The Company And Its Founder Are Among Those Showcased By Amazon’s Ongoing Initiative To Support Small Businesses
When founder and CEO of Iya Foods Toyin Kolawole, born and raised in Nigeria, arrived in the U.S. at the age of 23, she was struck by how easy it was to access foods of different regions.
“Growing up in Nigeria, I ate Nigerian food most of the time. But coming to America you could eat Mexican food; you could have authentic Italian, authentic Indian,” she told The Business Download in an interview. “My kids, who are American-born, they think Chipotle is an American restaurant, they think Panda Express is an American restaurant. My point is, it’s such a normal part of everyday life in America.”
But just as Kolawole, now 43, discovered how easy it was to try different regional cuisines, she noticed something missing – the food from her childhood. This void of African-inspired cuisine inspired her to launch Iya Foods–a North Aurora, Illinois-based company which sells healthy, African-inspired ingredients.
Kolawole was no stranger to business when she founded the company. As a young girl, she and her mom operated various small business operations, ranging from selling water buckets to selling cooking foil. From these experiences, she developed an early understanding of business and accounting, eventually studying accounting and management in college. Kolawole then spent time working at a West African large private equity firm–one of the region’s first, where she says she assessed more than 200 business plans.
Upon arriving in the U.S., she attended Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, where she received her MBA. Kolawole then worked as a Bain & Company private equity analyst and further developed her understanding of the Consumer Packaged Goods (CPG) business, working with companies like Kraft.
“My background in private equity, and also as a management consultant, gave me the formal education I needed for entrepreneurship,” said Kolawole. “And then the third aspect of what has shaped me into who I am today and why I founded Iya Foods is that I just really like food.”
In addition to wanting to bring the flavors of her childhood to America, Kolawole said she wanted the company to address what she perceived to be a major disconnect between African Americans and Africans.
“It wasn’t just noticing a lack of African-inspired foods, it was noticing the disconnect between what is African-American culture and African-American food and African food,” Kolawole explained. “I wanted to shine a light on that and say we’re family, and here’s why. Look at our foods–there’s a connection that goes back to our ancestors, and that’s something that should be celebrated, that’s something that should bring us closer together.”
An example Kolawole provided is the similarity between New Orleans jambalaya and Jollof rice–a popular West African dish. Kolawole notes that the two are roughly the same thing and that “Jollof rice is like the base for jambalaya.” Kolawole explains that jambalaya “actually dates back to the slaves. Initially, the Spanish came with a dish, but not all of the ingredients were available, and then the slaves at that time amended that dish using inspiration from Jollof rice, which is one of the things that is the base for Jambalaya.” During the past two Black History Months, Iya Foods has highlighted different African-American foods and traced them back to their African roots.
Some of Iya Foods’ products include flour and baking ingredients like cassava and plantain flours (both gluten-free), which Kolawole says are among the company’s best-selling items. It also sells spices and seasonings like Spicy Coconut Rice Seasoning and Riced Cauliflower Stirfry Seasoning, among other products. A selection of Kolawole’s favorite recipes, which use Iya Foods’ ingredients, can be found on the company’s site.
Kolawole says that Iya Foods’ primary goal is to provide nourishment through healthy products. “I’m a mother first before anything, and one of the things that really bothered me was just seeing the number of harmful – and what I call crazy ingredients – companies put into food just to make it cheaper,” Kolawole explained. “We are a nourishment company.” Iya is the word for mother in Yoruba–a Nigerian native language.
Although Kolawole’s company has seen great success, she says that by far, the biggest challenge she has encountered was initially convincing traditional retailers at food shows to feature her products. “Buyer after buyer would say things like, well, we don’t know how many Africans shop at our store,” she said. And she would think to herself, “When you go to the pasta aisle, you have all sorts of sauces that have an Italian grandma with Italian names. Nobody’s asking them how many Italians shop in the store.”
She found that the solution to the problem was to rebrand and redo the company’s packaging, which was at the time heavily African-influenced, to make its position as a food company more prominent and make the African-inspired component and “additional plus.” “The moment we relaunched our new packaging, I stopped getting those questions from buyers,” said Kolawole. By doing this, she feels that she was able to help American consumers understand that these products, though African-inspired, are ones they can use in preparing their own meals.
“I realized [the packaging] felt exotic to a lot of people, and that wasn’t what we were trying to do. We’re trying to make them realize that this is everyday eating,” Kolawole explained. “Initially, we had things like drums, things that represented Africa on the packaging, I took that off and started putting things that represent the functionality of the food or the experience the food will give you. So, for example, for the jollof rice, I put a picture of jambalaya on there. For the pancake flour mixes, I put pictures of pancakes on there. Because at the end of the day, people just want to eat–they just want to enjoy their food. So those are some of the changes that we made, and the business took off after that.”
Iya Foods focuses on sustaining eco-friendly operations–buying locally when possible, sourcing from environmentally-friendly growers, and using non-polluting, renewable energy resources safe for the community, future generations, and the planet. “We work with our farmers to make sure they are adopting the best farming practices to protect the environment,” said Kolawole.
She adds that some ingredients in certain products are grown in both Nigeria and the U.S.
“I feel like I’m bringing the best of both worlds of what has shaped this company,” Kolawole said. “I see Nigeria as my roots and America as my branches, so when I have an opportunity to bring those two together, it just really makes me happy.”
The company and Kolawole are featured on Amazon’s Support Black-Owned Businesses page as part of the online retailer’s larger mission to support small businesses during these unprecedented times. While she recognizes the history of controversy surrounding Amazon’s relationship with small businesses, Kolawole emphasizes that it has been an extremely positive force for Iya Foods. “To have them amplify our presence on Amazon has been significant. Amazon Prime Day is ongoing, our business has more than doubled on Amazon in the last couple of days, and that’s because of the Amazon spotlight,” she said.
Amazon claims that it works with over 2 million “independent partners” in the U.S., such as sellers, developers, and authors, and the company has made supporting small businesses on its platform a priority during the coronavirus pandemic. Additionally, the company states that small and medium-sized businesses account for over half of the products sold on its site. For its 2020 Prime Day event, it featured a small business hub that allowed shoppers to find sales from small businesses across the country.
As for Kolawole’s advice to those who are looking to start their own small business, she says, “There is a possibility you will succeed, and there is a possibility you might fail. Choose to be motivated by the possibility of success as opposed to being deterred by the fear of failure.”