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Investing in Relationships: A CEO Interview on NNDDC's ColdAcre acquisition


CEOS from left to right: Tarek Bos, ColdAcre, Jani Djokic, NNDDC, Ben Power, Solvest Inc.

On January 23, 2024, we announced that Na-Cho Nyäk Dun Development Corporation (NNDDC) acquired a majority ownership stake in Yukon company, ColdAcre Food Systems. This exciting development means that ColdAcre officially became a Yukon First Nations company, and may continue their incredible work of serving Indigenous and remote communities across the North in food sovereignty solutions. We sat down with the ownership team, Tarek Bos (CEO, ColdAcre), Jani Djokic (CEO, NNDDC), and Ben Power (CEO, Solvest Inc.) to chat about this acquisition deal, and what this means for ColdAcre, and the Yukon.


First off, Jani, Can you share the motivation behind NNDDC's decision to acquire a majority-stake in ColdAcre?

Jani: 

NNDDC has always had a focus on food, and in particular working toward food sovereignty and proactively addressing components that increase food security in the Yukon. One of our core business focuses is Food Sovereignty & Security, and in fall 2022, NNDDC hired a permanent Food Ecosystems Researcher. Her role is to continue connecting food sovereignty, security, and sustainability systems within the Traditional Territory of the First Nation of Na-Cho Nyäk Dun, and throughout the Yukon. Locally within Mayo, we have been heavily invested in our food ecosystem through ownership of the only fully-serviced grocery store in FNNND’s Traditional Territory, Mayo Foods. Through our continued involvement in, and deepened understanding of this sector, it became apparent to NNDDC there were significant sustainability issues as an independent grocer (at the end of a highway system in northern Canada) to mitigate the impacts of food systems that are designed and governed in jurisdictions far from us. These impacts include, access to nutritious and fresh foods, high price points, climate impacts from trucking and industrial-scale soil-based agriculture, water consumption, etc. We made the decision that in order to better serve our community and Yukoners alike, we needed to start finding Yukon-based solutions to our food supply chain issues, for the benefit of residents and not at the expense of them. 


Before this deal all came to be, you three have had an extensive working relationship. Can you reflect on that?

Jani:

I mean, so many things have been incredible about working with Ben and Tarek. Of course, Solvest (Ben’s company) and NNDDC collaborated on our solar generator that is currently being leased to Snowline Gold, so we already had a lot of that background that makes us really great working partners for more projects. NNDDC was the first Yukon partner to purchase one of ColdAcre’s hydroponics units (her name is Lucy!), and that working relationship has always been very strong. The thing that stands out about both of these partners is that they really value both what a development corporation means to community impact, but also the capacity building benefits that occurs when partnering with a First Nation business. They historically have both provided a lot of space to uplift the voices of our community, and find unique solutions. So when the idea of partnering with Ben and Tarek again on this scale was put forward, we had already so much trust and depth of a relationship, that it made this growth that much easier.


Tarek: Over the last five years I have worked with Ben in developing ColdAcre from the ground up. We have experienced many highs and lows and I have always been impressed with his positive and competitive nature. Ben introduced me to Jani who was the Chief Operating Officer for NNDDC at the time. NNDDC purchased the first grow system from us and displayed that they wanted to be part of this project from the beginning. As an early adopter, they knew what the technology meant, the impact that it is capable of, and it was clear that they wanted to be part of the journey. We have worked on multiple large and small projects through the years, and I have always been impressed with the vision, dedication, and  excitement shown by Jani. When it came time to sell shares in the company I felt that there couldn't be a better partner. 


Ben: Over the past four years, Tarek and the great team at ColdAcre have worked tirelessly to build the company, and through this journey have discovered their passion for partnering with Indigenous Nations to provide community grown, fresh food, year-round. With this purpose clear, a partnership with NNDDC was only natural. Solvest has had the pleasure to work with NNDDC for over six years on a variety of renewable energy projects. They have an unwavering commitment to building economic and environmental sustainability, self sufficiency on behalf of not only their Nation, but assisting other Nations. 


ColdAcre is now a First Nations owned company, can you share what that means to you personally, and how it impacts the direction of the company?

Jani: 

I think it’s important to have Yukon First Nations ownership in components that are considered critical to operating in a self-sufficient manner. Food sovereignty is one of those pieces. I often refer back to Together Today for Our Children Tomorrow to be a guiding voice in the work that NNDDC does, and throughout Appendix IV of this document (a preliminary list of economic development opportunities by Nation) ventures that would help address food sovereignty and security are referenced repeatedly. We are seeing an increasing number of Yukon First Nations businesses emerge in this space, and NNDDC is excited to work alongside them. Further, increasing the level of Yukon First Nation economic participation in this sector and representation in designing the future of food for the Yukon.


The acquisition of ColdAcre is a vital addition to building food sovereignty and sustainability in Indigenous communities. Owning the infrastructure to produce food is a critical component to active self-determination and self-sustainability. 



Tarek:

I have always been under the impression that the Yukon’s strength is in its heritage and land. Although the impacts of colonization cannot be understated, the traditional ways of life remain strong in the Yukon.


As we built and grew ColdAcre, it became more and more clear to us that food sovereignty should be led by the people who it is helping. From the design and construction to the growing and distribution, we have been partnering with Indigenous groups to actualize their food production goals, as determined by themselves. With our new ownership in place, we will have a much deeper layer of connection and knowledge with Indigenous communities, and hope to work with our new partners to learn and improve our company, our products, and our training programs.


What are you most excited about for the future of ColdAcre?

Jani:

We are excited to be an active part of scaling up ColdAcre and expanding a growing facility to be reflective of and encompassing community-driven food sovereignty efforts. NNDDC has always dreamed about a future in which we could have a hub facility in the Yukon that trains high quality food producers, is a production centre that provides a large portion of the Yukon’s needed produce, and acts as a conduit to ensure our communities and Territory are being fed with nutritious food and culturally relevant food. All within a much smaller environmental footprint. 


Beyond the future of ColdAcre as a standalone business, we are also excited for all the ways NNDDC’s other subsidiaries and initiatives can integrate and incorporate ColdAcre. Between Yukon Seed and Restoration, Mayo Foods, and Ihdzí’, the opportunity for collaboration is endless!


Tarek: 

The future of ColdAcre has never looked brighter. We have a strong team who are actively building up our service capabilities and expanding us into markets across Canada. With our new ownership structure, ColdAcre is well positioned to move into complete multi-food system solutions for communities. NNDDC has so much depth in its organization and its subsidiaries, which we are extremely excited to work with and integrate into. We will be looking to continue to expand our food production and distribution in the Yukon while rounding out our food system offers. ColdAcre strives to be the best food production solution for indigenous and northern communities offered in the world, and we feel this partnership will help us achieve that goal.


Ben:

I'm excited for what comes from this incredible partnership as we collectively position ColdAcre to take a leading role in the Indigenous food sovereignty space across Canada in years to come. Solvest is thrilled for this partnership and excited for the future.





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