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Labour of love

The husband-and-wife team behind Cha’s Organics set their sights on creating healthy food and positive change for growers
Photo by Michael Abril

They call it serendipity. In 2004, Marise May and Chanaka Kurera met in a Tokyo nightclub neither had ever visited. He spotted her on the dance floor and approached. Their connection was immediate, despite being from worlds apart. She was a Canadian from Montreal and he hailed from Sri Lanka, but they realized quickly how much they had in common—an interest in Ayurveda (a form of traditional Hindu medicine), healthy living and organic food. May had a degree in nutritional science from the University of British Columbia. Kurera had an entrepreneurial spirit and was working for a car manufacturer in Japan after leaving his home country, which was still struggling under the weight of civil war. Their meeting would mark the beginning of a romantic and business partnership.

As their relationship bloomed, they got married and started talking about what their future might look like. “We were thinking at first that it would be neat to have an Ayurvedic spa offering treatments,” says May. “Then we decided to spend some time in Sri Lanka with Cha’s family and relocate to Canada afterward.”

Getting Kurera a visa to come to Canada was proving difficult, but once again, serendipity stepped in. The tsunami of 2005 that devastated so many areas of Southeast Asia also impacted the village where his family lived. They fled their home before the water came rushing in. The silver lining to the disaster was that Canada was fast-tracking visas for those affected by it. Kurera was able to join May, who had returned to Montreal.

Finally reunited, it was time to launch a business that reflected their skills and interests. Kurera thought about the farmers he had met in Sri Lanka when acting as a translator for some Japanese businessmen trying to buy tea. “I met these farmers and learned so much about everything they do,” he recalls. “They were practicing organic farming and biodynamic traditions, while embracing cultural values. I thought, we need to preserve this.”

They started small in Montreal, selling Ayurvedic teas at an outdoor counter in space shared by a boutique. It was a tough slog. In 2006, customers didn’t know much about the benefits of Ayurveda. But their spiced chai had earned a following, and they continued to sell it. “In the beginning, I had my days when I made $10 a day,” remembers Kurera. “At the same time, Marise was pregnant. I wondered how I was going to feed my baby. But I always believed somebody would recognize what we were trying to do.”

As winter approached, it became too cold to keep selling their chai outdoors. But customers still wanted it, so they packaged up the tea and made it available inside the boutique. Other health food stores soon started carrying the tea, too. That’s when May and Kurera realized the potential of offering customers high-quality, organic products. They soon expanded into spices, then coconut milk, curry pastes and canned fruit (including mango and jackfruit).

Today, Cha’s Organics, still based in Montreal, has 10 employees and almost 100 SKUs in its lineup. Grocers across the country, including Sobeys and Metro, now carry their products and the lineup continues to expand. The latest launch is Watermelon Chips, created in response to a surplus of watermelons in Sri Lanka, thanks to the pandemic. With fewer tourists coming to the country, big buyers such as resorts no longer needed the crops, so Cha’s stepped in. “We were able to prevent all that fruit going to waste and to help local farmers,” says May.

Other new products are coming in 2021. Next, Cha’s will offer heirloom rice, grown using traditional organic regenerative methods. Having close relationships with their Sri Lankan growers and suppliers is important to them. “Organic practices should be used for everything,” notes Kurera. “All businesses should be fair trade. Those things shouldn’t be marketing tools. They should be the norm.”

Cha’s Organics’ approach to business is making a positive change in Sri Lanka, where most of their ingredients are sourced. Hundreds of people there are employed in growing and manufacturing. For example, the village producing handmade packaging (used for spices) provides 40 women with jobs, a living wage and benefits.

Indeed, May and Kurera say they always get so much joy from finding ways to help Sri Lankans. “This was a dream for me,” Kurera says. “Now it’s a reality for us. It has all come together and the impact is so natural.”

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