Local entrepreneur Toyin Kolawole wants to let you in on her superfoods secrets, not to mention the boost from shoutouts by social media influencers like Chance the Rapper, Gabriel Union, and Tia Mowry from “Sister, Sister.”
She started her food company, Iya Foods, five years ago after her work as a private equity analyst and consumer packaged goods consultant at Bain & Company made her realize that the spices, flours and ingredients that she grew up cooking with in her native Nigeria packed a more powerful nutrient punch than those used in processed foods.
The company sells easy one-pot mixes, and among her products are flour, baking mixes, vegetable powders, and spices and seasonings.
Kolawole said her work as an analyst helped her understand how major American consumer packaged goods companies started as family businesses.
“That’s when I got a sense of what the American dream really meant,” she said, and that she, too, could start her own company based on the foods that she knew growing up.
Kolawole also wanted her two sons, ages 15 and 12, to, as she put it, “have deep roots.” So she started making a quintessential American breakfast — pancakes — with cassava flour. Her normally picky sons loved them. In Nigeria, the flour is used in a paste-like meal called fufu, and is also fried and combined with hot water to produce eba, a firm dough.
As Kolawole kept experimenting with recipes, she realized that her business was a deep-seated passion: She grew up in a hard-scrabble environment in which her mother created businesses to keep the family afloat, and Kolawole helped — starting with selling buckets of water at age 5. She also helped her mother when, as a child, she made pies and doughnuts when her mother set up a small food shop.
Iya Foods gave her, at age 40, a youthful sense of fulfillment at creating her own enterprise, of learning that she could be successful at a new venture, and of being creative, innovative and expansive in her work.
“We continue to innovate. We’re testing more mixes on Amazon,” Kolawole said. “We’re working on new products, new categories. We’re fundraising. We’re working on greater customer awareness. And I’m planning how to help other Black-owned businesses be successful, too.”
Kolawole appeals to her customers by emphasizing her products’ health benefits. A few examples include:
- Cassava flour comes from the root vegetable cassava and is a healthy replacement for wheat flour because it’s gluten, grain and nut-free, and, unlike rice or coconut flour, requires no binder. It’s also low in sodium, sugar and fat, and free from refined carbohydrates and synthetic ingredients. (She also sells cassava waffle and pancake mix.)
- Fonio flour boasts three times more protein and fiber than rice and half the calories of quinoa. It’s also a good source of B vitamins and has a high calcium content.
- The company’s top-selling spice blend, Piri Piri, contains garlic, paprika, onions and peppers.
- Jollof rice provides energy-boosting herbs and spices, and is made in a mixture of onions, peppers and tomatoes.
You can find the products on Amazon.com, at iyafoods.com and at more than 50 Walmart and nearly 30 Mariano’s stores throughout Illinois, including the Walmart Neighborhood Market at 7535 S. Ashland Ave. in Auburn Gresham, and Walmart stores in suburban Crestwood, Orland Hills and Richton Park. The Mariano’s stores selling Iya Foods products include those at 3857 S. King Drive in Bronzeville; 1615 S. Clark in the South Loop; 3145 S. Ashland in Bridgeport, and 2112 N. Ashland Ave. in Bucktown, and in suburban Evergreen Park, Orland Park and Oak Lawn.
Iya Foods, based in North Aurora, employs 10 locally, and hires 100 to 200 people in Nigeria to pick, clean and process the ingredients in a supply chain that Kolawole has built as what she calls “socially impactful.” She and partner Terra Products, based in Lakeville, Minnesota, also pay Senegalese farmers who grow fonio a fair wage and guide them in food safety and sustainability.
Kolawole credits Amazon’s new Black Business Accelerator with providing her high-level professional expertise and help with marketing, photography and strategy-setting — free of charge — to keep her business top-of-mind. The accelerator is Amazon’s $150 million national investment, announced June 15, aimed at building equity and growth for Black-owned businesses. Amazon developed the accelerator along with its Black Employee Network, U.S. Black Chambers Inc., and the Minority Business Development Agency.
Iya Foods now realizes “in the early multi-millions” in sales, and in 2020 Kolawole paid herself a salary for the first time.
Kolawole said she aims to help other Black-owned businesses by guiding those who launch on Amazon with their digital strategies; advising on manufacturing strategy, focusing on product research and development, blending and packaging; and starting a dry-foods innovation mentorship program to help a Black-owned startup or early-stage company evolve from product vision to product launch.
Kolawole said her plans reflect the words of the judge who presided over her naturalization ceremony in Chicago a decade ago — and which still resonate.
“The judge said, ‘It’s your role to bring the best of your culture to America,’” she said. “It felt welcoming. I knew that I wasn’t running away. I was bringing everything good about my culture to America.”