Praxis Alum Ebtsam Elsheikh
Cooks Delicious Middle Eastern Fare in Saskatchewan
Ask Sudanese Canadian entrepreneur Ebtsam Elsheikh about her business, Nile River Food, and her face instantly lights up. With a smile that would illumine even the darkest day, Ebtsam shares that she has good interpersonal skills and is also “very good at cooking.” She happily shares her success story as a Middle Eastern culinary specialist and recent graduate of the startSMART program.
Life in the Middle East . . . and Immigrating to Western Canada
Ebtsam and her family are no strangers to immigration and relocation. Born in the Nubian region that spans both Northern Sudan and Southern Egypt, Ebtsam lived most of her life in Northern Sudan, before moving to Egypt in 2003.
Historically, Nubian tribes migrated back and forth across the Sudanese/Egyptian border, drawing many of their resources from the Nile River that flows through it. In 1959, the Soviet Union built dams that supported these tribes, including the two to which Ebtsam’s parents belonged.
Today, the region continues to rely extensively on the Nile River for plant-based agriculture. While growing up, Ebtsam learned vegetarian cooking from her mother and recalls the delicious mangos, lemons, dates, fava beans, wheat, sesame seeds and peanuts that are native to the region. Chickpeas, shipped from more southerly parts of Sudan, are also a staple in their cooking. While growing up, Ebtsam learned how to cook from her mother, and learned Arabic, her first language, from her father.
She is a remarkably educated woman. Ebtsam earned two degrees and one diploma in Arabic: In 1992, she graduated with a Bachelor’s in Commerce from Cairo University, majoring in insurance. After working in Sudan for several years, she completed an MBA in 2002, also at Cairo University. However, she emphasizes that there are many differences between how one studies commerce and runs a business in Arabic countries and how one does so in Canada.
Ebtsam also completed a diploma from Cairo’s College of Arts and Crafts, specializing in nutrition and Middle Eastern food preparation. She learned how to adjust recipes for the food available in the region, how to measure portion sizes, balance nutrients and include healthy food groups: These skills have enabled her to develop her own recipe for the falafel she now makes for the Saskatoon Farmers’ Market.
Between 1998 and 2002, Ebtsam became the president of a union in Sudan, the “Department of Research and Action Plan.” This and other democratic groups faced strict opposition from the country’s government. Frustrations over that reality caused Ebtsam and her family to relocate to Southern Egypt.
Five years later, the family immigrated to Winnipeg, Canada, where Ebtsam’s husband, a civil engineer, has a sister. The city offered better job prospects. The couple’s son and two daughters, children at the time, moved with them.
A Passion for People and Food; and an Entrepreneur as Cultural Ambassador
After their family had lived for four years in Winnipeg, Ebtsam’s husband received a job offer from the Solutions Engineering Lab in Saskatoon. Courageously, they moved again (2011). Ebtsam says that her husband had the advantage of learning English before they left the Middle East, because engineering equipment manuals there were written in English. By contrast, Ebtsam only started to learn English when her family relocated to Winnipeg.
While she says, “my husband’s English is better than mine,” she began to improve her conversational English by starting a booth at the Saskatoon Farmers’ Market in 2011, to sell Middle Eastern falafel. Ebtsam says: “At that time, I was still new to Canada and wanted to show people a taste of our culture and our traditional foods. We have a very vegetarian menu because our diet back home tends to be [that] and I wanted people to see and enjoy our healthy vegetarian foods of the Nile River region.” Thus, “Nile River Food” received its name.
Drawing upon pulse flours common to the Middle East, Ebtsam’s cooking is also gluten-free. She emphasizes that she studied at Praxis not only to sell her cooking, but also to become a cultural ambassador: “Here, Canada is a multicultural country. . . I think food is an excellent way to showcase these cultures and backgrounds that we have here, which is why I love to cook our traditional meals . . . “I [have] wanted to show people [in Canada] our culture through food.”
These values make Ebtsam a “passion-based entrepreneur.” She adds: “I love cooking and food. I think food brings people joy and happiness and brings people together. I also wanted to provide a place for people who are vegetarian and gluten-free to enjoy really tasty meals . . . I wanted to show that vegetarian food can be very tasty and anyone will enjoy it and it is very healthy.”
Through her capacity “to provide really good customer service” at the Farmers’ Market, Ebtsam has improved her English. Developing her fresh falafel and securing customers by renting a market booth soon proved to be necessary: her husband developed a brain tumour in 2009, and, after surgery, was forced to take medical leave. While she is the breadwinner, he now assists her, part-time, by organizing the purchasing, some parts of the packaging and helping to manage finances.
The couple’s three grown children are not involved in the business: The youngest two study pharmacy and pre-nursing, respectively, at the University of Saskatchewan. The couple’s eldest daughter works as a chemical engineer. Because Ebtsam prepares all her food “from scratch” and always attends the Farmers’ Market in person, “Nile River Food” is fundamentally her company. She has not hired anyone to assist her.
After working for three years as a Resettlement Counsellor at the Open Door Society (ODS), Ebtsam started a food kiosk in 2019 with an investor friend of her husband, from the Middle East. This investor funded the kiosk in the Mall in Lawson Heights, which they called the “Nile River Café.”
After Ebtsam’s work at the ODS ended, she applied for the startSMART Program, through the provincial Self-Employment Program. Ebtsam was accepted and says how important it was to receive that funding, so that she could “relax” about her finances and “focus on studying and planning for [her] business.”
Praxis’ startSMART Program Makes Entrepreneurship Possible
During the first week of Praxis’ classes, Ebtsam recalls, laughingly, “I wanted to quit!” This was because she initially “felt that the information I was learning was the same [as] I had learned in university.” But as the classes continued, she saw that Praxis is “very unique and different,” because it uses a peer-based “immersion” approach to learning, rather than books, lectures and exams. Also, startSMART provides real-life facilitators who are also entrepreneurs: Ebtsam says when she learned that the program facilitators had earlier been students at the school, “this gave me encouragement I needed and made me proud to attend this school.”
The program allowed Ebtsam to build a solid business plan to expand outward from her Farmers’ Market booth: “What made a difference in this plan is that it includes the financial needs and outcomes and helps you identify and mitigate the risks” that could otherwise overwhelm new entrepreneurs.
Ebtsam learned how to identify and address risks in her plan, including sourcing supplies, transportation, using a licensed cooking space, meeting government regulations for her cooking process, and more. “New entrepreneurs can be paralyzed by their fears and don’t know if they will make it.” Ebtsam was advised by Praxis’ powerhouse coach, Deanna Litz, to develop and freeze her falafel as a gluten-free, all vegetarian, Middle Eastern dish, to sell to grocery stores— a much larger client base than the Farmers’ Market. And following that coaching, Ebtsam has wisely controlled risk by starting to market only her falafel. When that succeeds, she will add frozen samosas to her repertoire.
From Deanna’s coaching and from researching her business plan, Ebtsam now understands the requirements of Saskatchewan’s culinary services industry. The complex process started when she spent two months at the “factory lab” at the Food Industry Development Centre, where she tested her methods of cooking, labelling and packaging. She recently started testing her product.
Ebtsam observes that food safety standards are very strict in Canada, so that she must take care, for instance, to purchase first quality peanuts, chilli and tamarind to make sauces for her dishes. Some ingredients can be found only in selected Indian or Arabic food stores, or at Superstore, in Saskatoon.
Coach Deanna Litz and Praxis Co-Founder Monica Kreuger suggested that Ebtsam could deliver free samples of her falafel to promote it to local businesses, as they started to re-open, after the pandemic lockdown. The process has built name recognition for “Nile River Food.” Ebtsam has planned to promote her falafel to hairdressers, dentists, massage therapists and other entrepreneurs in the community.
Of coach Deanna Litz, Ebtsam says: “She is an excellent member of Praxis who helps you focus [on] your business and develop a very good foundation to build on.” Other Praxis team members have also been invaluable: “Elaine Mantyka is the most important link between the students and the program. For any questions regarding computer[s] or [the] office, she is the person I would go to ask . . . She is quick to answer and shares all the information that you need.”
About Praxis Co-Founder, Brent Kreuger, Ebtsam says, “I was able to understand most of the financial strategy through him. Because English is not my first language, I struggled to understand some of the mathematic information. But I found Brent to be very helpful in explaining it. I would have a lot of questions and sometimes I would call him and he was always supportive to answer . . . and provide me with whatever help I would need.”
Ebtsam also asserts that Monica Kreuger taught her much, but “especially bookkeeping. My background in university is finance and I learned bookkeeping 25+ years ago but I forgot how to do it. Monica makes it easy to learn and I know now that I was able to understand bookkeeping [in English]. I know that I will not be forgetting that information. When Praxis bookkeeper Marie Weinkauf came to lead the [practical] section on bookkeeping, she showed patience for students who had non-Canadian accents.” And Ebtsam adds, further, that “I was able to keep up with the course, because of the way Monica had introduced it.”
The written feedback from startSMART program accountant, Pat Thomas, was also useful and confidence boosting for her. And Ebtsam proudly reports that she herself thought to repurpose email addresses she received from respondents to her business survey (a portion of the business plan), thereby adding to her potential customers.
The startSMART program, as Ebtsam sees it, differs from other entrepreneurial training programs, because “in other schools, you learn general information and then you have to pick and choose what to apply to your business. But with Praxis,” she says, the training is customized: “The experience is unique to every student, because you right away put into practice what you are learning to help your business.”
Ebtsam says that startSMART is an essential program and urges the government to continue to support it: “This program is worth growing and continuing because of the unique way they teach people and provide support . . . [M]ost of the attendees of the school become very successful in their businesses. And I believe that . . . I will also be one of the successful attendees.”
Selling Falafel at the Farmers’ Market
Through the research she undertook to write her business plan, Ebtsam found a licensed, commercial kitchen, “Scratch Provisions,” where she now rents space to prepare her food, before selling it at the Farmers’ Market. This meets the Saskatoon Health Region standards, as her process was inspected for food preparation, prior to her receiving her license. Ebtsam must ensure that her food is “very fresh,” entirely prepared within the day of its selling, at the Farmers’ Market.
A good omen occurred when Ebtsam discovered that the sister and brother-in-law of the owner of “Scratch Provisions” lived in Sudan for many years and even know Ebtsam’s sister-in-law, in Winnipeg! The interwoven nature of cultural and entrepreneurial networks makes Ebtsam smile.
Preparing authentic falafel is labour intensive: First, Ebtsam grinds the grain to prepare falafel dough on one day and freezes it. The night before the market, she assembles the dough and ingredients, cooking the falafel on the same day as the market. She says, after Saturday, “I take a rest after the market . . . and [then] I repeat the same thing that evening, for Sunday, the second day of the market.” She says with the pride of a professional cook that on the nights before both market days, “I get only two to three hours of sleep!”
Most of Ebtsam’s customers at the Farmers’ Market are European Canadians who like the Middle Eastern flavour of her falafel and that they are gluten-free and entirely vegetarian. Other customers include people from the Middle East, Mexico, the Ukraine and China. She enjoys the camaraderie and interest of her fellow cooks at the market.
She praises the Farmers’ Market organizers for moving quickly and deftly online, during the recent Covid-19 pandemic, when no one could meet, in person. The market’s online ordering system allowed her to cook and sell her fresh food for touchless pick-up.
Blue Skies are Here and Ahead
With all of her experience, training and planning as an entrepreneur, Ebtsam bubbles with enthusiasm when describing her affiliation with Praxis:
“I have already recommended the program to a lot of my friends and they are interested in attending . . . I would recommend [it] because some people have really good business ideas, but they hesitate, due to the risk. With this program you gain confidence to take the risk and mitigate it properly.”
From the hard work of developing her business plan and from long hours of cooking have come clear purpose, solid preparation and healthy confidence. These strengths enable Ebtsam to reach out through her network at the Farmers’ Market and beyond. She is also connecting with fellow alumni of the Praxis School of Entrepreneurship and their networks. For instance, she prepared delicious falafel and samosas for a December Praxis potluck, where they were a hit.
Crossing the world from the arid Middle East to the predominantly winter climate of Saskatchewan, Ebtsam has built a bright present and a promising future for herself, her husband and their children. Harnessing a true immigrant’s work ethic, determination to succeed, and Praxis’ training to direct her, Ebtsam has already found blue skies, as a specialty cook and cultural ambassador.
Nile River Food
Owner & Operator: Ebtsam Elsheikh
Saskatoon Farmers’ Market
2600 Koyl Ave.
Saskatoon, SK S7L 5X9
Direct line: (306) 713-8282
Market line: (306) 384-6262