Opportunities in Food Industry Abound for Indigenous Entrepreneurs by Heather Exner-Pirot

In a welcome break from the grind of conference season, Melissa Cote from the Ministry of Economy organized a tour of Saskatoon’s Food Centre and POS Bio Sciences last month for participants of Whitecap Dakota’s Aboriginal Business Forum.  These facilities offer a great opportunity for Indigenous entrepreneurs and economic development corporations to commercialize and market any ideas they might have for a business in the enormous food products industry; but very few people know about them.

The Food Centre

Many business leaders have spoken about the great branding opportunities there are to sell Indigenous food products, especially for consumers who value organic, locally sourced, and/or handmade products.  That market, including international exports, has lots of room to expand.  The Food Centre, which is a partnership between the Government of Saskatchewan, the Saskatchewan Food Processors Association and the University of Saskatchewan, is designed to support entrepreneurs as they enter the food industry. It is the only one in the province, and quite unique in the country, and serves Saskatchewan residents and beyond.

SFNEDN Executive Director Shaun Soonias and Board member Heather Exner-Pirot model some food science fashions.

The tours were fascinating.  Much like the popular television show, “Food Factory”, The Food Centre has dozens of kinds of equipment for food processing: rolling, tumbling, slicing, injecting, grinding, packaging, bottling, filtering, pasteurizing, and on and on. Entrepreneurs and companies can rent the equipment and space by the day, making it easy to get started or scale up.  It is federally inspected and registered, and certified to process organics, Halal food, or natural health products.  Bannock mix, medicinal teas, dried berries – these were just of the items that we could easily imagine being developed and sold. (Bison and venison products are still tricky due to federal regulations – unless you are selling within province).

The staff at the Food Centre also offers tons of expertise and support to help you develop your ideas, work out the production, and help you market it. It’s intended as an incubation centre to help entrepreneurs: perfect to get knowledgeable support and mentorship when you are starting a new business idea. They also offer food safety and other types of training as you develop your workforce.

POS Bio-Sciences

The next stop was POS Bio-Sciences.  This seemed to be for more developed business products and companies, and was doing some pretty high-end food processing right in our own backyard.   They began as a partnership to test the viability of canola oil in the market, and as we all know, were successful in that.  Today they do things like make Omega-3 supplements from fish, and extract valuable compounds from foods to use as additives.  They can also do an analysis on any food products you might want to sell, for example the amount and type of oils, proteins, fibre, and antioxidants.  (We heard a lot about “health claims” in food marketing; it’s a big thing.)

Growing Opportunities

All of us left thinking that there was a lot of opportunity for First Nation and Métis entrepreneurs and EDCs in the food industry.  The food industry offers niches in branding and wellness attributes that could easily be leveraged by the Indigenous community, has space for low- and medium-skilled labour, and can take advantage of land assets, fishing, and foraging knowledge.  There are a number of funding programs to help entrepreneurs and companies get started, such as the Saskatchewan Agri-Value Initiative (SAVI), offering information services, business plan development, and matching funding up to $100,000.

With the recent downturn in mining and energy, a lot of Indigenous communities have begun to look at diversification strategies more seriously.  Food production is an often overlooked but promising avenue, offering great branding opportunities, job potential, scalability, and external markets.