Food and Water Warriors
Creating a generation of tech-savvy indigenous food and water entrepreneurs
Navajo families are experiencing high rates of poverty. The median family income on the reservation is less than $31,000/year, leaving 43% of families living below the poverty line. 42% are unemployed and over ⅓ of tribally enrolled members live outside of the reservation, seeking economic opportunities. Our young people ages 20-29 are the largest age group living off the reservation. Many of our young people express interest in returning home or staying home on the reservation to learn and reconnect with their culture, but currently, have little opportunity to do so.
A joint venture between a 501(c)3 tax-exempt, non-profit organization and a low-profit limited liability company (L3C) is an innovative, model-based approach to addressing our need to help grow food and water entrepreneurs on the Navajo Nation. An L3C is a legal form of business that is structured to facilitate investments in socially beneficial, for profit businesses. This business model is a prototype. Once established and operational, it will be a model for others to replicate.
Tolani Lake Enterprises (TLE) is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization whose mission is to strengthen food, water, and economic security. It provides workshops and technical assistance to producers. Their teaching is centered around regenerative agriculture, namely building soil health. The project team will plan and incorporate the Sihasin Garden store as an L3C. TLE will provide the space for the venture. The Sihasin Garden entrepreneurs will grow produce for value-added products and sell these and low-cost garden supplies at the physical retail space and online. The venture will include operating a coffee and deli counter.
The team will utilize Google Drive to collaborate on its joint marketing, business strategies, and projects. For instance, this team will collaboratively launch the Digital Warriorship Project (DWP) to teach our youth the fundamentals of using social media technologies (i.e., Facebook, Instagram, podcast, blogging/vlogging, etc.). We will use our online presence to share our knowledge, including the business skills we’ve learned through the process of building the store. The coffee and deli counter will provide fuel for creative discussions.
Provided that 80 cents of every dollar from the Navajo Nation are spent outside the reservation at non-Native businesses, it is critical to find innovative ways to keep the majority of Navajo-earned currency circulating within our communities. Additionally, due to the forced dependency on the post-colonization food industry, many indigenous communities have strayed from their traditional lifeways. By using social media and technology like share drives to teach and model how to be a food and water entrepreneur, our young people will gain the confidence and skills to change our economic landscape.
Lastly, the greatest barrier to this project is reaching more people because of the physical distance between Navajo communities and business hubs. Since the Navajo Nation is about the size of West Virginia, and over ⅔ of roads are unpaved, transportation barriers negatively impact participation. Anticipating this barrier, we will provide both in-person and online-based platforms for our activities.
Our solution's stage of development:Prototype
Where our project is located:Tolani Lake, AZ, USA
Where our solution team is headquartered or located:Tolani Lake, AZ, USA
How we use technology in our project:
Social media technology, including Facebook, Instagram, podcasting, YouTube and blogging/vlogging, is not only a useful tool for today’s entrepreneur but an absolutely critical platform for indigenous communities. On the Navajo reservation, there is a need to strengthen our use of social media platforms for business and marketing. With training, mentorship, and access to necessary technology (recording equipment, tablets, etc.) food and water entrepreneurs can communicate ideas and market locally sourced indigenous products/services. The online community our team builds will have access to the training materials, how-to videos, and other resources developed by TLE and its network of partners.
What makes our project innovative:
The joint venture model is our innovative approach to addressing knowledge disparities of entrepreneurship among our young people. Social media platforms are interactive technologies that can provide opportunities to communicate information regarding locally-owned businesses and their products/services. Almost the entirety of the Navajo Nation is classified as “very food insecure” (USDA) and relies on small convenience stores or flea markets for foods, drinks, and other products. Very few Native business owners advertise or promote their businesses to enhance their market for potential customers. We will use existing social media and share drive platforms will strengthen food and water entrepreneurship.
How our project will be accessible and affordable to our community:
The Sihasin Garden store will be a social venture with limited profit and the business plan will keep local demographics in mind when developing our pricing strategies. We will experiment with traditional bartering and trade practices to compensate for our goods and services. We will market our store when teaching entrepreneurial skills and strategies. These strategies will be free to other indigenous communities and made available online.
By promoting traditional/modern agricultural practices and information using social media, TLE is able to reach over 3,800 Navajo members in the Tolani Lake, Leupp, Birdsprings, and Cameron communities, annually. With the continued expansion of social media, we have the potential to reach the total population of over 300,000 Navajo members. Currently, we are using Instagram and Facebook as the primary social media platforms, and see potential in utilizing other social media platforms to gain interest from local community members. We currently partner with 6 Native farms and planning to expand our collaboration with local producers.
Our future project goals:
Our future goals focus are to increase the number of youth participation and skill development opportunities with our model. We plan to empower at least 5 Native youth this year through internships with TLE. These interns will be taught social entrepreneurship in food and water economies. The project goals for the next 5 years is to expand to 20 participants/year with the help of the Navajo Nation Workforce Development Program. We would like to expand collaborations with our Hopi and Apache neighbors. Because this is a model, it will be built so that it can be replicated.
Highlights from our project:
TLE, the 501(c)3 partner in the joint venture, and its partners are already building food entrepreneurs and enterprises on the Navajo Nation. It is working to incorporate a 501(c)3 non-profit in Cameron, AZ, called the Cameron Farm Enterprise whose goal is to establish a nearly 5,000-acre site that will include, initially, a 120-acre model farm, irrigated pasture, and wildlife conservation areas. TLE is also helping to incorporate the Dine Regenerative Agricultural Cooperative which will test launch Navajo Lamb products this year. TLE most recently received a 21st Dine Studies Conference 2018 Community Service & Leadership award.
Why we are applying to Solve:
We are applying to Solve because it provides us an opportunity to think outside the box when testing new approaches to address the overwhelming economic, social and health disparities we face caused by a system that was forced onto our people. We believe that Solve will provide us with the network and access to resources we need to capitalize on the work we’ve already accomplished and make a larger and more meaningful impact in our communities.
The organizations we are currently working with:
TLE is currently working with Indian Dispute Resolution Services, Dine College Land Grant Office, DINEHozho L3C, Spirit Farms, North Leupp Family Farm, Beaver Farm, Cameron Agricultural Ad-Hoc group, and many others. We work with our partners to plan, develop and implement food and water projects that are culturally competent and enterprising in nature. Additionally, Independent Platform (USDA proposal on culturally aware entrepreneurial education) is going to include a cohort of Native food and water entrepreneurs.
Organizations we would like to partner with:
We believe that our work to Grow Our Own would be enhanced by including Native American Business Incubator Network to help us to develop strategies to diversify revenues for the venture. We also would like to work with an organization that we’ve already identified who would help us accelerate our impact by connecting our ideas with the ideas of other indigenous communities around the world. We are still working on how to bring this organization into the dialogue in our Navajo and Hopi communities regarding the post-Navajo Generating Station economy.
- Burrell Jones Youth Program Manager, Tolani Lake Enterprises