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Iffat Zehra has a unique perspective on the South Asian market demand, as she originally hails from Pakistan and has spent much of her time in Canada working to establish programs for New Canadians at the community level.
Iffat is currently working as Executive Director of the Community Economic Development for Immigrant Women (CEDIW) and is partnering with FarmStart to develop agricultural and food security programs for the South Asian community in Brampton. From this vantage point, Iffat presented on the characteristics of South Asian market demand, and what farmers should consider when growing for these markets.
Iffat began by noting the large diversity in the South Asian community. Bengalis, Punjabis, and people from different regions all eat different things and cook different specialties: knowing these demographic differences is important for developing effective marketing strategies. There is also a strong religious diversity among the South Asian population, which includes Muslim, Hindu, Jain, and Sikh beliefs. This makes for diverse growing and marketing options, as each religious group also has their own priorities and different eating habits, whether it is halal or vegetarian.
Generational and age differences will also effect marketing strategies. Iffat notes that South Asian youth are looking for food that is close to mainstream, but that fits with cultural needs and norms due to pressure from parents. The teenagers want to eat pizza–but halal pizza, vegetarian pizza, or daal pizza! On the other hand, South Asian seniors are looking for bitter gourd and medicinal herbs similar to what is grown in their home countries.
Iffat also points out that women are the most important target demographic when marketing South Asian food. Traditionally, the women are the cooks in the family, and this demographic is interested in accessing South Asian vegetables, flowers, and most importantly, spices. On the other hand, the male customers, particularly the male Muslim population, are big purveyors of halal meat products.
Iffat also pointed out some unique characteristics of the South Asian marketplace. She notes that in Brampton, Mississauga, and on Gerrard Street, you will see an entire market-place: ten specialized grocery stores all along one strip, all catering to Punjabis, Gujurati, and Bengalis. Religious centres also often become marketplaces: mosques and mundir (Hindu temple) parking lots become farmers markets on prayer days.
Iffat ended her presentation with two notes of caution to farmers. One is that farmers need to be sure to get the common names of the produce right to cater to a wide market. An item may have ten different common names for Punjabi, Urdu, Hindi, Gujarati because the languages are all different. Iffat also indicated that finding and identifying the correct seeds to grow is important but can be difficult to find in the Canadian seed market.