Recovering Canadian small and medium businesses (SMEs) have shown incredible resilience throughout this pandemic, implementing new strategies to adapt to the ever-changing business landscape. According to our recently commissioned survey, while 74 per cent of SMEs are feeling confident when looking at the future of their business in the next 1-3 years, challenges related to cash flow, supplier payments and time management persist as businesses continue on their journeys towards rebuilding.
To celebrate the exemplary grit, creativity, and resilience of small business owners during this unprecedented time, American Express Canada launched Passion & Persistence: Stories of Business Resilience in partnership with The Globe and Mail. The content series brought us into the lives and perspectives of three unique business owners, one of whom was Oumar Barou Togola, co-founder and CEO of Farafena. Through social enterprise and direct trade, Farafena invests in women farmers in Africa to grow and harvest the purest grains and fruits – so that they can bring delicious, nutrient-rich superfoods to your family here in Canada, while building strong, healthy communities in Mali and Malawi.
Here, Oumar shares Farafena’s story, what inspired him to work in the food industry, and how COVID-19 forced him to re-evaluate his business strategy.
Q: What inspired you to start your business?
I always felt like I wanted to do something more meaningful and give back to the African community where I was born and grew up. My mother was a midwife and my father worked as a hydrologist for the United Nations, so they really instilled in me the importance of community development and the desire to make the world a better place.
Q: What is special about Farafena? Tell us one key aspect that separates you from similar companies in your industry?
So often for businesses it’s about making money. For Farafena, it’s about making impact. Our goal is to connect communities across the world through nutritious food, while at the same time nourishing the future of African women and their communities. I believe Farafena is the true definition of a social enterprise – my business partner, Dylan Beechey, and I have the same vision - to provide an opportunity for these incredibly hard-working women in Africa to tell their story.
Q: What was it about Dylan that made you want to become partners in business?
I was born and grew up in Mali but moved to Vancouver Island in 2000 to finish high school. When I first moved to Canada, I didn’t know anyone! Dylan was one of the very first people I met. He’s like a brother to me and I trust him more than anybody. In fact, in high school, we always talked about the fact that we would eventually end up working together. There isn’t anyone else I’d rather share this company with.
Q: What is it about your industry that makes you passionate?
I think the food manufacturing industry is one of the most important sectors for the global economy. The reason why I personally wanted to get into food and African trade, was because it was my way of changing the narrative of Africa - to shine a light on the abundant cultural resources of Africa, share them with the world, and most importantly, empower and support African women smallholder farmers.
Q: How do you measure success?
For me, success is not about how much money you make or the material items you have. Success is measured in how many lives you’ve positively impacted and how many communities you’ve empowered. It’s been so rewarding and meaningful to sit down with these farmers and hear from them first-hand what Farafena has done for them. It’s truly priceless.
Q: Why did you choose Amex when starting your business?
When starting a business, access to working capital is vital – without it you can’t survive. In our early days when Farafena was in its infancy, we went to several financial institutions seeking a business credit Card. After being declined time and time again, we reached out to American Express, told them about our business and our vision for the future. Right away, they were willing to help us establish our company, and ever since we’ve had amazing account managers who go out of their way to make sure we feel well supported.
Q: How has Covid-19 forced you to re-evaluate your business strategy?
2020 was supposed to be our biggest year, but due to the pandemic, a lot of our major, international orders were cancelled. We were forced to give up our office and work remotely like many other businesses. However, we quickly came to understand where we should be focusing our efforts. 2020 gave us the opportunity to realize what our mission is as a food company. We don’t want to be part of the problem. Africa has always been this place of extraction; companies taking gold, diamonds, and other resources, and leaving nothing behind. The primary focus should be feeding the people there and we’re dedicated now more than ever, to do just that.
Q: What does resilience mean to you?
To me, resilience means staying true to who you are and staying true to your ‘why’. For me, it was ‘why did I start this company?’. I started this company to help women farmers in Africa and give back to the communities where my family lives and where I once lived. We cannot fail these women farmers. It is our duty and promise to them. Resilience is reminding yourself every day that there is a bigger cause than yourself.
Q: What is the best advice that you’ve ever received?
The best advice that I ever received is to always put family first. That became very evident in these past few months as we’ve all had to spend more time with our families. It really put things in perspective for me. I realized that businesses come and go, but at the end of the day, family is what you can rely on. It’s the most important thing.
Descriptions and opinions are those of Oumar Barou Togola and Farafena, not those of American Express.
This article is intended for general informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice or an opinion on any issue. It should not be regarded as comprehensive or a substitute for professional advice.