Good business

- Jenny Manzer

Left to right: UMEEDA and NAREENA SWITLO are fulfilling their dream by building a social enterprise around a flavourful, healthful product sourced in Belize.

Together, mother and daughter Umeeda and Nareena Switlo run a thriving international food and beverage business that provides needed employment in Belize.

More than 25 years ago, Umeeda Switlo (BSc ’80) was living in Vancouver, adjusting to life as a single parent following the death of her husband. A refugee from Idi Amin’s Uganda, Umeeda had known hard times before. She’d left Kampala in 1972 at age 15 along with other Ugandans of South Asian origin. She had witnessed tanks rolling in the streets and innocent people shot dead in front of her. She said goodbye to her parents and headed for Canada, bringing a single suitcase.

Not long after that, in 1974, Umeeda began her studies at the University of Victoria with dreams of becoming a marine biologist. “I really received an amazing education and an incredible respect for the environment,” she says. These studies inspired her to found a business that would benefit the natural world.

Today, Umeeda divides her time between Belize and Vancouver, running a growing food and beverage company, Naledo, alongside her daughter, Nareena (BA ’09). These days, Umeeda can watch blue morpho butterflies hatch from her bedroom in Punta Gorda, where Naledo’s products are sourced. Their signature product is Truly Turmeric, a spice paste made from whole turmeric root. Their Belize operation provides badly needed employment for ten local youths while paying 350 local growers a fair price for harvesting their turmeric root. Umeeda’s life is busy and stressful and rewarding.

Perhaps you can’t teach resilience in a classroom, but Umeeda says her experience at UVic greatly shaped her life and her future. It was at UVic that she learned to look at the world like a biologist, with respect for the environment and ecology. When she goes to a farm, she can identify patches of land where herbicides and pesticides have been applied.

Nareena also chose UVic for her studies, trying first biology, then photography, before landing on anthropology. By sheer coincidence, Nareena ended up living in exactly the same UVic residence, in exactly the same room that her mother had. The two couldn’t believe it.

After graduation, Nareena was a young anthropologist searching for the right social enterprise. Her father, Gary Switlo, who died when Nareena was just five, was a notable entrepreneur in Vancouver. He co-founded Concert Box Offices, the business that would later become Ticketmaster. Nareena suggests that a knack for business was in her genes, but she bounced from job to job after university. “I was born to be an entrepreneur, but I had a hard time admitting that to myself,” she says.

Social enterprise was also part of her heritage. When Nareena was a girl in Vancouver, her maternal grandmother Lella Umedaly (aka “Mamajee”) used to cook curries and tell stories about Uganda. Her mother and grandmother both instilled in her a strong sense of social responsibility—something Umeeda also put into practice.

In 2014, Umeeda was volunteering in Belize with Cuso International, a Canadian not-for-profit development organization. She was there to advise on youth employment, since 70 of the country is under age 29, and the jobless rate is high. During one of her visits to Toledo, Belize, Umeeda attended an Indian diaspora conference, meeting Indians living in Belize who had once been indentured servants. The subject of cooking came up, and a farmer showed her the wild turmeric root that grew on his land. Umeeda brought some home in a plastic bag and gave it to Nareena to sample with the idea of starting a business. Nareena thought the flavour was really good. She didn’t care for her mother’s design for the paste bottle, however, and had ideas for improvement. The idea for Truly Turmeric—and a socially conscious partnership—was born.

The name of the company, Naledo, combines the district where their turmeric is sourced (Toledo) and the first syllable of Nareena’s name. Umeeda, CEO, handles community building and manufacturing. Nareena, Chief Operating Officer, is in charge of marketing and sales. They say one of the most challenging parts of building the company was deciphering the complicated world of food safety. Nareena recalls searching acronyms on her phone while in meetings with grocery-store chains. It was a steep learning curve.

“I think I bring the detailed eye to the business,” says Nareena. “I really do think that the small details matter.” Nareena oversees project management and marketing concerns, such as the appearance of their jars or the key messages in their communication materials.

Naledo operates from a roughly 600-square-metre plant in Belize and a head office in Vancouver. Each woman spends half her time in each locale—and they are together for about one month a year. Their turmeric paste is on the shelves of more than 600 stores in Canada, and expansion to the US is in the works. Truly Turmeric can be used in curries and beverages, and the root is known to have various healthful benefits. This year, the company will launch a line of “functional beverages,” or drinks that have nutritional benefits.

Last year, Naledo got a major boost from a famous source. The team appeared on CBC’s the Dragon’s Den television show and received an offer for an additional $150,000 in funds from entrepreneur Arlene Dickinson, while giving her 20 of their Canadian business. A particularly gratifying part of the experience was having “the dragons” fully appreciate the social-enterprise aspect of their work. Now, this boost will help them get to new levels with their marketing. Nareena, a self-described risk taker, had noticed a social media call for Dragon’s Den participants. The audition was the next morning.

Their appearance on the show was thrilling but anxiety-making, knowing their product could be criticized in front of all their friends and family. Instead, however, they got offers from all six “dragons” or celebrity judges.

“It was a nerve-wracking experience,” recalls Umeeda. She admits that despite all their success to date, there are still many stressors, including navigating business in a developing country like Belize. “It’s a challenging environment in that doing business here is complex.”

Both Switlos say tenacity and resilience are key ingredients to becoming an entrepreneur. As a single mother and a widow, Umeeda built Naledo by starting operations with a tiny kitchen and a good idea. “Nareena and myself were living on very little to make it happen.”

While their business requires them to be apart, the duo talk all the time. “My mom has always been my cheerleader. She never said I couldn’t do anything,” says Nareena.

Even now, Umeeda sometimes still marvels at the bold moves that led her to be an entrepreneur. “It’s incredible. It’s enlightening. I think it inspires other women in business. It inspires our team… It’s an incredible journey.”

Find more information about Naledo and their Truly Turmeric paste, including recipes, at


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Keywords: business, alumni

Publication: The Torch

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