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Advocates make pitch to province for investment in Alberta’s Black entrepreneurs

Damilare Odumosu remembers the challenges of harvesting palm tree fruit as a kid on his family farm in Lagos, Nigeria.

Two decades on, those pain points are the seeds of Odumosu’s latest start-up.

CropMind is an Alberta and New Brunswick-based agri-tech company that automates manual processes for orchards with a growing clientele across North America. 

The enterprise expanded with support from a federally funded program designed by the Edmonton-based Black Business Ventures Association.

“BBVA is able to help BIPOC founders like myself leverage resources to be able to navigate the cultural barriers in meeting Canadian and North American customers,” said Odumosu, who started the business when he was a master’s student in Fredericton, N.B., but now lives in Calgary.

It’s what the federal government had in mind when it launched the Black Entrepreneur Program in May 2021. Partnering with Black-led business organizations and financial institutions, the program invested $265 million across Canada.

Funding has ended for most of the Alberta organizations or will do so in the next few months.

The Black Business Ventures Association is among six Alberta-based organizations that formed the Alberta Black Entrepreneurial Ecosystem Alliance. Together they received about $15.5 million under the Black Entrepreneur Program to get Black-owned businesses off the ground.

A spokesperson for Rechie Valdez, the federal minister of small business, said Valdez is looking at how Ottawa can continue to support Black-owned small businesses.

In the meantime, the ecosystem alliance is urging the provincial government to provide new funding to continue its work.

Young woman smiles behind a booth selling crocheted stuffed animals including a black and pink bumble bee and a white unicorn
Afrifest is an Edmonton event that showcases Black entrepreneurs and business owners. (Africa Centre)

The alliance says it has a blueprint for success which has produced hundreds of new, diverse startups while many existing businesses have also seen significant growth, in a range of sectors including tech, energy, agriculture, finance, real estate, immigration and health care.

Businesses have accessed tens of millions of dollars in equity capital and loans, while Alberta has seen an expansion in international trade with the United States and African and Caribbean countries, the alliance says.

The initiative is designed to help entrepreneurs sharpen their business acumen in a range of areas including creating business solutions, accessing resources and credit, networking, practising pitches, growing customer bases and coaching.

It has inadvertently opened up a new financial market with major banks offering specific capital business lines to support Black entrepreneurs, said Samuel Juru, executive director of the Africa Centre, an Edmonton-based non-profit organization that also works in Calgary and Winnipeg.

We think that it’s time that the province has skin in the game.– Samuel Juru

“We think that this [framework] has resonance with the current Alberta government’s core mandate around economic development, the diversification of our economy, trade and jobs,” Juru said.

“It’s great that the federal government has provided the resources to catalyze this initiative and we think that it’s time that the province has skin in the game.”

Data in hand, the alliance — which also includes the African Canadian Civic Engagement Council, Black Canadian Women in Action, Canadian Imperial Advantage and BIPOC Foundation — made its business pitch on Feb. 15 to Premier Danielle Smith.

In a post on X following the meeting, Smith said she was “truly impressed with the drive of this organization helping build businesses across our province.”

Asked by Diversity Magazine if the alliance’s framework would see provincial funding, Smith suggested the groups apply for Alberta’s Ethnocultural Grant Program, which provides funding of up to $50,000.

“It creates opportunities to celebrate diversity or opportunities for intercultural connections,” Smith told reporters in early March.

In an emailed response to CBC, Smith’s press secretary Sam Blackett didn’t say whether the province intends to fund ABEEA’s programs. Blackett listed a range of non-Black specific supports available for small businesses and entrepreneurs in Alberta, such as BizConnect.

Juru said the $50,000 grant is roughly the amount needed to launch a single small or mid-level business.

“We need to move into serious funding pools that look at what the funding for entrepreneurs looks like, to be able to do what they need to do,” he said.

Black population soaring in Alberta

Juru said decision-makers should view the allocation of funding through a different lens, as Canada is welcoming nearly half a million newcomers each year, largely to address skilled labour shortages.

“These are highly educated, entrepreneurial, highly skilled migrants, which the country needs,” he said.

Alberta has the third largest Black population of any province, behind only Ontario and Quebec.

Statistics Canada says Alberta’s Black population almost quadrupled between 2006 and 2021, from 46,965 to 177,940. As of 2021, 64 per cent of Black people in Alberta were first-generation newcomers.

Dipo Alli, who oversees the seed tech accelerator program as executive director of the Black Business Ventures Association, said newcomers may not have the collateral or networks that startups need.

Specific Black business programs are essential to remedy that, Alli said.

“These are Canadians who want to contribute to our economy,” he said.

“That’s what we’re trying to do here: take advantage of under-capitalized, underutilized, underrepresented, under-invested, underemployed people and have them contribute their paths to grow Canada.”

A woman wearing business clothing looks directly into the camera.
Dunia Nur says the initiative by Alberta organizations aligns with the province’s goals for economic growth and diversification. (African Canadian Civic Engagement Council)

Dunia Nur, executive director of the civic engagement council, said the six organizations have developed a framework “that promotes the creation and expansion of Black businesses, aligning with the government of Alberta’s goals for economic growth and diversification.”

She said it makes economic sense for the province to step up with new policy and resources given Alberta’s rapidly growing Black population.

Entrepreneurship grads

On Feb. 24, in front of a crowd that included provincial politicians of all stripes, a fourth cohort of Black entrepreneurs accepted diplomas on stage at Edmonton’s Metro Cinema.

The grads had completed the 25-week ANZA Entrepreneurship Ecosystem program from the African Canadian Civic Engagement Council.

The program is highlighted in a new documentary called Chasing Ubuntu. The film shows how marginalized Black youth are rising above racism, the criminalization of poverty, pre-migration trauma and the legacy of slavery and colonialism to fulfil their entrepreneurial dreams.

Split photo, on left man smiling looking off in the distance, on the right, the long embroidered shirt that is part of his clothing brand in Lake Louise Blue.
Ahmed Dubow launched clothing brand Friends You Know through the ANZA Entrepreneurship Ecosystem program. (Robinson Kany/Ahmed Dubow)

One of those dreams belongs to Ahmed Dubow, CEO of clothing brand Friends You Know, that includes an embroidered thobe, or long shirt, in Lake Louise Blue.

“We were able to take this idea and make it into a reality thanks to @startupedmonton @Anza,” Dubow wrote on Instagram in March. 

“The only way we can thank them for this fantastic opportunity is by working extremely hard to be successful.”

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

A banner of upturned fists, with the words 'Being Black in Canada'.

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