As much as I tout my love for spicy food, I will readily admit that variety is the spice of life. So as I walk down the aisles with a world of possibilities to explore, my mental checklist rolls through boxes indicating flavor, uniqueness, and purpose. When my eyes caught Yolélé, a purpose-driven company bringing fonio-based products to market, I was immediately hooked. I got in touch with Claire Alsup, Vice President of Sales and Marketing, to learn more about the company bringing bold, rich, and storied flavors to life here in the States.
“We exist to create economic opportunities for smallholder farmers in West Africa’s Sahel Region; to support their regenerative, biodiverse, and climate-smart farming practices; and to share the vibrant flavors of West Africa,” Claire tells me on a windy day in Brooklyn, New York, the base of operations for Yolélé. “They are absolutely delicious and truly create a positive impact at every step for smallholder farmers, for the planet, and for the long-overdue recognition of West African ingredients and flavors on the world stage.”
Founded by Senegalese chef, cookbook author, and restaurateur Pierre Thiam, Yolélé was created to introduce a more drought-resilient and prosperous food system in West Africa. The base of the chip is a nutrient-dense, ancient, West African grain called fonio. Fonio, known as one of Africa’s oldest cultivated grains, is gluten-free, has a low Glycemic Index, and is high in important amino acids and nutrients. Additionally, the grain is a life-saver in regions where it grows.
Coupled with a light and slightly nutty flavor, the Yolélé portfolio is perfect for shoppers looking for a snack that is healthier, lighter, and more sustainable. With a product range including grains, pilaf, and its new chip format, shoppers can fill up their carts with a bevy of international flavors without having to go through customs at the airport. Talk about stretching that sustainability ticket.
“At Yolélé, we’ve noticed a huge growing trend toward West African foods and flavors in the U.S. Pinterest searches for West African recipes increased over 300 percent in 2019, and that number has grown since then,” Claire explains. “As a Black-owned business ourselves, we're committed to collaborating with and supporting other Black-owned businesses as much as possible. Our whole company’s mission is to create sustainable pathways to economic stability for small family farmers in rural West Africa.”
For consumers perusing the aisles, the bold, eye-catching design immediately draws attention with its bright colors and messaging. The package celebrates the continent of Africa and the fonio growing regions within it.
“Yolélé is creating a market for traditional crops grown under these resilient farming systems in order to foster a more biodiverse, drought-tolerant landscape across West Africa. Devoting more land to this kind of farming has the potential to regenerate and re-green the Sahel,” continues Claire. “Smallholder farmers in West Africa have always relied on biodiverse crop systems that are well-suited to the region’s hot arid climate and poor soil.”
The farmers employ regenerative techniques like intercropping, cover-cropping, and crop rotation. To help further aid these farmers to get their fonio to market, Yolélé is building processing facilities in West Africa that turn plants into food to be sold locally and globally.
“Looking ahead, 2022 is going to be a big year for us as we plan to increase our footprint and availability in retail and e-commerce outlets as well as foodservice channels in the U.S.,” Claire imparts to me. “We’re also collaborating with governments, intergovernmental agencies, and NGO’s to train and equip smallholders for increased productivity through conservation farming.”
With more products coming down the pipeline, the company is aspiring to make fonio and Yolélé a household name through the grain; fonio pilafs; and the new line of Fonio Chips, boldly seasoned with West African seasonings like moringa, dawadawa, and baobab.
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