19 April 2017
Neechi, an aboriginal worker cooperative located in Winnipeg, Canada, launched 27 years ago as a food store in an economically depressed and predominantly aboriginal area in Winnipeg. Since then it has demonstrated persistence, and commitment as it developed the cooperative which was in response to an economic development need within the aboriginal community. The cooperative has since expanded to a new location called “Neechi Commons” which now includes the restaurant BisonBerry and the aboriginal arts store and gallery Neechi Niche.
By Kaye Grant, Canadian Worker Co-operative Federation
Neechi‘s success to date shows that economic opportunities can be created amidst tough social circumstances. They are located in one of the most economically depressed neighbourhoods in Canada and yet it is the largest employer of indigenous people in Manitoba in retail/wholesale with over 45 staff, 16 being worker members. Most employees live in the local area. Staff gain employment skills, job experience and, through the worker cooperative model, the opportunity to become a business owner, which for most would not otherwise have been available to them.
Neechi has also become an important sales outlet for indigenous artists, most whom live within a 14 block radius of the store. Artists are able to focus on creating while the store does the sales and marketing. In addition, the store hosts book launches and art exhibits as a public service. The restaurant promotes indigenous foods and serves as a meeting place for various groups including young indigenous social activists.
Recently Neechi was accepted into Nutrition North Canada, which is a Canadian federal food subsidy program based on freight costs that is intended to provide residents of remote northern communities with improved access to nutritious foods. This has enabled Neechi to expand its sales to northern communities and has contributed to strong overall sales growth. In the case of meats, produce, dairy and other nutritious foods, Neechi’s northern customers are able to order directly from the cooperative, at Winnipeg prices plus a small charge for airport deliveries. Orders are delivered the next day.
This success has come with multiple challenges which Neechi is still struggling with. The initial construction phase of the new location, an environmentally green building, resulted in much higher construction costs than anticipated which have maximized their borrowing capacity. This means that they have needed to be more innovative in their approaches for operational funding. Although sales continue to grow and breakeven is within sight, they are still operating in a deficit situation. Currently they are exploring a number of options that could enable them to reduce this debt.
Another significant challenge is the need for much higher security costs than they had anticipated. This is a response to drug dealing associated with nearby hotels and pharmacies and to routine shoplifting activities. Neechi also has had to contend with intensified competition among large chain stores in Winnipeg. In the face of these many issues, Neechi is a shining example of an indigenous approach to successfully meeting local economic challenges.