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This Entrepreneur is on a Mission to Advance Equitable Treatment for Banana Farmers

Meet Jennie Coleman, 2023 RBC Momentum Award recipient

By Khera Alexander

“If something is too cheap to be true, it probably is — and that is also the case with bananas,” says Jennie Coleman, president of the Montreal-based Fair Trade banana importing company, Equifruit.

As the head of a bustling Fair Trade business, Jennie is familiar with the consequences of cutting corners. In her line of work, some businesses that prioritize cost-savings above all else negatively impact farmers and workers, making them vulnerable to exploitative working conditions and production operations that can negatively impact the environment. 

Jennie and her Equifruit team are on a mission to change that. 

While she didn’t necessarily set out to become the president of a banana company, Jennie possessed an entrepreneurial spirit well before she became a business owner.

Her first foray into the world of entrepreneurship was when she spent two years volunteering at a primary school in Namibia. Helping teach a grade two class, Jennie noticed that there weren’t many resources available to help the children learn to read, so she decided to help get a library set up.

“I wrote letters to dozens of literacy, NGOs, and publishers. We got a lovely collection of primary school level books, a collection of about 5,000 items for our kids to read from [and] learn from,” she says. “What I especially liked about the project was getting something set up and run.”

With that experience behind her, Jennie would often find herself creating solutions to different problems and drumming up new ideas that could be business opportunities.

“My poor husband,” she says. “At dinner, I would say, ‘You want to know what my new business idea is?’”

Though she had a successful career in the corporate world for many years, Jennie realized she needed to make a few changes after having her third child. The tensions between family and work duties were growing larger, and she wanted to have more control over her schedule.  

“I just couldn’t do it all. I thought maybe this is the time where I quit the corporate world, [and] I do one of these business ideas that I’ve been thinking about for years,” she says.

Quite serendipitously, Jennie came upon an ad for a small, ethical fruit business that was for sale and took a meeting with the business broker. Curious about the then-business Equicosta — known as Equifruit today — Jennie was impressed by the fact that it was already a Fair Trade company.

After witnessing the profound ways empowered, autonomous communities shape their futures in economically challenged regions of the world, Jennie wanted to be a part of something that would continue to make a difference. 

“If there is productive, positive, economic activity happening in [a] community, they have the wherewithal to build the institutions that they want to improve their community or their lives,” she says. 

In 2013, the deal for Equicosta closed. Since then, Jennie has taken a moderately performing banana company and grown it into a formidable competitor in the market. To turn the business into what it is today, Jennie says she made two important decisions. 

First, having the right team was critical. Initially, when Jennie was running the business and only had administrative help, she hired a woman named Kim Chackal in a sales role. For Jennie, bringing Kim on was the best decision she could have made. A sales and marketing pro, very rational, and solution-oriented, Kim brings a level of balance to Equifruit as Jennie’s right hand and has been instrumental in transforming the business.

“I brought her on as an equity partner last year, and we’re now co-owners,” Jennie says. “She understood the value of our mission and she made a commitment to making this business grow.”

Second, making a necessary investment in a business rebrand in 2020 helped fuel Equifruit’s growth as well. Though the company had great aspects like being Fairtrade, organic, and B Corp certified, the branding and marketing didn’t communicate these elements well enough.

“​​We worked with a creative agency to help us frame what our communications and marketing strategy would be. That has made a huge difference,” she says. “We weren’t telling our story right, and we do so now with a lot of humour, [but] we always bring the message back to the fact that farmers got to get paid.”

In addition to ensuring farmers are paid fairly, Equifruit has directly impacted local communities in Ecuador, Peru, Colombia, Mexico, and Nicaragua under the Fairtrade Premium, an additional set of funds for workers to use to improve their social, environmental, and economic quality of life. Equifruit has contributed over $3M U.S. dollars with funds being used to build housing complexes, water filtration systems, plant trees, and much more. 

While Jennie’s important work to grow Equifruit and further the company’s impact has been recognized by her peers in the produce industry, she was humbled when she learned that she was nominated for the 2023 RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards. 

On the night of the awards, Jennie arrived ready to enjoy herself and celebrate being in the company of other women entrepreneurs. As a finalist in the Momentum category, she was up against such stiff competition that she didn’t expect to win. To her surprise, she beat the other finalists and took home the award.

“That moment of winning was so unexpected, a genuine surprise — and all the sweeter for it,” she says. “This acknowledgement means so much. It is a validation that our work has meaning and is being applauded by a wide Canadian public.”

The win also helped reaffirm what Jennie and her team have set out to do from the very beginning: make a difference in the lives of others through ethical fruit sourcing.

“[The win] fills our tanks with happiness, confidence, and determination to achieve our vision of Global Fairtrade Banana Domination!”