Growing North looks to provide sustainable produce to Inuit communities

Sponsored feature: presented by Social Ventures Zone at Ryerson University

The Social Ventures Zone at Ryerson University is home to unique entrepreneurial initiatives that are designed to make a positive impact in a variety of communities, both in Toronto and beyond. See all of our profiles here.

Growing North

Who’s involved in this project?

Stefany Nieto (co-founder/executive director), Benjamin Canning (co-founder/president), Anjali Ravi (operations coordinator), Christian D’Antonio (education director), TJ Driediger (business development officer), Lisa Mancuso (legal analyst), Samantha Villalon (marketing associate), Monica Khaper (director of sustainability) and Julie Robertson (PhD student).

What are your goals for this project?

TJ Driediger: Growing North’s mission is to sustainably provide fresh, locally grown produce to families living in isolated communities across Canada at a fraction of the current price, while positively contributing to the educational infrastructure and job market. Our methods and efforts stem directly from community-identified issues and result in positive social, economic and environmental change. We focus on the long-term sustainability in all that we do.

What is the biggest challenge you’re facing?

TD: One of the biggest challenges we have faced is translation and dissemination of knowledge. There are many words in English that do not have direct translations in Inuktitut, making it difficult to effectively communicate horticultural terminology and methods. To help overcome the language barrier, we will be working with individuals who are well-versed in the Inuktitut language to translate our materials. We also work closely with community members with a strong knowledge of Inuit culture to help develop our methods and ensure that our operations are culturally compatible. 

Can you explain the mentorship process available to you through the Ryerson Social Ventures Zone (SVZ)?

Anjali Ravi: The SVZ has been a great source for on-demand mentorship – they are always available to answer quick questions. The SVZ has also connected us to a diverse network of experts and resources through events, workshops and other like-minded social entrepreneurs. Alongside the mentorship and ongoing support, the SVZ also offers an incredible workspace for ideation of new business projects and office space for executing existing strategies.

The Ryerson SVZ is all about leveraging innovation to make a social impact. How will your project affect the communities you’re targeting?

AR: Growing North’s multi-pronged approach impacts our target communities in three ways. With high costs to ship produce into Northern communities, produce in the North is expensive and low quality. We are reducing these costs by providing communities with local greenhouse infrastructure, allowing them to grow their own fresh herbs and vegetables locally. 

Low graduation rates are a significant problem in many Northern communities. For example: Naujaat, our pilot community, has a graduation ratio of two people for every 40. Our co-op education program allows high school students to earn credits towards their diplomas, giving them a much better chance of graduating from their schools.

Lastly, Northern communities experience high rates of unemployment. Through our high school co-op program, local students have the opportunity to earn income through employment as one of our greenhouse managers. Through these three approaches, we hope to educate, employ and empower local community members to operate the greenhouse and benefit their community for years to come.

Have you been able to obtain any feedback from people who stand to benefit from your project? If so, what have they told you?

TD: Growing North was developed after a thorough needs assessment and personal discussions with community members to identify and understand the problems that matter most to them. From our research, in terms of both greenhouse operations and educational programming, we received positive feedback from the community in Naujaat, which has helped garner interest from other communities all across Northern Canada.

To highlight this, we received great enthusiasm during our first farmers’ market, where we sold all of our produce within two hours to customers ranging from eight to 70 years old. We take our feedback loop very seriously and all of our efforts stem directly from community-driven projects and outcomes. 

What kind of public or private partnerships are you hoping to make (if any) to help grow your project?

TD: One of our goals is to establish partnerships with food retailers, who have the infrastructure to sell the produce locally at a significantly reduced cost. Additionally, Growing North values the support and partnership with governments at all levels. Locally, our decisions are driven by community input and our operations move forward only with the guidance and approval from the local elder councils. Ongoing support from both the territorial and federal government is also crucial to expanding our project across the North.

Imagine if you could scale up your project to its full potential. What would that look like?

AR: Growing North, in its full potential, would see our food production system be implemented in every isolated Northern community and fully integrated with local education programs and community infrastructures. Growing North aims to empower each community to control their own food production, both reducing costs and maintaining long-term sustainability through our multi-pronged design. 

Timing is a crucial factor that contributes to the success of a social venture. Why is now the right time for your project?

TD: Currently, the primary source of food for many Northerners are local grocers, who import and redistribute food through their retail stores. While it does provide food, this solution is unsustainable. The remote location of Northern communities requires expensive and time-intensive shipments, inflating produce prices and increasing spoilage rates.

With the introduction of grocery stores to Northern communities, populations have steeply risen, bringing a greater dependence on these institutions. Although still very prominent in Northern communities, hunting has become a less reliable source of providing three meals a day. The present-day warming of the Arctic has changed animal migration patterns and thinned the ice for hunters to travel across. With climate change having dramatic effects on the movement patterns of local food sources like caribou, seals and fish, having an alternative source of nutritious food is becoming increasingly urgent. 

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