Podcast: The Public Discourse

Episode 8: Economic Choices

We talk with Jessey Njau and Erik Friedmann about the economic choices people are making during the pandemic, and how they can point us to new ways of thinking about our social and economic life. Friedmann is co-founder of OK! Kombucha, and Njau is a founding member of Zawadi Farm.

Read the Transcript

This transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity

GEOFF CAMERON (Director, Office of Public Affairs): Thank you for joining us for this episode of The Public Discourse Erik and Jessey. I am really delighted to have you here. At the beginning of each episode of this podcast, we usually invite our guests to briefly introduce themselves. So could I ask you each to say a few words about who you are and the businesses that you lead. Jessey, I'll start with you. 

JESSEY NJAU (Co-Founder, Zawadi Farm): Sure. Thanks for the intro and thanks for having me. It's a great honour. I appreciate this so much. It's a valid conversation to have. I am an urban farmer in the city of Toronto and my practice is simply growing food in urban growing areas. At the moment right now we have back yards, front yards, and public spaces at Downsview Park. And what we grow is basically for farm shares and also to go into communities for other things which we'll dive into. 

GEOFF: Wonderful. Thank Jessey. I'm so pleased you could join us today. Erik, how about you? 

ERIK FRIEDMANN (Co-Founder, OK! Kombucha): Thanks for inviting me and I'm really happy to be a part of the conversation; really see where today goes. As you mentioned I have a kombucha brewery. For those who do not know what kombucha is, it's a fermented tea. So it's slightly sparkling, slightly tangy, and we flavour it with different ingredients like fresh juices, fresh ingredients, to give the beverage an interesting taste profile. 

So the business that we run is a brewery and we're based out of Toronto. 

GEOFF: Great. Well, I'm excited to talk to you about what it's like to run a business during a pandemic, but I want to start with a question of values. This is a topic we often end up discussing on The Public Discourse. Both of you run businesses that are an expression of certain values that you want to see reflected in the world around you. You both introduced the businesses that you have helped to found, but can you talk a little more about the business and the values that inform it? Maybe Erik I'll start with you. 

ERIK: Yeah, absolutely. When we first started the business, we were having these conversations around the type of values that we wanted our business to be imbued with, and we came up with a couple of values that really reflected the sort of activity that we're doing when we're manufacturing kombucha. We're essentially a food manufacturer; a food processor. That's sort of the space that we're in. So, we really wanted to think of values that were really relevant for that space that we're participating in.

Some of the core values that we came up with – which we think is really important when you're involved with food manufacturing – is transparency and uncompromised quality. I think transparency is really important when you're dealing with food and sharing that food with others.  

What this means for us is sharing our story, sharing where our ingredients are sourced, sharing our process, and really being very open with our customers and our wholesale partners; really not holding back and feeling like we have some sort of intellectual property that we're trying to hold close or tight with us. Or, you know, just trying to protect some process that is really unique to the way that we run our business. We really view this in a very different light. We really want to share what we do very openly with those who are engaged with us.  

And with regard to uncompromised quality: when we're approaching the beverage that we're manufacturing, we really want to make sure that it can be the best that it can, that it's going to provide the best value to the customer. Often times in food manufacturing – the way that products are developed – it's usually a price point product. They'll kind of figure out the economics. They'll think of, you know, what's the price of this ingredient? They'll cost the ingredients. And because they're trying to hit a specific price point, it's very challenging to innovate or to deliver the type of quality that the customer would like. They're constrained by the economics of it. And we really try and remove that portion out of the equation and focus on quality.

So, what is it that we need to do, what are the ingredients that we need to source, what are the supplies, packaging, et cetera, that we need to work with to make sure that we're delivering on that value? And once we put all that together and we figure out what the cost is and see that it's viable, we can move forward with it – even if it means lower margins for us. 

Those are really two core pillars to the way that we run our business. And the other pillar that really guides our actions is genuine sincerity. When we were having these conversations, we were trying to think the language, like, what is this thing that we do when we're interacting with our customers? With our wholesale partners? With our distributors? What is it? What's that principle that can guide our actions? And when we're having these conversations with my founding member, we kind of arrived at this word 'genuine sincerity' to kind of reflect the way that we want to carry ourselves.

And this obviously extends to the customer. Anything that we do, we really want to make sure that it's of value to our customers and hopefully, they feel this genuine sincerity from our part when we're sharing what we do with them.

JESSEY: Well said. Well said.

GEOFF: So interesting. Thanks, Erik. Jessey, now going to you, I would like to ask you the same question. I mean you've established an urban farm. What are the values that inform your work with that farm? 

JESSEY: I have to say, ours was a journey to understand the values. I came from the tech world, and when I switched into urban farming I brought in the tech mindset and found out really quickly that doesn't work. You know, the farming environment has everything that I was used to, backwards. 

I'll give you a couple of examples. When we started the farm I was looking for land. I was looking to know where I'm going to start. My initial thought was: find a place, rent a place, get some money back – you know, just some funding – and find a space and start farming. And I quickly started learning that something's different in the approach because somebody who had heard of what I was doing opened up their backyard, 7500 square feet right there. Boom! Take it for free! So that was an anomaly in the equation because that doesn't compute in the world of tech. You know? You never get anything for free. If there's free, there's something else in the background that's going to take [something] away from you.

And then when we started farming there, I opened up a farmer's market that we were running – myself and some vendors – and we brought all our produce there in expectation that: we have the food, we grow the food, it's good food, everybody should have it. And we quickly learned that not everybody has the same access to food that we expected.  

One of my favourite stories with that process that defined the core values that we stand on was this. Every time we came to sell our produce, the conversation was like this: Somebody comes to our table, sees our produce, they like what they're seeing, but the first thing they'll tell us is, "I can find that cheaper.” “I can find the kale cheaper.” “I can find the beets cheaper.” “I can…" The conversation was based on money, money, money. Right?  

Andin any negotiation, if somebody starts with a price figure for me, the negotiation has ended because they've already set their price and their ballpark. So for you to negotiate now, it's not about the produce anymore, it's now how much are you willing to give up financially. Right? And it was such a difficult conversation because I couldn't win that conversation. 

So I have to go back and re-think. And I thought, "Okay. I'm going to do something radical. Something crazy." Anyone who came in and gave me that line of, "I can find the kale cheaper…" for example, or the beets or radishes that we grew. I gave them the produce, and I told them, "Listen, you go take it home, you eat it, come back next week and yell at me if you have to or talk to me about what your experience was." And what we learned from that was the retention of everyone who we gave the produce to. The conversation changed. The retention was a hundred percent by the way. They all came back, but the conversation was not on how much is it; it was, "I have 25 dollars, what can I fill my basket with?" So it's not about the prices, it's about the, "I want this experience food-wise. I want it. I want to have this fit." And that's what changed our model from just standing on a table for five hours waiting for people to come in to buy produce, to collectively creating a 25 dollar box full of produce that we can deliver to people. 

In fact, those people became our first farm-share members. That's how it all began. But what we learned within that same process was not everybody can afford the produce. The other part of the equation was to figure out how we were going to do that. We don't need the huge financial gain; the profit. Initially, we are building a business. We're [in our] first year. The financial need wasn't the first thing we were trying to attend to. This process prodded us to go back and learn our community, listen to our community, see our community, and for the first time – literally, I have been living in Etobicoke for over 20 years – but this was the first time I actually stood back and then started looking at my community. And when I started seeing that and meeting people, I started seeing how deficient my produce was in meeting those who cannot afford it – in the low–income homes. My area is very densely populated with that. 

We started thinking: how do we distribute our produce in a way that it's ethically reaching the people who can't afford it? So that other crazy idea came, which a friend of mine shared with me. He said, "Listen. How about you define what your 'enough' is?" 'Enough' is: after the farm–shares have had their piece and you've delivered all the produce there, anyone else who needs the produce that can buy at wholesale prices. 

We had that volume, but we also noticed we had extra volume over and above everything else we've done. So we started a community market subsidizing everything we have for that community market. And it was a night and day difference as far as bringing the produce there. It was gone because everything we had was fresh from the farm. 

We started doing more of that, more of that, more of that. For four years, we did that consistently. We planted in a way that is dense enough that all the produce can be sold and meet the farm–share requirements in any capacity that we can, but then, we could move a good chunk of that into the community.

This all happened with – again, like I said the ethics, the mental state was changing as we were engaging with the community. Right? And then, before COVID hit, and once COVID came in, it kind of kyboshed that community environment because we couldn't go to the low-income homes to sell our produce.  

Instead, we partnered with FoodShare; who were a partner of ours before. But we were now able to move a lot more product to them. And they had a great consolidation piece that they could take and move it into their community markets way better than we could have. So that was a great continuance to ourconversation.  

I love what Erik was saying about transparency. You know? We're not trying to create something that's just ours and ours to protect. You're open about it. Learn from us. We'll teach you. We post everything we do online. We communicate as much as we can. And next season we're doing a lot more YouTube videos to talk about this conversation of 'build your community first, understand your soil second, and know who your partners are and build that relationship.' We found that the more we create those symbiotic relationships – they don't have to fit perfectly – but the more we nurtured them, the more resilient we were through this pandemic. 

GEOFF: That's great. Thanks, Jessey. You've actually taken the conversation in the direction I hoped it would go. You both described a number of values that inform your businesses, from the pursuit of quality and excellence and transparency to a desire to see your products serve a healthier population; you've talked about community ties, partnership, and seeing beyond the profit motive as an important dimension of how your businesses operate. But I'm interested in how this pandemic has affected the way that you work.  

Jessey, you were naturally talking about that in your remarks, that the environment of the pandemic has shifted how you are approaching certain things with your business. And I wanted to ask Erik this question that you've addressed Jessey. I mean, what are some of the challenges presented by the pandemic? Because I think that's been something that has been in the consciousness of many people: the challenge this poses to small businesses. But also, you know, I think you mentioned before that it can also create opportunities for doing things differently. 

So could you speak to that, about both the challenges of adaptation, but also, opportunities for change? 

ERIK: Yeah, for sure. When the pandemic first started in March once the lockdowns first started, it really challenged our current business model. At the time, our business model was very much dependent on wholesalers; so us selling to, for example, grocery stores, cafés, restaurants, and then them, in turn, selling to their customers. This was the business model that we were pursuing. And because of what the pandemic did to local economies, our business model was completely challenged.  

Overnight we lost 80 percent of our accounts. 80 percent of our revenue was wiped off with no clear direction or understanding of when this revenue could return at that point. And during those days, during those weeks, I thought that maybe this is it. Like, this is it for the business. This is it for many small businesses across the city and the country.  

It was a rocky period and characterized by uncertainty and we were really not sure what was going to happen to us. But with many businesses, you had to adapt. We had to change our business model and what we ended up doing was a direct-to-consumer model. This is what many businesses have done. This is really not particular to us, or we're not really innovating in any regard. I think we were just reading our reality and seeing that people were home, people were still wanting to consume our products, and they were willing to pay a premium to get those products delivered to their door. So we had to create a brand new infrastructure to be able to meet this home delivery demand; from setting up a website to figuring out the logistics in warehousing, in transportation, in how that product gets delivered to people's doors, to order fulfillment, like, that's a whole ecosystem that we had to figure out and we had to figure out fairly quickly. 

So this new environment challenged our business. It really made things very difficult for a number of weeks. But then it opened this door that I think was always there, but now it was there in high demand. It really pushed us to explore this model of directly delivering to our customers. What it ended up doing – it was actually a very beautiful few weeks’ period – when we launched this model was that we were directly interacting with our customers. This was always the piece that was missing when we were dealing with wholesalers, because the wholesalers, the grocery store managers, the café managers; these were our customers. 

We would deliver a few cases. We'd chat with them and they'd say, "Yeah, it's great. People love it." So you kind of get the feedback through them, but you're not really getting the true feedback. Like, what is it that people really love? Why are people buying our products? 

We started directly interacting with our customers and getting questions, and there were live chats on our website that we had set up so people can write in and we'd be able to respond right away. You know, all this interaction – this sort of like community interaction – started to begin. I think this has been one of the upsides of the pandemic: that in many ways it has created new spaces for people to interact and for new communities to be created. 

And now that the pandemic has created a “new normal” and small businesses – some small businesses, grocery stores, cafés – are starting to be able to reopen under new conditions – we're now having the ability to now interact both with this old business model that we were dealing with, which was our wholesale, and this new business model which is a direct-to-consumer model.  

Despite the challenges, now we're in a position where we have new opportunities, we have new customers who've been able to find us; a stronger community; I think a stronger vision. 

GEOFF: Jessey, maybe I could ask you the same question but in a slightly different way because you already started talking about how the pandemic has created a new environment for Zawadi Farms. Are there certain things that you started to do in the last eight months that you think you'll continue to do, say, next year when, God willing, things return to a more normal state? 

JESSEY: I love the question so much because it kind of pegs the understanding that systems could change before the pandemic, and they're adapting in the new scenario; what the pandemic was in the lockdown, and who knows what tomorrow brings. Everything's changing by the minute. By the time this conversation ends, I'm sure we'll have new information about something that has changed and now we have to adapt to it. 

But the challenge we had going back even before the pandemic hit – and by the way Erik thank you so much for that analogy of how you interacted and met with your customers – that was our number one goal once we started the farm, and once we started switching our mindset to just going directly to the customer. When we first started, we had about 15–20 customers, the first year – actually it wasn't the first, it was the second year – we were delivering. So we were taking a box of produce to somebody's home… before the pandemic even hit. And what Erik is alluding to is one of the most powerful resources as humans that we lose in the interaction at box stores. 

We're now 70 [subscribers]. We're clocking hopefully a hundred next year, and I don't want to give up my delivery time because I want to spend the day meeting people. After the pandemic, we had to pull back because we couldn't go into peoples' homes and interact with them and talk about the produce and how they could cook it, and whatever. We had to introduce new digital pieces to turn those into continuous conversations. But before the pandemic, the stories and the conversations we had were fuel, because they would say, "That beet was…!" You know? Or, "That kale was…!" Or that, you know, "Could you grow this?" "Have you thought of growing that?" Or, "Do you have peppers for…"  

We evolved so fast because our community gave us the pathway of how to grow, or where to grow. And some [people] were seeing our members receiving stuff [and they would say], "What is that thing?" "Ah well, it's grown in Toronto." "Grown in Toronto? What?" And it just started changing and really fueling our membership numbers. Our narrative was getting even more profound because people understood the more you support us, the stronger we are in the pursuit of ending poverty in our community. You know? 

So they were fired up! "What else can I buy from you? What else can I do? In fact, I have a friend who wants [this]." I mean, it just mushroomed and went into places that we [didn’t expect]… By the way, we've never advertised once. And we get calls to advertise, advertise, advertise. But because of our starting the initial conversation with our community, it really helped us to engage with them in a way that when we say, "Coming to a new season. We have this 'x' amount of spaces…" It almost felt bad because we couldn't feed many people. We can't. 

You know 70 is [big]… Going to 100 is really pushing it. But what we started seeing now in the conversation of people liking our produce and everything else, now it has gone past the conversation about money. It's now, "What can I do for you?" 

I have people who want to become riders for me. I have people who want to become filmographers for me; that have done actually, I have had a few come in last season. And some want to tell my story.  

Some actually, a friend of mine came in and did a video for us which became a phenomenal tool. Even today, [people] still come to us and say, "I saw that video. Please tell me more about what you do." 

So, the conversation now has changed to, "I'm happy to pay for the produce, but what else can I do? What else do you want me to do? What else are you trying to solve?" And I'll share with you a story here that kind of adds to it. We normally don't publish this anywhere but I'll share it with you because it kind of is part of this piece.  

Every year, my partner and I, Mischa, buy Christmas trees, load them up on our front lawn, call our friends and families and neighbours and say, "Come get your tree." For five years we've done this. And when we did that, it wasn't an expression of, you know, "Look at me I've made so much money!" Whatever. No. It wasn't that. We know there are people who will not get the chance to go out and find a tree, buy a tree, and bring it home. Some people don't have that ability. But we have the ability to do this. 

This year we bought 50 trees instead of the 20 that we normally do. But we didn't pay for the trees. Our community did because they love the narrative of why we are engaged together. You know? So my drive to solve poverty in my community, that is not [only] my drive anymore, right? It's now our community’s drive.

So over and above the transaction of, "Here's my produce," "Here's my money." …The narrative now is: we have a bigger job to do. Do you know what I'm saying? So there's a communal uplift to this. 

The pandemic wasn't a tool to separate us as humans. In fact, it now gives us a chance to really take the time, look back and see where else can we be effective in the conversation of, you know, where Erik is, or where I am, or where you are Geoff. So that to me is the most powerful resource that I think we're missing.

I know I'm talking too much. I apologize. 

GEOFF: No. This is great. I mean, you're both talking about how the pandemic has actually allowed you to reach into your communities, to your customers, in ways that previously you were unable to or hadn't developed the model to do so. Which is kind of paradoxical isn't it? I mean, that we think of the pandemic as separating us, but you're describing how it has brought you closer together.

JESSEY: Absolutely.

GEOFF: Great. I just want to now draw our conversation to a kind of closing point of reflection, which is to ask each of you to reflect on your hopes and aspirations for the future of our society; drawing on what you've learned over the last eight months or so.  

I think you've both kind of touched on these themes already in your comments, but maybe you can think ahead about what your hopes are for your community and for our society as we emerge from the pandemic. Erik can I start with you?

ERIK: Yeah. For sure. That's a big question. 

GEOFF: We specialize in big questions.

ERIK: Yeah. I didn't see that one coming. We've been so grounded in reality and what has been happening with our businesses. I mean I think we're all thinking about this. What is it that we're hoping for once this is all over?

Beyond what we've been experiencing, personally, for me, what the pandemic has also created – other than, you know, maybe new realities, new ways of interacting, new ways of coming together – there is also another reality which is highlighting the injustices that we see across the world at all levels. It's highlighting the increasing gap between the rich and the poor; that's something that the pandemic has actually caused. There's the rich are now richer and the poor are poorer. This is a reality. It's highlighting the challenges with homelessness and poverty. It's highlighting the challenges with access to health care; the challenges that marginalized communities have. 

So my hope is that as the human race, we can hopefully look at the challenges that are now so much in our face. Before they were there and you could kind of brush them under the rug or whatever, but now they're so apparent. And I really hope that we look at them and we see them for what they are and that we're able to respond to them in meaningful ways and in ways that can actually create enduring change. That's what I hope happens to my business… My business will do a small part hopefully in the bigger change that needs to take place. 

GEOFF: Perfect. And Jessey, how about you? Maybe you can think in big terms. You can also think in terms of the community that you're serving in the context of your business. What are your hopes and aspirations for it in the year to come?

JESSEY: My friends who will listen to this podcast will laugh because that's a dangerous question to askme. All I do every day is think about what the future is and how we're going to meet it. So I'll give you the Coles Notes of how we're approaching this. 

When we first started we knew that Zawadi will outgrow us. We knew that it will reach a point in time where there are people in our community who will take over the farm in some way, shape, or form. That we, as Mischa and myself, will reach a point of bigger battles ahead of us. So we were prepared for that from the beginning.

Before the pandemic, a friend of mine asked – one of my mentors actually – asked me, "Jessey, do you think you could feed Toronto?" And a question never shook me so much to the core than that, because if you think: if all systems of import shut down, can Toronto feed itself? Can – and Toronto I'm calling Mississauga, Brampton, all the GTAs, but I'm pulling them in as a city and saying – "Can we feed us? Ontario, can we feed us?" And that scared me because I don't know. 

If you drive around our city – and you know, Erik you were driving to Kingston – you see all for sale, for sale, for sale. Farms are disappearing. So that's a concern for us in thinking in the future we're not eating less, right? The population is increasing, the demand for food is increasing, but we're losing farmland. So what gives? Why is that? 

That's a challenge for us. We're trying to meet that. And then if you look at our communities also, the number one problem we have, for me, a challenge I want to get at is poverty. And poverty is not just a financial piece; it's a mental piece. There's a lot of cerebral action that happens that defines poverty, from my perspective. 

How do we create an economy that is inviting? That is inclusive? That is adhesive? Cohesive? Enough that even if we have issues of, you know, extreme weather, drought, or border closing, pandemic, whatever, you [sustain it]. We have teachers here who've existed way past that. The First Nations survived through worse, but they had methods and tools that made them resilient through even the worst of storms or weather conditions. 

So we're learning those things. We're trying to adapt them into our resources. And then over and above that, training people. Giving people equipment and abilities to do what we're doing. 

We are working with training mechanisms right now. If you come into our scale where you have like 100+ members that you want to work through, we are creating methods that you can learn fast enough and well enough to do that. Or you just want to learn how you could feed yourself, your family, and your neighbour, we are also creating methods for that.

I'm taking this off Erik's page where he shared about being open and transparent on how we're doing our things. It's the same idea. And for us, as we begin also for the future, is train and equip as many people as we can.  

So those are the things we're still mulling over and as my friends would know I do have thoughts, but I don't sit on the thoughts; I act on the thoughts. And we, Mischa and I when we go to meetings, we have this time that we know, “Are we still talking about it?” Or, “Are we going to do something about it?” And most of the time we hear, "Okay. Well, let's table that for another time." Or, "Let's go look for funding.” And we say, "No." No thanks, and we will take money from our pockets and go right into it. You know? 

And that's how we've done our business so far. We don't ask for funding. We take money out of our pocket and we just open doors and go to it.

GEOFF: Well that's a great note to end on Jessey. And many people know the right thing to do; fewer of them actually act on it. And this is an opportune time to really think about the role of businesses in our society, in our economy, this season of the year, and during a time when, you know, we're all thinking about how to make our societies and communities more resilient. 

So thank you very much Erik and Jessey for your time today. And look forward to talking soon.

ERIK: Thank you for having us, Geoff.