Indigenous entrepreneurs get into personal, protective equipment  business

A 100 per cent Indigenous owned company poised to supply communities with PPE

While the COVID-19 pandemic has forced Indigenous businesses across the country to close their doors, others have gotten creative with new ventures.

A group of Indigenous entrepreneurs in Manitoba came together in early April to research options of developing a company which would distribute personal protective equipment (PPE) to business owners and Indigenous communities.

The end result is Exchange PPE, a 100 per cent Indigenous-owned distribution company.

“We took our time thinking about it, looking at how that whole market even works and really what are the needs,” Josh Giesbrecht, president and co-founder of Exchange PPE told APTN News.

“What you’re seeing is an industry that went from a really niche boutique industry dealing with medical folk to [dealing with] the whole public across the whole globe.”

Josh Giesbrecht, president and co-founder of Exchange PPE demonstrates how a sanitizing fogging machine works. This device is one of the pieces of equipment the team at Exchange PPE is helping supply to communities. Photo: Brittany Hobson/APTN

When the pandemic hit, Giesbrecht was working in the hemp industry.

He was working with the Akwesasne and Mohawk territories in Ontario when the communities began to lockdown their communities.

It was contacts from this industry that suggested he look into supplying PPE.

The company is in the early stages of launching, and while they do have a branch that works exclusively with Indigenous communities this will not be the group’s sole focus.

Giesbrecht, who is from Roseau River Anishinaabe First Nation, said it’s important to offer products and services to communities because some have been hit hard during the pandemic, including the Navajo Nation in the United States.

“Once the infection rate got higher [in the Navajo Nation] than New York City it became apparent that we need to prepare now so that we’re not caught flat-footed,” he said.

Masks and hand sanitizer are some of the products the company will distribute.

They are also looking into alternatives to alcohol-based sanitizers such as fogging machines, which uses a form of electrolyzed water to sanitize surfaces. They say this is a safe and effective option to use against the virus because it can clean larger areas and food products.

Part of services Exchange PPE will provide to communities includes training people in communities on how to use the machine.

Kyra Wilson is one of three community advisors with the company. The team has already been in contact with First Nations in Manitoba.

“We are trying to focus on some of those unique needs and really work with First Nations communities on what those needs are,” said Wilson.

Wilson said it’s important to offer safe solutions during this time when talks of a “second wave” of the virus are dominating conversations.

“What we’re saying is just be prepared if you’re not already and let us help you be proactive in keeping your community safe,” said Wilson.

Kyra Wilson works with Indigenous communities to determine what personal protective equipment needs they may have. Photo: Brittany Hobson/APTN

The team’s co-founders also include Métis restauranteur Noel Bernier and Najara Barros. The two co-owned Hermanos Restaurant and Wine Bar, a popular eatery in Winnipeg. Last week they announced they wouldn’t be reopening the restaurant due to COVID-19, and have instead switched to forming Exchange PPE.

As case numbers fluctuate and cities and provinces begin to reopen, Giesbrecht notes the irony of starting a new business that’s dependent on the pandemic.

“Do I see it being sustainable in the long run? I hope not because I think we all want to return back to what we had,” said Giesbrecht.

“The future is long and what we’ve heard from health experts is there could be other pandemics that come after this and so at least we’ll have the knowledge to be ready for the next one.”

Reporter / Winnipeg

Brittany joined the APTN news team in October 2016. She is Ojibway and a member of the Long Plain First Nation in Manitoba. Before coming to APTN, she graduated with a joint degree in communications from the University of Winnipeg and Red River College.