Globally, food plays a pivotal role in showcasing the rich culture of diverse groups of people. Food often serves as a symbol of unity amongst people from different cultures. In recent times, the African culture has received increasing limelight with African music and fashion becoming more appreciated globally. However, African cuisine is still largely undiscovered in several parts of the world. Food enthusiasts and advocates have justified the need for the African food culture to be recognized and showcased on equal levels with the array of continental dishes across the globe. Given this, we recorded a fantastic podcast session with internationally acclaimed chef, Chef Pierre Thiam of Yolele Foods and have provided some excerpts below.
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Tell us a bit about your culinary Journey
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My first job as a busboy in a restaurant in the USA was the genesis of my sojourn. Subsequently, I worked with several restaurants focused on diverse continental dishes like Spanish cuisines, Italian cuisines, and lots more. I became so inspired and felt the need to transform my local cuisines and started introducing African specials. I took pride in it and started working on competitively presenting them just like every other continental dish. My primary source of motivation was the feedback I received from people who taste my African specials. Yolele depicts the nomadic culture of the Fulanis, and that's why I have always wanted my brand to transcend Africa to other continents of the world.
How will you describe the African food culture?
To me, it is encompassing. There exists diverse food across several cultures in Africa. However, I think it's about generosity and how the food unites us. These foods' social depictions vary across Africa, the ingredients, and other pertinent food attributes that connect us.
How can food business owners and other stakeholders change the misconception about the African food culture?
You must conduct extensive research on the products you are presenting because of the health implications of the food we consume as humans. Given this, you need to ascertain the types of ingredients you use. For instance, palm oil is an indispensable raw material in the food space, but it is imperative to get it from a natural source that is safe for consumption. As a food entrepreneur, you must ensure your ingredients are well-sourced and prepared to avert any health and environmental implications. You need to understand the type of product you are selling. In my case, I took advantage of the fact that there is a growing number of health-conscious consumers and most of the foods preferred by this category of people are in Africa. If prepared and packaged correctly, they are fit for the global market. For instance, our first product was fonio grains. The utmost goal was to introduce crops in the region to bring economic prosperity to farmers in the producing areas and introduce nutritious foods. Thus, communication is crucial in terms of the message and the story you have to tell with your products. In my case, I wanted my intended consumers to see all these in the packaging, as a product from smallholder farmers in West Africa, that is still underutilized, and healthy for consumption. Reading all these attributes in the product description will persuade them to buy such products. They will consider it a way of supporting farmers in West Africa and bringing diversity in the foods they consume.
How were you able to position your African Indigenous products in the global market?
The act of storytelling is vital because it persuades most consumers of the food you package for sales. These include the nutritional qualities, the source of the ingredients, the composition, and the environmental and economic effects in the value chain. For instance, my cookbooks were about my personal experience. For the first cookbook I wrote, I wanted to capture most Americans as my audience and make the book captivating. Given this, I travelled with a photographer to Senegal, and we spent time with women in my family. The book became a tribute to women in my family and other Africa women as the custodians of that particular food. For my second book, I travelled again with a photographer because I wanted my readers to ink about the source. I wanted them to be connected with the fonio growers and the fisherfolks to make it distinct from the typical cookbook with fascinating pictures but no insights about the ingredients' sources. I interviewed them to get specific facts about their profession and also educate my readers. Indeed, it was recorded on fonio's journey, its production process, nutritional benefits, with captivating images of women cooking fonio. Currently, we have over 1000 supermarkets distributing our products in the United States. Without mincing words, you need to create a good story about your product to make it competitive.
How can brands attain profitability while promoting the African Food Culture?
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For you to attain profitability, you have to be intentional about the foods you package. You need to understand the various cuisines and be professional about it. It might interest you to know that African cuisine is already on the global stage. There are about seven cuisines in America introduced by the enslaved Africans. For instance, jambalaya is jollof rice, just like gumbo and other cuisines introduced by the West African slaves. Also, Tamales in Mexico, known as Moi moi in Nigeria, and many others are already globally although they are not regarded as African foods. In the future, we need to take pride in our traditional cuisine and present it professionally to place them on the same pedestal as other continental dishes. The best way to express one's culture is through food, so our traditional foods' packaging is also crucial to profitability and global acceptance. There are currently some young African chefs who are already exploring that aspect through research, and I believe with time, African foods will gain wider acceptability.
What advice do you have for startup chefs as regards raising funds for their businesses?
The most important thing is planning. A well-drafted business plan will be a road map to what you intend to achieve and help with fundraising for your business. The food business is a process, and it is always good to start small. Also, try and work with the available resources and leverage different networks to attract investors for subsequent expansion.
Image Credit- Pierre Thiam
Chef Pierre is an award-winning author and entrepreneur who is well-known for his steadfast promotion of African food worldwide. He is the founder of Yolele foods which distributes African food products across the United States of America.