No doubt about it, the Hunter Region is becoming more culturally diverse, and with new neighbours come new experiences. Weekender interviewed local business owners from Ethiopia, Sudan, Morocco, Kenya and South Africa to learn more about what brought them to Newcastle and how their home culture influences their business.
Lidya Stapleton owns Ethiopian restaurant, Habesha, at The Junction, and she's also the head chef. She grew up in the small Ethiopian town of Jimma and later travelled around the world. She met her Aussie husband Darrell Stapleton in Dubai and settled in Newcastle in 2012.
Habesha started in 2014 because of her love for cooking; it was something to do while she was a stay-at- home mum. She would get together with local mothers groups and bring home cooked food.
"People encourage me, saying 'I love your cooking ... I love your baking'. I start doing a little bit, and the people I know close to me, they came and they buy some things from me. From there and then they encourage me and my husband. I decided to try a market just to see what it's like. The feedback was really good, and then after that I just feel maybe we open a restaurant," she says.
Her husband Darrell helped her set up the restaurant and also helped her in the kitchen, although she's always been the main chef. They started out on King Street and their business continued to grow. In October 2019, they moved to a larger venue at The Junction. They're open seven days and week and have always been popular.
"Since the first day we opened, we booked out. I remember we opened in December, that was really busy," she says.
Now when she tells people in Newcastle that she's Ethiopian she laughs because they often tell her about how she should try Habesha.
Along with serving food that you can't get anywhere else in Newcastle, the handwashing ritual is one customers tend to remember. Stapleton explains that in Ethiopia they wash their hands before and after the meal because traditionally everyone eats with their hands. When her husband first visited Ethiopia he loved this process and suggested they incorporate it into the restaurant. At first she thought it was too much, but now people love the experience.
"Even before COVID we were very clean," she jokes.
They do offer cutlery for their desserts which are not traditional Ethiopian, rather Australian (sticky date and panna cotta) made in an Ethiopian style. She remembers one time they forgot to bring the spoons out for dessert. She came over to see what was wrong as the guests were uncertain and discussing the best way to eat it with their hands.
"They were about to dig in. I said 'Hang on, I serve you a spoon'," she laughs.
Injera bread is the famous stretchy, crepe-like sourdough guests use to scoop up their meal; Habesha bakes hundreds and hundreds every single day. First they mix the dough and two days later they make the bread.
They serve vegetarian and meat dishes and any dish is available vegan or gluten free. It's hard for Stapleton to pick a favourite.
"It's very popular for vegans, for vegetarians. Personally, I'm not vegetarian, but in Easter time we fast and we become completely vegan for two months, and we break our fast on Easter day," she says.
In the past she struggled to find vegan food she liked when eating out.
"Ours is actually tasty, I prefer to eat it vegan," she says of Habesha's menu.
And then for a completely different African dining experience, head to Maitland. For nearly two years Alex Bringi has been running Sudania, a cafe on High Street.
"What makes it special is the humbleness of food. It's not trying to be really fancy. We use a lot of herbs, cumin, dried coriander, dill," Bringi says. "This is food we usually eat at home.'"
Their menu is similar to Middle Eastern and Mediterranean. (During parts of the pandemic they switched to take-away only and introduced kebabs to the menu as well.) They cook a lot of lamb.
He's found people in the region don't know how to cook with traditional Sudanese ingredients, like okra, which is pronounced "Bamya" in Arabic. (Also pronounced the same way in Greek.) He's convinced many customers to try the okra and show them that, when done right, it's actually a pretty tasty vegetable.
The most popular dish is the stuffed capsicum, mahshi. It's served stuffed with rice, beef mince and special herbs. He said people try it out of curiosity and come back for more.
His shop is in Maitland, but he lives with his wife and three children in Raymond Terrace. He came to know Maitland through his wife, who lived there for 10 years. Prior to Raymond Terrace he lived in Jesmond. He grew up in Sudan, then he and his family lived briefly in Egypt and they later immigrated to Newcastle while he was a teenager.
Bringi finished year 12 in 2008 and started work. He opened the shop nearly two years ago; it's the first business he's owned.
He was inspired to open Sudania because he knew Sudanese women cooked good meals at home and he thought they could get paid for their skills and knowledge. He wanted to offer something from the African community to share with the Aussies, who also happen to be most of his customers.
"A lot of our ladies back at home, they know nothing besides cooking. Most of them spend their days cooking. So I'm like 'If you have experience since a young age, why don't you transfer that into bringing you money instead of sitting at home doing nothing'," he says.
He convinced his wife's aunt to come in and work for him.
"She's the chef, and I learned a lot of things from her," he says.
He'd never worked in hospitality before, and he learnt that it can be stressful. Fortunately he has support, as several of his family members work for him.
He was pleasantly surprised when he opened the cafe. He wondered if locals in Maitland might resist it, but instead he received lots of encouragement. Word spread about his cafe and he began to learn more about the local Greek and European community too.
"With me opening this business, I'm learning a lot of other different cultures that come into Australia. I love talking to people."
If it's not food you're after, there's still plenty of African culture to experience. Head to Islington where Ihssane Zouikr's Koutchi shop on Beaumont Street brings Moroccan handmade crafts to the region.
Zouikr is a neuroscientist who originally moved to Newcastle for his PhD in late 2009. He moved here with his wife and they now have two children. Recently he's struggled to find work in his field and decided to explore the Moroccan craft business.
His brother Kamal lives in the tourist capital of Morocco, Marrakech, and works in the craft industry. Zouikr saw an opportunity for them to work together. The two communicate on a daily basis.
"It's an idea based in my mind for a long time with my brother, we'd never actualised it," Zouikr says.
He did some research and found that Moroccan hand-based crafts were more likely to be in Melbourne and definitely not in Hunter.
He tested products on a small scale with belts, bags and ottomans at markets in NSW and found there was interest.
He found markets could be challenging because of uncontrollable factors like the weather, so he decided to scale up and open a shop in August, 2020.
"One of our competitive edges is we have that direct connection with the artisan. We try our best to avoid middlemen, most people go to sellers and sell it here with a high price," Zouikr says. "Kamal is responsible for finding the artisans, collaborating with them, sending the goods through airfare or currently we are looking at sending by boat. Pretty much all the administrative process and formalities in Morocco, he will take care of it. I take charge of receiving the goods, marketing them and selling them."
It's a two-team business and Zouikr occasionally gets help from his friend Samantha as well. His products are categorised into fashion and home decoration. On the website you will see belts and bags. (Wallets are coming soon). The home decor includes rugs, ottomans and the cactus silk (sabra) cushions.
On his Instagram you can watch videos of his artisans making the products. His rug artist Zayna lives in Northern Morocco near Tangier. Zayna does a traditional Berber design (Berbers are the Indigenous people of Morocco.) Each tribe is famous for their pattern or design and Zayna works only with genuine wool. Zouikr has worked with her in the past to create custom made rugs for his customers.
With his shop and on his social media he's always giving people a taste of Morocco. He hopes to be an ambassador for the country, whether it's the fashion, the food, the language or even travel tips. He knows there are Moroccans in Australia but he jokes they're a rare species in the Hunter. He's travelled all over the world in his life and he believes in learning about different cultures and embracing multiculturalism.
"We need to be open-minded. We live in a globalised world, we cannot deny it. We need to open up to other cultures," he says.
He adds that sometimes his customers naively ask him about the treatment of his artisans. He wants to educate people about the history.
"They're mixing up India and Bangladesh with Morocco," he says. "We are talking about a tradition since the 11th century. The artists are established; we need them more than they need us. By working with them I'm not telling you guys that they're poor and this is ethical, no. I'm introducing you to a whole new range of skills. They're at the top."
And to complement the shoes and belts, The Colour Bug on Darby Street sells brightly coloured African clothes with a modern twist. The owner, Shivangi Maheshwari, can also tell you all about her artists, most of whom she's personally met.
She remembers when she first moved to Newcastle it would be rare to see an African person.
"When I came here roughly five years ago and worked for the accounting company, I think there were two, maybe three, international people in the company. It was a team of 50 or 60 people. Now you see so many non-Australians," she says.
Maheshwari is originally from India, but she and her family moved to Kenya roughly 20 years ago. They lived in Kenya for approximately 10 years and then they moved to Tanzania. She lived with them for six more years and then she moved to Australia. They recently moved back to Kenya, and currently live in Nairobi.
So she's always had strong ties to Africa, even before she started The Colour Bug. Like Zouikr she began with markets and worked her way up from there. She officially started the business in 2018 and moved to the Hunter Street shop on March 31, 2019. Then, in 2020, she moved to Darby Street, where she still is now. To source her clothes, she goes shopping.
"When I started there were, like, four or five artists that I shopped from before that I loved, just for myself. I genuinely believed the world needed to see their art. I call it art because it's not just sewing; it's working with those bright vibrant fabrics and seeing what they can do," she says.
She started with those few artists, went on a shopping trip to Kenya and Tanzania, picked a collection and went to her first market, which was successful. Every time she went back to Africa to see her family she aimed to get at least one or two new artists on board.
"When you get to meet a small group of artists and you know their stories and their life, it kind of connects the next person," she says.
But she doesn't work with just anyone.
Sometimes there's no connection and sometimes maybe she doesn't like the work or they don't want to work with her. Sometimes she works with individuals, other times with collectives. Her shop has roughly 28 different groups, artists and collectives from Kenya, Tanzania and Ghana.
She can't travel at the moment because of COVID, but she likes to see her artists firsthand and watch their process. She said if she didn't have that level of involvement, she'd lose the core of the business. Her key values are low waste, fair pay and safe environment.
"My artists don't work in factories; they work where they want to. They might have group workshops; they work from home," she says. "You want to make sure they are respected and getting their worth for their creation. They are getting paid a price that they ask for their product."
Her artists are resourceful, reusing and repurposing. The Colour Bug sells earrings made of fabric offcuts.
"When you look at waste and say 'Let's make something cooler', I love that," Maheshwari says.
She hopes her traditional fabrics with modern cuts can help influence Western styles. She wants people who want their style to stand out.
"Yes it's about culture and tradition, but it's also about growth. The clothing speaks for itself and people are almost afraid of doing that. You have a blank canvas for yourself; I want to make art on that," she says.
And right down the road from Maheshwari's shop on Darby, you can find dreadlock artist Winstone Oku in the East End. He works out of Pivot Studio which he co-owns with Lija Turner-Carroll. Oku is originally from Uganda but lived in South Africa during his childhood until he was 15. Then he and his family migrated to Australia. He started out in Cowra for two years and then went to a Catholic school in Forbes. He lived in Canberra where he worked in marketing and advertising and also as a youth worker. Then he moved to Newcastle in 2009.
"My whole family moved here, so I thought 'Why not?'," he says.
Prior to COVID he also taught girls football, the Emerging Jets; he hopes to return to this soon. He discovered his passion for dreadlocks almost exactly a year ago after he got back from a trip to Africa. Here he got a lot of attention and questions about his dreads.
"I wasn't set on starting the business," he says. "Africans with dreads were saying 'You can make money on this'."
He thought if he could make in money in Africa he could do the same in Australia, and he's happy to do hair of any ethnicity.
"As long as you have hair you can work it out," he jokes.
The dreads he does are in the crochet style, using a crochet hook. He explains crochet dreads are the cleanest way to do it; you can wash your hair every day, and they won't come undone. Oku is self-taught and has had dreads since 2002. He didn't always make them the way he does now. A friend recommended the crochet style to him.
"I was experimenting, putting different things in my hair. They just grew funny. I chopped them off when I got here in 2009 but started again using the crochet method," he says.
To do a full head of hair can take him all day and a maintenance session can take two or three hours. If he and his customer run out of things to talk about he has a TV for movies or PlayStation.
"I really like it, you can meet interesting people. It's kind of like an art," he says.
Oku, Maheshwari, Zouikr, Bringi and Stapleton are just a few examples of new faces in the community bringing new colours, flavours and experiences to the region. At a time where travel is hard to do in Australia, businesses like these give you a chance to support local while simultaneously expanding your horizons.
Learn more about them online: habeshafood.com; sudania-cafe-and-restaurant.business.site; koutchi.com.au; thecolourbug.com.au; instagram.com/winstonedreadlocks
More African businesses operating in the region
AfriB Creations was started by Bronwyn Hassan, originally from South Africa. According to her website, she's driven by diversity and change, and is inspired by colour and vibrancy. Her passion for African fashion, and drive to share this passion with others is how AfriB Creations was born. She lives in Maitland and her shop is online at the moment.
Twenty-four-year-old Martha Ngoyi is originally from Congo, and her online business Aegle Couture is African fashion. She and her family migrated from Africa to Newcastle in 2007, and Ngoyi recently graduated from uni. She currently works in the public sector while also running her online business. Aegle Couture is a side hustle, but she hopes to continue to grow it. Her family and friends both in Australia and Africa support her with her business.
The Perfect Dawn is a business founded in 2017 by Tracey Nyatsanza, who moved from Zimbabwe to Australia in 2009. Nyatsanza loved beadwork and Dhuku/Printed head wraps from a young age and learnt the art form from the women in her family. Nyatsanza has had amazing response from both African and non-African women. She loves seeing women of every age wearing her head wraps and designs. She lives in Lake Macquarie and her business is online and at the Olive Tree Markets.
Awa Anne is a freelance makeup artist based in Maitland and originally from Senegal. She started doing make up about two years ago with her younger sister as a little side business as she's also a flight attendant and a student. She was inspired to become a makeup artist because she didn't see a lot of women of colour as makeup artists. She liked focusing on the skin and foundation; she wants to help her melanin queens to appreciate their skin more, but she loves working with all skin tones. Contact her for an appointment via her Instagram.