Western brings yogurt enterprise to London

Paul Mayne//Western NewsYOU Made It Café employee Shawntae Bennett begins working on the starter culture for the Fiti probiotic yogurt that has been introduced at the not-for-profit organization through a partnership with the Western Heads East program.

It has been 15 years since Western Heads East first introduced a social enterprise around its probiotic yogurt in Africa. Now, they are looking to replicate that success closer to home thanks to a partnership with London’s Youth Opportunities Unlimited (YOU).

Following the lead of entrepreneurs in East Africa, who run Fiti probiotic social enterprises, YOU has created its own social enterprise at the YOU Made It Café, located at the corner of Richmond and York streets in London.

Western Heads East uses a live microorganism strain called Lactobacillus rhamnosus in their production of the yogurt. At the cafe, Western interns helped train the chef and youth employees at YOU, teaching them how to make the starter culture on site. YOU has since partnered with a local dairy producer to complete the yogurt process.

YOU is a non-profit organization that supports youth in building skills, confidence and independence through employment skills training.

“Looking at the probiotic itself, and being able to bring that food science to our food productions here is tremendous,” said Steve Cordes, CEO of YOU. “We serve a lot of at-risk and vulnerable populations here, feeding up to 60 youth each day with compromised health systems. We also do Meal on Wheels every day for couple hundred or so seniors, who can also be immune-compromised individuals. It creates a wonderful community engagement opportunity for us.”

Bob Gough, Director of International Internships & Development at Western, said Western Heads East has been looking for opportunities to partner in London.

“What a perfect fit with the social enterprise that YOU has and with what the women are doing in East Africa,” said Gough, referring to ‘Yogurt Mamas,’ a local term of respect for the women who operate probiotic yogurt kitchens in their African communities.

Paul Mayne//Western NewsYouth Opportunities Unlimited CEO Steve Cordes, left, and Western Heads East director Bob Gough have partnered to introduce Fiti probiotic yogurt at the YOU Made It Café as a way to meet the health needs of the city’s vulnerable populations.

The kitchens have empowered the women and fostered change by helping them to contribute to the health of their communities and draw an income for their families.

“This is something that’s has a global impact. As much as what we’re doing, it’s how we’re doing it, the learning that goes along with it,” said Gough, who heads up Western Heads East. “At Western, the whole concept of critical and ethical global engagement is really important to us. We recognize global inequality and global issues also happen at home.”

The Fiti probiotic yogurt has been shown to have tremendous health benefits, including building immune response, reducing respiratory illness, removing environmental toxin absorption into the body and general health and nutrition.

Cordes said the plans are to make the Fiti available in London to targeted vulnerable populations who may be nutritionally compromised, such Meals on Wheels, Children’s Aid, Centre for Lifelong Learning, Dale Services, day cares, nursing homes and others.

Paul Mayne//Western NewsYOU Made It Café employees Shawntae Bennett, left, and Abbi Lint show off the Fiti probiotic yogurt that has been introduced at the not-for-profit organization through a partnership with the Western Heads East program.

The learning process that goes along with such a partnership has been as important as the yogurt itself, he added.

“Everything has to go back to the why. Why is more important than the what,” Cordes said. “Our own staff are still learning on how it’s different from just going to the grocery store and buying it there. They love the idea of being educated on healthy options.”

He added the partnership with Western itself is a huge boost to the morale of all involved with YOU.

“We are dealing with young people who often feel isolated from a lot of parts of the community, including Western,” Cordes said. “For them to see a big institution like Western interested in them and helping them, it redefines where they see themselves in the world, as well. It sounds grand, but it happens at this level. This is another example of how these partnerships can benefit those living in our communities.”

Gough echoed those sentiments, adding despite east Africa and London being worlds apart, issues remain the same.

“It’s so neat to bring that home, to see our students and the youth here working with vulnerable populations and bringing help to their own community,” he said. “As important as the health benefits of the yogurt are, it’s also how we go about doing what we’re doing. In Africa, it’s the empowerment of the women; there is still empowerment happening here, with our youth.”