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Sharing the health: Pharmaceutical grad balances veterinary career with herbal tea sales inspired by his homeland

February 22, 2019

Veterinarian Dr. Meshack Kusa has devoted most of his career to keeping animals in good health, but recently he’s turned his focus to humans, as well.

Driven by his passion for nutrition, the Red River College alum partnered with three other local professionals on YOMM Beverages Inc. in 2011. Specializing in hibiscus teas, the company was among the first of its kind in North America — and put hibiscus beverages on the map long before Starbucks added the herbal brew to its lineup.

Kusa, who graduated in 2006 from RRC’s QA/QC in the Pharmaceutical Industry program (now called QA/QC in Pharmaceutical and Food), was raised on herbal beverages in his native Nigeria. His mom would bring him herbs to drink every morning, and he’s seen their benefits firsthand. YOMM is about sharing that goodness, he says.

“Hibiscus has a lot of health benefits. First of all, it’s caffeine free, which means it’s good for everybody — adults, kids, anyone. It’s a natural dietary antioxidant, and published reports have shown it helps prevent bladder infections, may help in weight loss, can strengthen the immune system, and is very good for those who have high blood pressure.”

Kusa describes hibiscus tea as a super-food, citing one study that shows drinking three cups a day can have the same effect as anti-hypertension drugs.

YOMM Beverages’ product lineup includes pure hibiscus tea bags, dried hibiscus loose flowers and four flavours of ready-to-drink hibiscus iced tea (original, lemon, strawberry and unsweetened). The hibiscus flowers YOMM uses are grown by Nigerian farmers in need of an economic boost.

“While you enjoy our products, you are helping the underprivileged in Africa,” Kusa says.

Originally from rural Nigeria, Kusa moved to Russia for his education about 30 years ago. He graduated from the Moscow Veterinary Academy in 1992, and worked in a small animal practice for over 10 years before immigrating to Winnipeg.

When he landed here with his wife and two sons in December 2003, he jokes the grass was not actually greener — it was white. Temperatures dipped to -52 a week later.

“It was a shock,” Dr. Kusa says.

The family’s next obstacle would be making ends meet, since Kusa’s veterinary credentials weren’t recognized in Canada. He took on a job as a production worker at Biovail’s facility in Steinbach until RRC’s then-new Pharmaceutical program conveniently entered the picture.

“Having been in the pharmaceutical industry before going to Red River College was just coming to get a paper to show,” he says. “But I had a very good experience, and I still keep in touch with two of my teachers. They were all from the industry, so they know how it is.”

Kusa’s wife, Olga, and his oldest son are also RRC grads, and he can’t speak highly enough about the educations they’ve all received there.

“Red River is a wonderful college. It’s hand-on. I’m really happy about the way they program things there. It reminds me of the system back in Africa and in Russia where I studied.”

Upon graduating from RRC, Kusa spent five years working for Biovail (now Bausch Health). He also became a registered diagnostic ultrasound professional after moving to Canada, and has worked at the Health Sciences Centre doing ultrasound. He currently practices veterinary medicine at Roblin Animal Hospital.

While his devotion to pet care remains strong, Kusa is thrilled he’s able to balance his full-time career with his passion project, YOMM, which allows him to literally bring Canadians a taste of his homeland’s herbs.

“I’ve seen the benefits of these herbs, and I’m sharing this finding for all to enjoy,” he says. “My mom is 80 years old and she’s never had to go to the dentist before. Would you say it’s because she’s drinking herbs? I don’t know. But it’s possible.”

With YOMM now sold in stores across the city (as well as in Alberta, Ontario and Quebec), Kusa appears to have accomplished his goal of sharing the health. And while the grass still isn’t always green here, he — along with his wife and now three sons — are feeling quite at home in Manitoba.

“When we first came, I didn’t like Winnipeg,” he admits. “But now I don’t think I would leave Winnipeg. It’s a friendly community; it’s a place to raise the kids. If we can get the roads fixed, and if we can talk to God to get the cold and the mosquitoes removed a little bit, there is no better soil, it’s a fantastic place!”

Profile by Lindsey Ward (Creative Communications, 2004)