Current student Amy Suresh (BSc in progress) chats with serial entrepreneur Nohemie Mawaka (BA ’13) about her most recent business venture, Lubembo, which brings Congolese forest honey to North American markets.
Suresh: Lubembo sources forest honey directly from the Democratic Republic of Congo, making it distinctive not only in taste, but in origin. How has your commitment to your community helped support local agricultural farmers in Congo?
Mawaka: That’s an easy one to answer! Most farmers working in agriculture in developing countries are women, and I definitely have a soft spot for that. We do have men working with us, but the majority of them are women.
The hives that the honey is harvested from are at the very top of the palm trees. So, you can imagine these women climbing up there and bringing that down. It’s a bit dangerous, but that’s why it’s such a premium product.
When we went back to Kinshasa where my dad grew up, we saw them do that. We reached out to them and said, “Hey, if we pay you fair market value, would you be willing to give us this honey?” They could keep selling it locally, of course — we just wanted a certain quantity. And they said, ‘yes.’”
Essentially, we remove that fairtrade middle person, because we’re taking on the transportation, and that direct trade, and bringing all of that to the North American market. We started doing that every two months. We were able to create a consistent revenue stream in a country where, truth be told, a lot of populations deal with severe poverty. We’re even looking into a new model where we create the environment where the farmers can harvest their honey. So, we’re giving them the space, the equipment, the tools — everything they need to keep producing, in exchange for providing our business with a certain quantity.
Suresh: Lubembo, have you been able to revisit or strengthen your relationship with your Congolese roots?
Mawaka: Kinshasa is where we harvest and buy honey, and it’s where my dad was raised. The village has basically no infrastructure. So, when we bought that 200-acre farm, it’s the first one the people there have seen. We created incomes for 50 people in less than a year!
While I grew up in the capital city, my dad was from this really rural area. I got to go back and really understand the people living there. It’s a bit emotional because I’m very Canadian. By going back, I’ve been able to unlearn a lot and just be a lot more empathetic. These are people who haven’t seen employment since we were free from colonization in the 1960s.
When we visit, we know that the business isn’t going to happen overnight. So, in the meantime, we spend time with them. We cook for them, we host little barbeques for the community, and so it helps me connect with my roots, especially when it comes to understanding my dad’s side of the family.
Suresh: Lubembo honey brings a unique customer experience from Congo to North America with its complex flavours and characteristics. What do you hope to achieve by building this bridge between the two communities?
Mawaka: Ultimately, I want to be a bridge between the two regions. Congo is one of the most resource-rich countries in the world. So, we were really known for natural resources and it’s all untapped. When you look at North America, everything is so processed. Lubembo honey is kept raw, so there’s a bit more probiotic. In terms of taste, forest honey has a very smoky flavour.
Overall, I want to offer organic goods that are overflowing in Congo. They have these products in abundance. And in the West, there’s purchasing power. We’ve had success in California, for example, so it really shows the value for Congolese products in North America. I hope to expand and introduce even more products from Congo long term.