Online marketplace for cultural products earning co-founder kudos
Posted on December 16, 2021 | By Ashley Fitzpatrick | 0 Comments
Standing out in the cold in Saint John a few years back, trying to keep food warm for visitors to a public market, Lily Lynch and her Sankara co-founder Chinweotito Atansi thought there had to be a better way to offer the experience of different cultural foods in their area. What came next has garnered attention from big corporate names like AMEX and BMO.
Essentially, Lynch and Atansi thought there should be an app offering cultural food like their own Nigerian and Cameroonian fare at a click, and better access to cultural products more generally for all New Brunswick, maybe beyond. Instead of a market, what they needed was an online marketplace.
Atansi started on the ones and zeros, building an online platform, while Lynch got to work on firming up relationships to feed their social enterprise. Theirs would be a Black, immigrant, Indigenous and woman-operated business designed to empower. Lynch recently told Atlantic Business Magazine an early step for her was to approach other people who had stood with them in the cold, to see if they might be interested in selling online. They would have the option of staying small, or producing more by accepting more in orders, if that was their goal.
Sankara was incorporated in 2017 and the platform was up and running before services like Skip the Dishes and DoorDash had really taken off in New Brunswick. Sankara was also ahead of the pandemic.
Lynch recalls the entire premise initially required more explanation and “boots on the ground marketing” to connect with both vendors and customers. There were early pop-up restaurants with featured vendors and the owners hosted storytelling evenings where vendors could sell product in person. Beyond the basic mechanics, Lynch often found herself assuring people she was offering cultural appreciation versus appropriation or exploitation. Their starter events helped get the word out; more cities in Atlantic Canada have been added over time.
The startup was named after former president of Burkina Faso, Thomas Sankara (d. 1987). Sankara was noted for his emphasis on economic self-reliance and, more to the point, Lynch says, “opportunity for his people to self-fulfil.” Similarly, the new platform is intended to help people—particularly people of colour—who face traditional bias and barriers to developing their business. In some cases, vendors are new Canadians, in other cases they are long-time residents or multi-generational locals with deep cultural roots and a desire for expression through their products.
The platform is free for vendors to join. Lynch said the idea since inception was to also add options for artisans and grocers, in addition to people offering completed meals. Those additions came in 2018.
“They’re benefitting from being part of a collective,” Lynch said of participating vendors. For example, for a food vendor, Sankara offers basic functions like email notifications of orders by the supplier, who might rent space in a licensed commercial kitchen less often than others or require more time for the type of dish they’re producing. There are meal boxes and catering options, giving dedicated customers a chance to show more support for a maker. At the same time, with the collective, Sankara develops partnerships with local delivery companies and kitchens, and Lynch says the company will help to facilitate production, help someone to get started, even in a case where it’s a single person interested in small-batch production, to share what they enjoy making.
Meals from people selling on Sankara were popular through the start of the pandemic and, over four years, the platform has started accepting vendors in cities throughout Atlantic Canada. Lynch said with rare product, vetted cooks, food safety certified, producing only in commercial kitchens, customers are responding.
In September, the company was recognized as one of the 100 AMEX Blueprint: Backing BIPOC Business mentorship and grant recipients, one of only seven Atlantic Canadian companies selected, completed with a $10,000 grant. Lily Lynch specifically has also been recognized this year with a BMO Celebrating Women Grant, with only 18 recipients in 2021 out of thousands of women business owners who applied. The BMO award is a $2,500 grant but, Lynch said, the real prize was the new connections, including a virtual meeting with the other award winners.
“It really does feel like a blessing to be recognized and celebrated among some pretty fantastic women in business across Canada and the U.S.,” she said, noting they are specifically all working to address issues in ways only they can, “as people of colour, as people of culture, as women in business.”
Lynch hopes Sankara is a vehicle for change. Apart from individuals being able to opt for sales through the platform and building to their own goals, there is the customer side. There, Lynch hopes to see many different cultures becoming more celebrated in the region, starting with an increasing availability of cultural products and bringing greater familiarity.
Sankara is actively seeking potential vendors in all provinces and currently readying version 2.0, expected to launch in the coming year.
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