Umeeda and Nareena Switlo make a difference in the world with Truly Turmeric

Vancouver-based entrepreneurs are using the root to improve lives

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      Winter getaways often mean heading to sunny climes to surf or stretch out on a beach. For Umeeda and Nareena Switlo, travelling from Vancouver to Belize has a very different purpose: to run their social enterprise, Naledo. The mother-daughter duo makes the world’s first wildcrafted whole-root turmeric paste, in the process supporting hundreds of farmers in the Central American country that has staggeringly high unemployment rates.

      Umeeda and her family, who are of Indian descent, came to Canada as refugees from Uganda in the 1970s. Umeeda’s own mom’s cooking helped keep them connected to their culture throughout their displacement, so the women have always had a keen interest in food. (Nareena’s late father, Gary Switlo, cofounded Concert Box Office.)

      A few years ago, while Nareena was working in international development, Umeeda was volunteering with CUSO in Belize. Her job was to advise the government on opportunities for youth; 70 percent of the country’s population is under age 29. While there, in a village called Toledo, Umeeda attended an Indian diaspora conference. She heard the story of how the town’s ancestors had come to Belize as indentured slaves from India more than 200 years prior. One of the farmers ended up showing her turmeric that was growing wild on his land. Their ancestors had brought the root with them.

      After months of experimenting, the Switlos came up with a recipe for bright orange, whole-root turmeric paste. Called Truly Turmeric, it also contains cold-pressed coconut oil, fresh lime juice, and sea salt. In doing so, they founded Naledo, which partners with more than 350 small-scale farmers and employs people aged 19 to 32 who are paid twice the country’s minimum wage and receive mentorship and entrepreneurial training.

      “Some of them have saved enough money to attend postsecondary education or advance their children’s education,” Nareena says in a phone interview. “The impact on people’s lives is real.”

      Nareena and Umeeda Switlo received offers from all six panellists when they appeared on the CBC show Dragons' Den.

      The Switlos are clearly doing something right; when they appeared on Dragons’ Den late last year, they got offers from all six Dragons. Truly Turmeric is now sold in hundreds of stores across the country, with plans to expand to the United States.

      “In the western world, people are learning more about the Ayurvedic traditions of eating your medicine and about how a whole-food diet impacts your day-to-day functioning,” Nareena says of the food’s appeal. “Turmeric has been in our Indian culture for generations, and there’s this growing interest in new flavours and health benefits of food. Turmeric really stands out in those areas.”

      Turmeric, which is usually sold in powdered form, has been shown to have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. However, when the root is boiled and dried to be turned into powder, many essential oils and nutrients are lost, Nareena says, whereas the root’s natural compounds remain intact when it’s made into a paste.

      The paste can be added to soups, smoothies, stir-fries, curries, salad dressings, and other dishes; it can be swapped for powdered turmeric in any recipe that calls for it. Some people add a small amount of it to water to refuel after a workout.

      The Switlos are currently developing a turmeric-based lemonade, a functional beverage, to be released this summer.