A newly formed network of entrepreneurs and community leaders is looking to level the playing field for Black business owners in the province. The Black Manitobans Chamber of Commerce was officially launched during an event Wednesday at the legislative building. “If you look at the map of our Black businesses, many of them are immigrant, newcomers, and there are grave challenges into navigating the system on how to start a business, for example,” said Zita Somakoko, founding president of the BMCC.
“The conventional or traditional chambers of commerce are really focusing on development,” Somakoko said. “We want to focus not only on development, but the groundwork to equip these entrepreneurs and the business owners to do business as it’s done in North America.” Somakoko, a business-development coach and refugee from the Central African Republic, said there are approximately 500 Black-owned businesses in Manitoba. The chamber is seeking to leverage its expertise, drive sustainable and equitable economic development and ensure Black business owners have a strong voice to advocate on their behalf, she said. It is a much needed voice, local entrepreneur Andrew Idemudia says.
A government employee nine-to-five, the self-taught artist hopes to one day live the dream to “grow into a full-time artist.” Primarily working in oil and acrylic, Mudiarts, Idemudia’s company, is “mostly Afro-centric,” heavily influenced by African culture and people, wherever he may find them. “Inspiration could be anything really, from seeing someone at the bus shed, you know, if how they’re standing or sitting strikes me, and hits a certain emotion in my heart,” Idemudia said in a recent interview. The “Nigerian-born, Canadian-made” painter said following his move to Manitoba, he was initially swept up in the stereotypical western way of life. Losing himself to work and school, Idemudia got a biology degree from the University of Manitoba before he got the chance to create again; now, he works as an assessor by day and paints at every other opportunity. “You don’t even realize that you are taken in by a different culture entirely, and almost forget everything; where you’re from and how things were,” said Idemudia, who moved to Canada almost 12 years ago when he was 17.
“So most of my paintings I do are to remind, not just myself, but anyone that lives ‘that life,’ and for Africans in diaspora or anyone really, to see the heritage, the culture and more.” Idemudia believes Winnipeg’s African community is “really growing every year,” especially compared to when he immigrated to the province in 2010. But while he has been excited by the abundance of African entrepreneurs starting businesses, he’s worried Winnipeg won’t be able to keep up. “From my point of view, Winnipeg as a whole is still very exposed and still a growing community, as a whole,” said Idemudia. “So, yeah, it can be challenging… It’s better than 10 years ago, in terms of embracing other people and cultures, but it’s still something that we as a community need to improve on.” While creating art has come easily to Idemudia, marketing himself in Winnipeg has had its problems. “It’s been kind of hard, being the African artist, getting some of these prime locations to display or work,” said Idemudia, who had an exhibition in early April. “I mean, I can absolutely say, ‘Oh, it’s because I’m African’ but after a while — surely after two, three, four tries — it comes to mind that maybe this is the reason why it’s hard to reach certain resources as an African entrepreneur in Winnipeg.”
Over the eight years she has spent working in business development, Somakoko said she has heard from entrepreneurs who felt they were not adequately supported as members of existing chambers of commerce and needed additional support towards achieving their goals. “That’s why we are here… to actually build from ground up,” she said. On Wednesday, Premier Heather Stefanson applauded the organization for the role it will play in Manitoba’s economic development. “Diversity and representation matters, because together they create an inclusive environment where people feel welcomed and empowered,” Stefanson said. “There is a growing movement of Black chambers of commerce across Canada, and I am so honoured and happy to see this distinct platform come here to Manitoba.”
Stefanson said she expects the provincial government to work closely with the chamber moving forward, adding her government is committed to addressing barriers faced by Black and Indigenous entrepreneurs. While the non-profit organization is focused on supporting Black business leaders, its membership is open to all, regardless of race, creed or political affiliation, Somakoko said. “We are here to advocate for the levelling of the playing field for all. We are here to connect our Black business leaders to resources, opportunities, partnerships, to help them elevate to what they are called to be,” she said. Having witnessed local growth first-hand, Idemudia agrees that “community starts at home.” “As for the Winnipeg landscape as a whole for African entrepreneurs, I just think it’s a matter of time,” said Idemudia. “I think it’s possible, you know, if we put more pressure in the right places. I think we can make it happen.”