It’s becoming more common to see grains, chips, beverages, sauces with roots in West African countries for sale in mainstream markets like Whole Foods and Target. These products are a tiny fraction of those inspired by other regions, like Latin America or Asia, but the change is noticeable, especially to someone like Abena Foli. Originally from Ghana, she is the founder of POKS Spices.
Based in greater Dallas, Texas, the company produces West African pepper-based, dry seasoning blends: mild, spicy and extra spicy. The blends feature West Africa’s “Holy Trinity” of ingredients, described by Foli as chili peppers, ginger and onion (or garlic).
“There is no West African dish, that will not have the trio,” says Foli. “The ratios may vary, the heat intensity may vary, whether they’re making Jollof rice or a stew; people are going to be blending these three.” They are also used to season meat and fish.
POKS Spices blends, the name a play on Foli’s second name, Opokua, are sold in pouches and bottles, direct to consumer through ecommerce and local farmers markets, costing $4.99 to $14.99. The company is still tiny, but has recently found its footing as Foli learned to differentiate its offerings.
She launched in 2016. After earning a master’s degree in food science at the University of Minnesota, she wanted to bring Ghana’s black spicy chili sauce, shito, to market. But she ultimately decided on pepper-based West African seasoning blends. She’d made a batch as a gift for her office-present swap party, and a colleague liked her blend and used it on his BBQ meats.
Despite POKS Spices products winning awards, including two 1st places at 2022’s Scovie Awards held in Albuquerque, New Mexico and the incremental acceptance of West African rooted products in mainstream supermarts, launching POKS Spices has had its challenges. Foli and her husband Eugene, who also works on the company, were surprised by what they discovered about various groups’ psyches when branding and marketing a product inspired by West Africa.
Foli had a conversation with Times of Entrepreneurship about some startup hiccups and milestones, as well as consumer sociological insights from people who are U.S. born, to West African immigrants.
Nina Roberts: First, when you started thinking about spice blends as a commercial venture, was everyone—friends, family—supportive?
Abena Foli: When I started prototyping, I sent out samples to the Ghanaian and Nigerian community, just to get sample base within the West African populace. I know how very finicky that community base is about things that represent them. When I did a survey, I got good responses.
I sent samples and a survey to my dad in Ghana as well—we always laugh when I tell this story, he remembers it differently—my dad rated me one over five [laughs] one out of five. Yes, he did. I was so upset I didn’t talk to him for two weeks. Everybody else gave me a four, or a four and a half. But looking back, I was so glad he did. He always pushes me, in a good way, he’s my biggest cheerleader.
NR: What didn’t he like, the taste? The presentation?
AF: It was the presentation. We were hand milling it ourselves so the batch to batch variability was very large, the grinding sizes were not the same. Also, we were using a glass bottle and the label was transparent, you couldn’t see the name properly. His concern was that if you’re going to do it, you must do it right the first time. So, I started looking at proper packaging and co-packers for a more uniform blend.
Now, he only cooks with our spices. He’s in Ghana, he told me, “My supply is running low, you know, somebody was coming?” [laughs]
NR: What is the “holy trinity” of ingredients?
AF: I always use this parity to help people understand: just as the Cajuns and Creoles have bell pepper, celery and onion, West Africans have chili pepper, ginger and onion (or garlic, any allium will do).
Two of our products are cayenne-based blends, original and extra spicy, we use cayenne peppers instead of African bird chili peppers because we don’t want to blow people’s palates off [laughs].
The third is a mild jalapeno-based blend, we’re trying to match the flavor profile of the kpakposhito chili pepper found in Ghana. You don’t find them here in the United States. They are small, round green peppers, used in green chili sauces and garnishing.
NR: When you were formulating POKS Spices as a business, did you have the intention of branding and marketing to the general consumer? Or targeting the West African community?
AF: We want the American home cook to use our spices in their everyday cooking, whether they’re from the Indian community, Mexican, Caucasian or West African. But in the beginning, we pigeonholed ourselves the first couple of years, unintentionally, for just the West African community. We showcased more African-originated recipes and we branded the packages as “all-purpose seasoning,” we now have them “West African seasoning.”
It was actually a blessing to initially market to just the West African community. Even though it was a mess up on our part, because we want all American home cooks to use our products, it helped us to solidify the fact that this is a product that our own people like, buy, use.
NR: What changed to reach all types of home cooks?
AF: In the very beginning, I felt that if I focused on the West African aspect, given media stereotypes, negative stereotypes, who would want to pick it up? So I just marketed it as all-purpose seasoning. But then I asked myself, if people are buying an all-purposes seasoning, they’re not going to pick up the new brand they’ve never tasted before. How am I differentiating myself on the market?
Our value proposition is that this is a West African seasoning blend. It’s my cultural heritage and I need not be ashamed of that. I need to be proud of it. I need to be bold with that messaging.
We saw a change in our local farmers market when we did that, people were more intrigued. “What is West African seasoning?” “Tell me more!” People were now telling us, “Oh, I lived in Ghana, when I was younger.” It opened up a whole different conversation. And that’s why I said I feel like we did ourselves a big disservice in the beginning when we tried to play it safe.
NR: Interesting! I have noticed that over the past three years or so, there are a number food companies, like Yolele, Berry Bissap, Ginjan, which are branded as West African, geared for general consumption. Do you think the time has finally come for West African foods and flavors to go mainstream?
AF: I would say it’s overdue. I work in the food industry and in my past lives, I’ve sat on marketing teams, R&D teams. One of my concerns has been the lack of representation of West African flavors, period. A lot of the flavors that these teams were pursuing, whether it was in Asia or South America, had parities in West Africa that were never considered. When cassava chips became popular, I was like, “This is what we were snacking on when we were kids!” How is this new?
Part of that has been the negative stereotype of the sub-Saharan region and West Africa in general over the years, people never associated cuisine or culinary innovation with that region.
NR: What were the steps you took, from selling to friends and family, to farmers markets and then via ecommerce?
AF: We started selling at a local farmers market in 2017 and then launched the website to have a greater reach. But when we started gaining traction, I got pregnant and I got very sick. I was in the hospital, it was life threatening. We had to stop a lot of things because my life was hanging in the balance.
I had the baby, was learning to be a mother, we moved, we relaunched so to speak in 2018, we didn’t really get back into exploring farmer’s markets again until 2020.
NR: Did you ever get discouraged, I mean, besides the daily challenges every entrepreneur faces?
AF: We were having conversations in 2018, should we continue to do this? We were profitable, but our profit margin was very low. I wanted to continue with the business because it’s my passion, but felt I needed to understand the financial aspect better; I’m a scientist, not a finance person.
I went to the SBA website that led to the SCORE mentorship program and I signed up for a mentor, we scheduled a call. I was talking to this person, explaining to him our situation and his feedback after 15 minutes or so was, “Well, I don’t think you should be doing this business then.”
I felt like someone had just punched me in the stomach. He didn’t try and understand why I was doing this, what my motivations were. I was reaching out for mentorship, guidance, suggestions, he didn’t go through any of that. I sent an email to say “thank you for your feedback” and I never reached back out to him again.
NR: Wow, what if you had listened to him, you might have just packed it all in.
AF: Correct. The point of the mentorship program is not to necessarily discourage people, I have not looked for mentorship since, it scarred me.
NR: It’s strange he didn’t try and pull more information out of you about the business. I wonder if he thought there’d be no market, thinking “inside the box.”
AF: I think that maybe that’s what it was—who’s the target market? Who’s going to buy it? I can see where that person might be coming from, but it would have been helpful to have a conversation or two, or three, then come to that assessment. Not in the first 15 to 20 minutes of the call.
NR: Was he American?
AF: Um, yes.
NR: He’s missing the West African brands that are becoming mainstream. Okay, on to the package design. For better or worse, it’s important, how did you want to graphically represent the products, the brand?
AF: I wanted to present West Africa in a deconstructed way. I’m a minimalist, so I played on the colors red, gold, green, found in most West African flags, it’s the colors of Ghana’s flag. There are other deconstructed elements: the logo’s “i” is dotted with a black star, also found on the Ghanaian flag and circles around the spice blend names, is a play on kente fabric.
Since consumers take about 20 seconds when buying, we wanted to make “West African Seasoning” the focal point.
NR: You’ve been bootstrapping, both you and your husband have jobs, have you sought any outside funding?
AF: It’s been interesting [laughs]. Last year, we won a $10,000 grant, that money is gone. We’re still applying for grants and accelerators.
NR: What are the numbers like in terms of sales or growth?
AF: Last year we sold 1540 units of our products, which was a 25% growth over 2020. Dollar-wise it’s still not where we want it to be, but unit-wise, we have grown exponentially, which is great.
NR: Besides home cooks, are you targeting restaurants or chefs?
AF: We would like to partner with food services, if they’re trying to make Jollof Rice or they’re trying to make a West African sauce.
NR: Which blend would be used for Jollof Rice? Jollof rice is becoming more popular and mainstream, the Jollof Wars and all that.
AF: The original Cayenne. Yes, [laughs, under her breath] Ghanaian jollof is the best.
This Q&A was edited for clarity and length.