Chinweotito “Otito” Atansi was born in Nigeria in March of 1989. At the age of six, his parents emigrated to Cameroon to pursue a business interest. While he was in high school, Antansi’s older brother was attending Dalhousie University. “He informed me of the opportunities to study that existed in Halifax, and convinced my parents to raise the money,” Atansi says. “My brother then helped me with the application to attend Saint Mary’s University.”
The decision to move to Nova Scotia in 2009 to further his education was pivotal in mapping Atansi’s future. After completing a two-year diploma course in engineering at Saint Mary’s University, he continued his studies at Dalhousie University and graduated with a Bachelor of Engineering (BEng) in 2013.
Now, Atansi is not only a successful engineer with a management position at Saint John Energy in New Brunswick, he also heads a thriving online company called Sankara, which provides ethnic foods, crafts, programs and services in three locations in New Brunswick (and is expanding into Halifax). But it’s not been an easy journey.
When he first started his studies in Canada, he experienced a stigma associated with students from Africa. Classmates assumed that the quality of education he (and others) had from Africa was inferior, and believed that international students lacked a solid foundation. This showed up when classmates teamed up to do projects; invariably, Africans were not sought out to join a team; consequently they paired up with students from their own country and had little opportunity to work and socialize with Canadians.
Securing internships was also difficult. “We were always last to get positions. This creates tremendous stress for students who do not have Canadian accents.” It also affects one’s psychological makeup. “Africans find it hard to make friends and experience Canadian culture. You have to remind yourself that you are worthy, and not here by mistake.”
And, of course, there was the language barrier. “I had to practice writing and find other ways to communicate” Atansi says. “The ability to listen and do effective problem solving becomes even more important.”
Finding a job was another challenge. “With a different accent, a long name, and not being from the region, I had to convince potential employers of the value of my internships, as well as the value of my high grades.” Then came the never-ending job search, which involved upwards of 500 applications spanning eight months. Finally, bingo! He landed an engineering job with Saint John Energy in 2014.
“I learned a lot about myself during that eight months, and wouldn’t change the job I’m doing. And even though there were difficult times as a student, I was very happy to be given the opportunity to come to Canada and to experience true freedom. We live in a free economy here where people can express their individual talents. This means there are equal opportunities, and this provides stability.”
Once Atansi settled into his job, he needed something to occupy his spare time and thought of ways he could introduce ethnic foods to folks in Saint John. This would accomplish two things: it would encourage Canadians to try different foods from elsewhere that were both tasty and healthy; it would also help people with different international backgrounds to express themselves and earn some money. So, with the aid of his girlfriend, Lily Lynch, and a Nigerian food vendor, Uchenna Udeh, they started serving various African offerings at the Queen Square Farmers Market.
Chinweotito “Otito” Atansi
Later, they considered opening a restaurant where foods from different countries would be featured on a rotating schedule. But due to a limited population in Saint John, this was not a feasible idea. Nor was a food truck considered an option as more time would be spent moving the truck around than making food, the business was seasonal, and it was difficult to get a license. Then it happened. In 2016, Atansi launched Sankara—a multicultural online marketplace where people from different backgrounds could sell their foods, arts and crafts.
Sankara is especially noted for its wide selection of food items and “meal boxes” where five meals can be ordered from ethnic chefs, including Syrian, Ethiopian, Brazilian, Korean and Chinese—to name just a few—and delivered to homes on Sunday afternoon. And there are many more offerings. For example, Atansi says, “If you lived in Halifax and wanted to learn Swahili, there’s a student attending Dalhousie and you could connect. You’d learn the language and mannerisms, and friendships would come from that interaction. It would also provide some money for the student and give him something to add to his resume.”
As well, before the pandemic, pop-up restaurants were hugely popular. Typically, a guest chef at a partnering restaurant would provide authentic meals representing their culture for 30 guests. The evening would also include music and an opportunity to meet the chefs.
Another offering is “Sankara Shares” whereby folks who love to travel and learn about different cultures have an opportunity to meet at a local cafés or pubs and share their travels through storytelling. It’s social, interactive, informal—and hugely popular.
Atansi’s company was named after Thomas Sankara, an African revolutionary who has been referred to as Africa’s Che Guevara. At age 33, Sankara became the president of the Republic of Upper Volta, which he renamed Burnkin Faso, meaning “Land of Incorruptible People.” Sankara was instrumental in launching social, ecological and economic reforms to aid and protect his people.
Looking back, in spite of some difficult times as a student, Atansi is happy to call Saint John home. “Housing is affordable, people are welcoming and supportive. There are opportunities for immigrants here with life skills and you can land a good job,” he says.
The young engineer-entrepreneur considers New Brunswick to be the ideal place to lay a foundation for a business, home and family. “There’s less competition here —and less traffic—than in the big cities,” he adds. Atansi credits this in part to what he calls the “Atlantic Canadian sensibility” and describes it as being friendly and relaxed. He concludes: “It’s the best place to live!”