WHILE many lament the harsh economic effects of the dreaded COVID-19 virus, one innovative St Catherine teenager is smiling all the way to the bank. She is happy because her farm food delivery business Soul Food Jamaica is setting down roots and thriving in today's challenging economic climate, providing new hope for her family and community. Her success is even more fulfilling because it has made it possible for her to lend a hand to others.
Like thousands of other Jamaicans who either suffered from a layoff, pay cut or job loss since health restrictions limited business activity in March, 19-year-old Whitney Sinclair was left devastated on Holy Thursday when she was let go by the pharmacy where she worked.
“I felt so depressed, because it's bad enough that you lose your job, but who wants to lose their job during a pandemic?” she said during an interview with the Jamaica Observer. “I was watching the news and I realised a lot of farmers were saying their produce is going to waste, so I wanted to help. I do a bit of farming myself, so I understand.”
So on Easter Monday when Sinclair decided to set up a food delivery business, she was not thinking about the profits. She was more concerned about how she could help her farming neighbours in and around the Grateful Hill District in Glengoffe, St Catherine, to get their goods to consumers.
“My stepfather happened to have a delivery van, and he wasn't working either, so we thought, 'Why not?'. Before I could finish making the page on Instagram (@soulfoodja), people were messaging me asking for the price list and how to order,” she recalled.
Overwhelmed by the demand, Sinclair hastily set up a system through which people could place orders on certain days of the week, after which she would sort and pack, then make deliveries on the weekend. Her first client was nutritionist Kamila McDonald, who is also a health and wellness coach.
“The support since then has been crazy,” said an elated Sinclair. “Meeting the customers, seeing the smile on their faces, and seeing the smiles on the faces of the farmers when I order a lot of produce from them — that makes me so happy.”
But on April 24, after just two weeks in business, Sinclair had a major setback.
“We were on our way back from making some deliveries in Stony Hill, when out of nowhere a reckless driver who was trying to overtake swung into our lane, and drove smack into the delivery vehicle,” she recounted glumly. “I didn't get any external bruises, but my back and legs really took a hit, and the vehicle could no longer be used. Everything just felt 'mash up'.”
Though doctors told her to take it easy for a while, Sinclair could not stay still. Just days after the collision she was making deliveries via public transportation, trying to keep her customers.
“All the profits that I had made from the first two weeks had to go right back into buying back the goods to give back to the customers,” she said, shaking her head. “That accident taught me a year or two years' worth of business experience in just an instant, because I had to be doing quality control and damage control. All those lessons that you would expect to learn further down the line, I had to learn them right away.”
Now a month on since the accident, Sinclair is optimistic and confident that her business will be sustainable, even after the worst of the COVID-19 threat has passed.
“The truth is that we will go back to normal, but we will not go back to the way things were before,” she said evenly. “The coronavirus forced a lot of people in Jamaica to start doing many things online that they did not have to do before, and they have found that it is much easier. I think Soul Food will still flourish, because we're stepping into the future where ordering online is now a thing. [Some of] the biggest companies in the world are [related to] e-commerce, and I offer convenience. Who doesn't like that?”
Sinclair, who has been receiving offers from investors, is focused on steadily building her business while remaining firmly grounded. She hopes that she soon will be able to use the funds from her business to pursue higher education.
“I lost my dad a month before I sat my CSEC exams three years ago, and he told me to keep my head high, and I plan on continuing on that path,” the former Oberlin High student said. “I was accepted to study entertainment and cultural enterprise management (ECEM) at [The] UWI [University of the West Indies] in 2018, but I deferred because I didn't have the funds and really didn't want to take a loan.”
While she has not lost her passion for the arts, or her dream of helping to develop the diverse entertainment sector, Sinclair hopes that she will be able to encourage her peers to pursue careers in agriculture.
“I want more young people to become involved in agriculture,” she said. “I want to remove the stigma attached to farming, and I want people to know that eating local produce is great for the economy. More than anything, I want to have a positive impact on the people around me.”She added. “I'm coming from a place where I wasn't sure where my next meal would come from, and I want to get to a place where I'm stable enough to help others to grow and to learn.”
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