Our monthly Immigrant Entrepreneurship Newsletter features some of the incredible immigrant entrepreneurs in Alberta that we support, like Mary Jane Ntakarutimana, Owner of MJ’s African Food Store. We spoke with Mary Jane about her journey and experience as an immigrant entrepreneur in Alberta.
1. What is your background?
I am a 35-year-old female, born in Rwanda and raised in Kenya. I came to Canada in 2010 on a school scholarship. In 2014, I received my undergraduate degree in Business Administration majoring in entrepreneurship. I was raised in a business-oriented family and grew up seeing my Daddy work for himself and help people through his business. Growing up in that setting, I wanted to be just like him because his business brought people together with a sense of belonging, everyone my Daddy worked with or served became a family and that is what I longed for. To create a family-like community through my business.
2. Tell us about your business and what it does.
MJ’s African Food Store Inc. is a specialty food store that imports organic and healthy food products from East African countries to serve a diverse community in Calgary and beyond.
3. What motivated you to start your own business?
Apart from being a passion from my childhood, I saw an opportunity in the market niche we serve. Alberta offers so many food products from West African but nothing from East African countries and the food products differ drastically between these regions. This region of food is not readily available in Alberta, the products that are offered come from Ontario and are often too expensive once they travel the thousands of kilometres to Alberta for customers. That is why at MJ’s African Food Store, we have made it our mission to make these foods available to the Calgary community and neighbouring cities and provinces.
4. What are you most proud of? What is your biggest success?
I’m most proud of being able to bring our first big containers of goods and the response from the community has been positive.
5. What has been your biggest challenge as an immigrant entrepreneur in Alberta?
The biggest challenge has been accessing funds to start my business. The banks will not approve and loan for those starting a business and even some organizations that claim to help new business owners have criteria that will somehow make it hard to access any funds.
6. What has been your biggest challenge in light of COVID-19? How have you had to pivot your business?
The biggest challenge we’ve faced throughout COVID-19 is people losing their jobs resulting in fewer sales. People are not coming in as often as they were before the pandemic. We’ve been able to pivot by offering deliveries and encouraging people to order online with free deliveries.
7. What has the pandemic taught you about you and/or your business?
Switching to online ordering may be the only long term solution as people are still fearful of leaving their homes to go out shopping in public.
8. What advice would you share with other immigrant entrepreneurs in Alberta who want to start or grow their own business?
I have many pieces of advice for other immigrant entrepreneurs. If you have a business idea and you believe in it to never get discouraged when you hit a wall and always find what you can do differently. Find an exit strategy without quitting and learn from your mistakes and move on from them. Read and learn all the time. Ask questions, make calls wherever you can. Knock at every door because you don’t know where a door could open up to you. Have faith in your idea. When everything is said and done, pray about it.
9. How has Business Link/our Immigrant Entrepreneur Program helped you?
Jean-Jacques has helped me get informed on available resources that I didn’t know about before.
10. What’s coming up next for you?
We are planning to expand at the right time with the right resources to accommodate the growing demand for the products we are importing. We have so many ideas we would like to see come to fruitfulness with time and we hope we can make them happen.
11. Do you have a website or social media accounts you would like us to link to?
MJ’s African Food Store on Instagram