went to Natural Products Expo in Anaheim last year, there was turmeric in snack bars and cereal. Nature’s Path had launched a turmeric cereal, and I had met with the marketing person from Nature's Path, and he told me, “you know, I’m not sure you want to do this turmeric thing; I’m not sure the market is going to figure this out.” And, two years later, they have a turmeric golden cereal. They’re pushing it for 2019 with consumers.
Every company that creates an innovative product has to continue to innovate.
U: We had a company named Balzac’s in Toronto experiment and make one of the best turmeric lattes I’ve tasted. When you see companies like Starbucks in San Francisco, you have to think in the states, the avant-garde kind-of cool foody thing happens a lot on the West coast, so when you see Starbucks launching turmeric in San Francisco and sell out, you gotta go, “okay, maybe Starbucks will be our customer one day.” They use turmeric powder, which tastes terrible.
YI: Have you encountered any problems with quality control since product is imported from Belize?
U: Nareena has been really understanding in her labeling, and I've been careful in terms of how we understand hazard analysis and critical control points (HACCP). We test our products before they leave Belize. The Canadian government’s main challenges: are you labeled properly and is your product safe for the Canadian consumer?
ON GROWING THE BUSINESS
YI: How do you evolve the business from here?
U: On the Belize side, it’s really community relations and making sure we have good, clean product; we have great growers, and then we must be innovative. Every company that creates an innovative product has to continue to innovate. Today I’m fiddling around with a recipe using a different kind of turmeric.
N: I’d love to see our product line expand and continue to create innovative products that are healthy, produced sustainably, and empower communities. I see Naledo expanding beyond Belize. We have challenges in our food industry and the way that agriculture is managed and the way our supply chain works around the world.
There are days where you’re like, how am I going to pay my rent, how am I going to survive this month and continue to do this business?
That’s one of our points on Dragons’ Den that Arlene really agreed with—a lot of countries produce the raw materials, it puts a lot of strain on the country, and then it leaves without any value being added. That’s true of our food systems around the world. When you look at statistics in the tropics, it’s about seven million hectares of rainforest that are chopped down to make room for agriculture. I see Naledo transforming the way that we grow and harvest spices and other beautiful natural foods from around the world.
The next product in summer of 2019 is a line of turmeric-based lemonades. It’ll be a nice, functional beverage. We’ll make it healthy with natural sugars.
ON LEARNING TO BE ENTREPRENEURS TOGETHER
YI: What has being an entrepreneur taught each of you?
U: It was learning all about the food business. Working in a developing country can be challenging especially with government. There are days where you’re like, how am I going to pay my rent, how am I going to survive this month and continue to do this business?
N: I totally agree. So many people think #entrepreneurship is super glamorous, but it’s actually more work than I’ve done in full-time jobs. You’re invested. There’s no fall back. There’s no, oh well, you know, if I don’t go to work this week...You can’t take sick days when you’re an entrepreneur.
The cash flow piece was the toughest learning curve. Dealing with the stress of looking at your bank account and, oh my gosh, but we just had this huge purchase order and we’re waiting for it to come in, but we have to pay these bills and, oh, my God.
YI: How do you deal with the stress?
U: I talk it out. I’ve been a business person for many years and I’ve had some serious challenges that haven’t worked and some that have. I’ve learned to be calmer and think to myself, oh well, if we lose it all, we start again. And Nareena is like, “if we lose it all, we lose it all, and then what?”
N: I haven’t figured it out yet. My mom and I have different mindsets, but the nice thing is that my business partner is my mom, so she also knows me well. We can talk openly and trust each other in ways that would take many business partners decades to build.
YI: How has working together strengthened your relationship?
U: I’m so proud of Nareena. I can’t believe how fast she picked things up and how far ahead of the curve she is compared to people who have been in the business for a long time. She negotiates our deals, because she is a tough-ass business person. More and more I step back, and as a parent and a mother, I think it’s important in mother-daughter teams to step back sometimes and let that young person shine: Nareena shines like a diamond.
Make sure you’re surrounding yourself with people who support you.
N: Thanks, mom. I think we sometimes have to remember to have conversations that aren’t about our company. We can be all encompassing: “On this Skype call, I don’t want to talk about business. I want to talk about me and you," but eventually it evolves.
YI: When you came up with the business idea, did you sit down and ask yourselves whether you wanted to work together, or did you say, let’s just try it?
U: I’m of Indian ancestry and in my world family businesses are pretty much a done thing. I don’t think twice about it. In fact, I encourage it. I look at my daughter: she’s educated, she has all kinds of opportunities. Do I really want to put her through the hell of being an entrepreneur? So, I’ll let Nareena take over.
N: For me it was a consideration of I was going to leave a secure job for something that I can't see the future of, and I’ll have to work with my mom all the time. Something about this opportunity felt right.
YI: What would you like to share with aspiring entrepreneurs?
U: Look around you. Learn and listen and reach back to your ancestry and ideas because our ancestors were very innovative. Bring it all together, find that passion and then put it in first gear.
N: Do the hard work. I can’t tell you how many times I was able to find the answer I was looking for just by spending time on Google, instead of walking up to someone and expecting them to hand me the answers.
Rolling up your sleeves and getting the work done is super important. Make sure you’re surrounding yourself with people who support you. If you don’t, look at your business again and double check it’s not your business that’s a bit off. At the start of this business, I had a partner that really tried to undermine and sabotage what I was doing. It took a lot of courage to stand up to that person and say, “you’re wrong and out you go and I’m doing this anyway.” It’s finding the strength within yourself to do the hard work.