“Education is just in my blood. So, anyone doing work experience in our food truck will also be learning. Whether it’s how to make coffee or how to interact with clients, it really is all about education, and having fun!”

– Caroline McLaren

At Made By Many Hands, all our sellers are special. But Caroline McLaren is one woman who holds a particular and very dear place in our hearts. As both a Made by Many Hands store owner and a mentor within Migrant Women in Business, Caroline not only showcases her own business on our platform, but helps so many others to succeed with theirs. With a career in education, lived experience through the Australian migration system and now sharing lessons as a small business owner and philanthropist, we don’t think there’s anyone better for the job.

Growing up in the UK, Caroline had what she describes as a “charmed, thoroughly English childhood”. She spent much of her time in her grandparents’ market garden, where she tended to animals and grew vegetables and flowers, which were then sold from the family shed. “In many other ways, my life in the UK was similar to how it would have been here in Australia,” Caroline tells us. “Lots of freedom and fun, exploring, riding my bike, hiking, camping and generally being outdoorsy … just with much less beautiful weather!”

Despite the apparent similarities in cultures, when Caroline moved to Australia in 1996, her experience of the migration process was a struggle. “I had all the advantages of having money to live on, education, and speaking the language,” Caroline says. “But, even with all those, the process of becoming a citizen was huge. I found the processes and paperwork beyond daunting. I have such admiration and awe for those who go through it without an understanding of the English language.”

Caroline’s wide-ranging professional experience in the UK – as a teacher, running hotels and pubs, working as a secretary – meant that she was also in good position to find work in Australia, despite the need to train again in a variety of areas, including teaching. As for what brought her here in the first place? It’s a story that has the makings of a very intriguing novel. “It goes back to 1984 when I travelled to Australia as a backpacker and had a wild fling with an Australian in Alice Springs for a few days!” she laughs. “We didn’t see each other for ten years. But then, he travelled to England, we were reunited, now Dean is my husband, and our life is here in Australia!”

And what a life of accomplishment it is! Her greatest is her two sons, Nate and Tensae, who were adopted from Ethiopia and who have gone on to inspire so much of Caroline’s work. “We fell in love with Ethiopia and everything about it when we adopted our boys,” says Caroline. “In fact, it probably happened a lot earlier than that. While we were waiting for the adoption to come through, we connected with a support group in Melbourne for families who had adopted children from Ethiopia. We even went along to their annual camps for years before adopting. While we were there, my happy place was in the kitchen.”

This continued when Caroline and her husband arrived in Ethiopia in 2003, and were introduced to her sons’ extended families. “When we were there, we would work side by side in the kitchen with the family,” she says. “Even without language, we could connect through food.” In the many years since, the family has returned to Ethiopia a number of times, where Caroline has continued learning about the food and the culture. 

“I suppose you could say that Konjo Mama was a whim,” Caroline says of her business, which began as a food truck. “The boys were pretty much grown and Dean and I were no longer driving them around to football, basketball and every other activity. So even though we were both teaching, we felt we had some extra time on our hands. We had always toyed with the idea of opening a cafe or a restaurant, and one afternoon, my husband drove past a food truck that was for sale on the side of the road. And that was that!” 

Of course, it made perfect sense that the food truck would serve Ethiopian cuisine, which Caroline describes as “incredibly special.” Everywhere from local markets through to large festivals, Caroline was delighted to introduce Victorians to the flavours of Ethiopia. She says, “It was so well received and we haven’t looked back.”

“Our boys and their girlfriends were always working in the truck outside of school hours,” says Caroline. “And we would often have young Ethiopians from adoptive families helping out as well. There aren’t many Ethiopian adoption families in Victoria who haven’t been involved in our food truck in one way or another!”

It is unsurprising, given Caroline’s many talents and her background in education, that what could have been a simple food truck has turned into so much more. “Education is just in my blood,” says Caroline. “So anyone doing work experience in our food truck will also be learning. Whether it’s how to make coffee or how to interact with clients, it really is all about education, and having fun!”

If that wasn’t enough, Konjo Mama also works with Bendigo FoodShare. “We’ve been going to schools and working with groups of kids with additional learning needs. We work with them to cook bulk meals and to distribute these to people in need.” This is where Caroline believes the future of her endeavours will be focused. “I am really interested in food security and food rescue,” Caroline says. “That is the future.”

And how can we get a taste of this future? Konjo Mama’s delicious products are available on Made By Many Hands, including the traditional Ethiopian Gold organic Yirgacheffe coffee beans. “Ethiopian food is amazing, but what many people don’t know is that Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee,” Caroline says. “The coffee ceremony is such a central part of traditional Ethiopian culture and such a wonderful experience. The coffee beans are roasted in front of you, they’re ground in front of you, they’re brewed in front of you, all while incense burns around you. It really is very special, and I hope we can bring a little piece of that into Australian homes!”

If that’s one thing we can take from Caroline, we’ll happily accept.

Visit Konjo Mama …

Published by Amy Malpass-Hahn