Eleven years ago, our lives looked much different. Dale and I weren’t what you’d call ‘natural health’ people. We had never been to Africa, and we didn’t have a garden.
Never would we have imagined that by 2015 we’d mark $1 million in personal donations to Africa through our business.
We were in our early fifties, so retirement was looming. If you’d asked Dale about his dreams, he’d have told you about a sailboat. He wanted to sell the house, reduce our possessions to what we could pack in a 20 foot hull, and see the world untethered.
I wasn’t so sure my dreams would be found in the belly of a sailboat. There was more I needed to do, but what, I didn’t know.
You might be surprised to learn that before Natural Calm, we were co-pastors of a church in the north end of Toronto. Our business was spiritual health.
In many ways, it’s been a huge shift, but there are parallels: as pastors, our profits were in lives changed. Today, with an award-winning, seven-figure business, I’d still say that’s where our profits lie.
But let’s backtrack to 2004. It was the year that everything changed with one trip to Malawi, Africa.
THE TRIP THAT CHANGED EVERYTHING
Dale and I had both seen poverty before; Dale, in some of the least developed parts of Latin America. But this was something else.
Even before AIDs, Malawi was among the poorest places on earth. The AIDS crisis further entrenched poverty and created a generation of orphans.
In Malawi, we were surrounded by orphans everywhere we went. We saw them spilling out of overcrowded huts. We saw them living on the streets.
It’s impossible to see a child in need without feeling a tug – a visceral response. Now, multiply that feeling by thousands. That is what it’s like to be in Malawi, surrounded by beautiful children who have nothing, and often, no one.
We knew we had to do something, but it wasn’t until 2005 that the pieces came together.
CONNECTING THE DOTS BETWEEN BUSINESS AND PASSION
You see, ten years ago this year I started the business. At first it was on a very small scale. I placed a modest order and sold it locally to retailers.
But Natural Calm practically sold itself.
Very soon we realized it could become a real business – not just a side venture. We saw the potential and made a decision: we’d build Natural Calm Canada and the profits would go to orphans in Africa.
It was – and is – exhilarating. We could help the orphans in a way that would scale. Instead of relying on the generosity of others, we could open our own pockets and give.
How does this giving work?
We do pay salaries – our own, and those of our staff – and we do invest profits back into the company, to make it grow. These are sound business decisions that create sustainability – important, because we want to keep giving for a long time.
When we’ve satisfied these requirements, we donate the rest. Year-to-year the total varies, but when we add it up, we’ve now surpassed $1 million. I’m especially amazed because for many companies, the first ten years is precarious – many barely keep their heads above water. We’ve managed to not only survive, but thrive and give.
THE HEART OF OUR BUSINESS
Within a year of our trip to Malawi we were building a not-for-profit that would soon become Organics 4 Orphans (O4O).
O4O is a grassroots solution to the problem of poverty. Through O4O, we empower communities to grow their own food and natural medicine. They become stronger, healthier, richer, and better able to care for orphans.
WHY GOOD NUTRITION IS THE FIRST STEP TO ENDING POVERTY
In our Organics 4 Orphans work, we come across very complicated issues. International poverty is confounding: there’s colonialism, and tribalism, and nepotism, and at the end of the day it can seem like an impossible puzzle.
But some things are very simple.
Africans and the poor everywhere are just like us. Before anything – before we can learn or work or direct our lives in any meaningful way – we need the basics. We need to cover our biological needs.
When we are warm and safe, with full bellies and functional health we can really learn and work. Anything is possible when our basic needs are met.
In Africa, clean water and food are the starting place. With just these basic provisions, the extreme poor can take steps to improve their own lives.
When we talk about clean water, we don’t debate what kind of clean water is best. It’s basically a binary equation: clean, or not clean. The margins are very narrow, because clean water is the absence of bacteria. A few particles of bacteria can mean the difference between life and death.
Nutrition, on the other hand, is more complicated. Nutrition is about the layering of multiple compounds; it is about the presence of life-giving properties, not the absence of germs. And because nutrition is complicated, we do debate it. We are divided. Everyone has a theory of nutrition, from your grandma to your yoga instructor, and unlike our approach to water, when it comes to food, there’s a wide, wide continuum of what’s acceptable.
There’s food, and then there’s food, and thus when we talk about feeding the poor, we aren’t all talking about the same thing.
When you think about feeding the poor, you may think of food aid. You may envision burlap bags of rice or maize, distributed around dusty towns. This is one kind of nutrition. Rice and maize and the like are, in fact, what most of the poor live on. This is, technically, nutrition. It’s one end of the spectrum, anyway.
A white rice diet can sustain life, but it won’t sustain optimal life. No one can thrive and meet their full potential on a nutrient-poor diet.
When we talk about nutrition, we mean the kind that gives life. We’re talking about food so nourishing, it’s actually medicine – the very opposite of a white rice diet.
Let’s call it the Food as Medicine diet. At Organics 4 Orphans, it’s what we believe the poor need first.
But how is this possible, you might ask. People still starve. Isn’t food as medicine a bit of a stretch?
In fact, it’s not a stretch at all. Equipping the poor with food as medicine is less expensive and more sustainable than those burlap bags of grain.
It is also much, much less expensive than fixing medical systems in the developing world. Granted, these need to be fixed and we are all for better facilities and more medical practitioners. However, we believe that poor countries can best solve these problems when everyone has their basic needs met.
Think of the waste of human potential when people go malnourished. Without food, there is little energy for ingenuity or learning or ambition. Without adequate food, there is one focus: getting enough food.
Unfortunately cheap food and food aid is so devoid of nutrients as to be almost useless.
If you’ve ever eaten really badly for any length of time, you have probably noticed – at the very least – a slump in energy, difficult concentrating. If you carry on with this poor diet, you get sick. Repeatedly sick.
Children who grow up on a diet of starchy grains never get the nutrients they need for immunity or to reach their full potential. If they have access to school, they’re often too sick to go. This is where the cycle of poverty begins. It begins with the bowl or rice or ugali or maize.
Now, think of how you’ve felt when you’ve eaten well; when you’ve eaten a diet rich in unprocessed, whole plant foods. If you’ve ever lived this way, you will know the incredible difference it makes to your physical and mental performance. Your energy is steady and enduring. Your mind feels clear. You lose far less time to illness and fatigue.
If a healthy diet makes this much difference for you, imagine what a difference it can make for all 1 billion of the world’s extreme poor.
Imagine that instead of missing school because of illness, those children could exploit every opportunity. They’d learn, they’d invent, they’d kick-start, they’d bootstrap, they’d take big initiative and solve big problems. They’d meet their full potential.
We can make this happen through community-based biointensive gardens and nutrition training. It’s a grassroots, organic solution, and it works.
We equip people with what they need to grow the most nutrient-dense foods available, and we teach them how to cultivate and use these foods to thrive, prevent and treat disease.
And so here we are: completely sold on natural health; deeply committed to organic agriculture; and more in love with Africa than ever.
What a decade!
Many times I’ve told the story about how Natural Calm helped my low bone density and insomnia. More importantly, Natural Calm helped me to create a much bigger impact in the world.
Please share the Natural Calm story! You can inspire other business owners to make a difference.