When Toyin Kolawole’s second enterprise, an e-commerce B2B sourcing business, ended in 2013 (a sub-Saharan Africa focused business artifact store she founded in 2008 had also floundered), the experience left the 41-year-old entrepreneur who grew up in Nigeria and has called Illinois home for several years, depressed and $80,000 in debt. “I remember coming home weak with all sorts of feelings — all of them negative,” the mother of two says. But what surprised her was her husband’s response. “He said, ‘Let’s just take this $80,000 as entrepreneurship tuition,’ and I looked at him kind of stunned like, ‘What?’”
With her husband’s support, Toyin not only paid off the debt, she launched a new business in 2015: a West African-inspired food company called Iya Foods that specializes in farm-to-table sauces, gluten-free flours, spices, and edible flowers, all sourced directly from traceable, sustainable farms and small, local businesses.
This time, her risk taking paid off, and Iya Foods now has its products available at Amazon, WalMart, Kroger, and various other retailers across the United States. “The first year was probably the toughest and the hardest,” she says. “And the reason is because there’s an entire industry and ecosystem between ‘I’m cooking something in my kitchen’ to actually getting it on a shelf.”
She describes the food product development process: taking a recipe and developing it into something that can be produced in a large scale commercial kitchen or large scale food manufacturing firm. This process, according to Toyin, is a barrier for many people in the United States, especially minorities, because it can run into tens of thousands of dollars and is therefore cost prohibitive for many.
“That’s when you begin to realize that the thing you are making in your kitchen, that you serve right there to your family, might be something that is not shelf stable, or might require refrigeration or freezing,” she says. “And then you have to start thinking about the stability of the product, and how you’re going to source the ingredients on a large scale. And most of the time, when you decide you want to start a food business, you don’t have any of those capabilities. You don’t have that experience at all, and you have to figure it out as you go along.”
“There’s an entire industry and ecosystem between ‘I’m cooking something in my kitchen’ to actually getting it on a shelf”
How It All Began
Iya Foods started on a personal note. A self-described food lover, Toyin enjoyed cooking for her family and wanted to incorporate more traditional Nigerian ingredients into her American-born sons’ meals.
“I use plantain flour to make amala (a doughy meal indigenous to Nigeria and traditionally made from a type of yam native to Africa and Asia) — and my kids like that,” she says. “So I wanted to find more ways of incorporating a healthy gluten free flour into their lifestyle. I started making pancakes and waffles out of [plantain flour] and it just turned out really, really nice.” She continued to experiment at home, using Nigerian stew for pasta dishes, instead of the regular [store-bought] pasta sauce that can contain added sugar. Her kids’ approval of her ingredient swaps led to the new business. “Things like that are what gradually started giving me the idea that a lot of things that Nigerians take for granted because we grew up with them could actually be successful, new, innovative, American foods,” she remembers. “It was kind of like a slow process but it eventually became Iya Foods.”
You Are What You Eat
In her bid to create healthier and whole food products, Toyin got hard to work in the development kitchen. “There are actually food products that, when you look at the back [of the packaging], actually have no food in them,” she says. “I remember when I found out that there were cheese products that actually had no cheese or were made from chemical flavoring, or that there were chocolate drinks that actually had either no type of cocoa in them — Americans say cacao — or had less than 10% cocoa in there. You ask yourself, ‘How are you making a chocolate drink that is actually not made out of chocolate?’”
All that hard work has resulted in a variety of offerings: packaged flours made out of cassava, beans and plantains, that can be incorporated into a variety of meals. Toyin uses the bean flour to make gbegiri, a creamy, savory stew typically eaten in southwestern Nigeria or as a thickening agent. There are also the one-pot simmer sauces and spices which this writer considers a godsend, and which African consumers can use to create quick vegetable or meat/fish stews and non-African consumers can use similarly or with pasta, soups, and so on. Iya Foods’ spices and seasonings are a hit especially with non-African consumers thanks, in part, to cauliflower, a vegetable that has gained popularity in the US in more recent years as a healthier substitute for white rice but without rice’s flavor. Or frankly, any flavor at all. Toyin’s Riced Cauliflower Jollof and Spicy Fried Rice spices have been seen as the perfect seasoning for people who want to enjoy riced vegetables without sacrificing flavor.
“There are actually food products that, when you look at the back [of the packaging], actually have no food in them”
“Food is supposed to nourish your body, but there are tons of foods out there that are actually harmful and do not nourish you,” Toyin says. “The promise we make and we keep to our customers is that everything we cook and make is actually food and is going to nourish your body.”
The Early Years
Growing up, Toyin’s mother owned several businesses in Lagos, Nigeria that included raising poultry during the holiday season to meet an increase in demand for meat, a fast food restaurant, a kerosene (cooking fuel) business as well as a pharmacy. So Toyin learned, at a young age, to help juggle duties like rising early to fry egg buns (similar to beignets), prepare meatpies, dust store shelves, and negotiate and interact with customers. “When I look back, I realize that what was in my soul was to be an entrepreneur, because of all my mother’s five kids, I was the one, I think, who spent the most time working on her entrepreneurial businesses. At the time, it felt like, ‘Oh, she’s just making me do this because I’m the first [daughter]’ — you know how it is when you are the first [daughter], the [Nigerian parental] focus is heavy on you to be kind of like the perfect child. But looking back, I realize I actually really enjoyed being involved in her entrepreneurial activities.”
One of those businesses may have contributed in part to Toyin’s decision as a teen finishing high school to become a pharmacist but she thinks that decision was influenced more by growing up in ‘80s/90s Nigeria, a period when career options for young people, at least from a familial point of view, were limited. “For our generation…you couldn’t tell your parents you wanted to be a musician or that you wanted to do art. You said doctor or engineer or lawyer,” Toyin laughs. “I knew I didn’t want to be a doctor so pharmacist sounded like the next thing that I could be.”
“For our generation…you couldn’t tell your parents you wanted to be a musician or that you wanted to do art. You said doctor or engineer or lawyer”
Life had a different plan. After an unsuccessful attempt to gain admission to study pharmacy at university, Toyin’s father noticed that her exam scores showed an affinity for math and suggested that she switch to accounting. “I stayed back home a year and retook the exams and aced them,” she says. “I aced them because the criteria for accounting was a lot different from the criteria for the sciences. So I ended up in management and accounting which was one of the best decisions I ever made because it created opportunities for me to go into private equity, which then opened me up to the structured world of entrepreneurship.”
Coming to America
After graduating from college, Toyin was hired as a private equity analyst at one of the most visible private equity firms in West Africa at the time. One year into her job, her then boyfriend proposed. Accepting his proposal meant that the ardent feminist (she says that she was a feminist even before she moved to the US) would have to move to join him in the US where he was already working. “I was enjoying my job,” she says. “I was seeing the impact we were making, so I really wanted to see it through. I was like, ‘Am I going to move to another country because of a man? Even though I love said man?’” she laughs. Love for “said man” aka Solape Kolawole won, and Toyin decided to further optimize her move by applying to MBA programs in the US, getting accepted at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management in Evanston, Illinois. She moved to the US to join her husband and also started school in 2003.
Toyin credits her husband, also raised by an entrepreneur mother, for a lot of her business’s success, saying his willingness and ability to take care of the family’s financial needs while she explored and endured the early hard hits of entrepreneurship, helped her focus on the businesses she created. “I’ve been very fortunate to have a husband who’s been incredibly supportive,” she says. “I’m usually very honest about that when people ask me about my entrepreneurial journey, because there are lots of people who go into entrepreneurship but they still have to pay their rent. They still have to figure out how they’re going to eat. That’s one of the things I haven’t had to worry about because I’m married, and my husband has always had a full time job, and been able to provide those things.”
After business school, Toyin worked as a management and strategy consultant for a few years but entrepreneurship — owning her own business — was constantly on her mind. “I remember when I was battling with whether or not to go into entrepreneurship, a professor at Kellogg told me about a simple rule he had. He said, ‘I always ask myself, if by the time I turn 80, I look back — would I feel regret that I didn’t try that idea or I didn’t explore that idea? And if my answer is yes, I go ahead and I try that idea.’”
“To discover that I am actually great at food product development — I wouldn’t have discovered that if it wasn’t for Iya Foods”
And so she did. Undeterred by the business ideas that did not work out, Toyin has put in the work and Iya Foods has taken off. It hasn’t come easy. She works extremely hard, developing new recipes, traveling constantly to attend food shows, discovering new ingredients, and attracting new customers, suppliers and distributors. “If you ask me what I’m most personally grateful to Iya Foods for, it’s self discovery,” she says. “I’m over 40 and once you’re over 40, it’s almost like there’s nothing new anymore, and creativity, life is winding down. And I refuse to accept that. To discover that I am actually great at food product development — I wouldn’t have discovered that if it wasn’t for Iya Foods. So there are a lot of new things I’ve discovered about myself that Iya Foods has given me, and I’m grateful for that.”
Paying It Forward
With Iya Foods’ growing success, Toyin is eager to help aspiring food business entrepreneurs who are struggling to get started by opening up her company’s food development kitchen to them when it launches this fall. “We can help them develop their food products at zero cost,” she says. “And the reason for that is I remember how hard and expensive it was. There were people where the moment they heard that we were Nigerian-inspired — it just meant a whole lot of different things to them, and the doors closed. Thank God for the doors that opened, and I want to give a safe space where people who typically would not have access to those kinds of opportunities have access to food development opportunities for free.”
For more information about Iya Foods, visit their website www.iyafoods.com.