WORTHINGTON — A Worthington woman who found a new business opportunity in the midst of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has received an award from the Southwest Regional Development Commission.

The SRDC, during its Sept. 10 meeting — which took place virtually this year as a result of the pandemic — recognized World Mart and its owner, Nathalie Nkashama, as the organization’s Project of the Year. SRDC Chairman and Worthington Mayor Mike Kuhle presented Nkashama with the award Wednesday afternoon in Chautauqua Park.

SRDC Communications Specialist Jessica Welu shared the announcement of World Mart as its Project of the Year. Welu noted that the SRDC’s Revolving Loan Fund closed on a loan with World Mart in April 2018. At that time, World Mart was a new Worthignton business offering African foods, products and a small thrift store.

“Much of the reason for a local store was to (offer) products within Worthington rather than travel to the Twin Cities or Sioux Falls,” said Welu, adding that the Southwest Initiative Foundation and Worthington Regional Economic Development Corp. also partnered on the project.

Nkashama speaks five languages and has become known for her specialty tea and bulk products, Welu said. But like so many other businesses throughout the community, state and nation, COVID-19 brought about unexpected change.

“As it turns out, the COVID-19 pandemic created an opportunity for World Mart,” Welu said. “When people stopped driving to Sioux Falls and the Twin Cities when the pandemic fears started, they began to call her and purchase their dry goods staples from her at the shop. But it still wasn’t profitable enough to keep paying the rent.

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“That’s when Nathalie had a traveling trailer idea,” Welu continued. “She then made the decision to give up her leased space, resulting in very little expenses due to elimination of rent, salaries, utilities, fixed internet, etc.”

World Mart subsequently purchased a small trailer, and Nkashama got it properly licensed to use as a vendor trailer to sell grains and spices anywhere. The trailer is painted in lively African colors/designs, and African music is often played over a loudspeaker.

Nkashama’s trailer goes to various neighborhoods on pre-scheduled deliveries and she’s now selling out of her flours, spices and other dry goods products. Nkashama projects that about 50% of her customers who once shopped outside of Worthington no longer travel for needed items.

Customers are able to request products for future deliveries, and World Mart offers no-charge deliveries on Fridays. Customers pay online. With increased sales and winter approaching, World Mart is considering further expansion of its mobile model by adding an insulated trailer with appropriate shelving.

Nathalie feels she is now better serving her community and this excites her,” Welu said. “Customers from Iowa, Windom, Jackson and Worthington are being served.”

“I thank God for inspiring me to work hard despite the challenges,” Nkashama wrote in a post on the World Mart Worthington MN Facebook page. “This is a story of resilience and passion beyond borders, a passion to bridge the gap.

“I wanted to give up,” she added. “I couldn’t give up because of my passion.”

According to Welu, the SRDC Revolving Loan Fund has lent $8,976,715.47 since its inception. More than 170 businesses have taken the RLF opportunity for start-up or working capital, an expansion or relocation of an existing business, or a business succession plan to keep small businesses in the region.

SRDC recently created a COVID-19 Revolving Loan Fund as a result of a $1.48 million award through the federal CARES Act Recovery Assistance Grant.

“The COVID-19 RLF is designed to assist in alleviating sudden and severe economic dislocation caused by the pandemic, to provide permanent resources to support economic resiliency and to further the long-term economic growth of southwest Minnesota,” Welu said.

More than $538,000 has already been loaned out across nine regional counties, and funds remain available for a limited time. To learn more about the RLF programs, visit swrdc.org/economic-development/revolving-loan-funds/.