Vancouver-based Farafena (or ‘Africa’ in Bambara, the national language of Mali ) – like Yolélé Foods – is on a mission to introduce the North American palate to West African superfoods, from the ‘ancient’ gluten-free grain fonio to the nutrient-packed moringa leaf (a plant-based source of iron and calcium), tigernuts (nutrient-packed tubers), and baobab fruit.
Co-founded in 2013 by Dylan Beechey and Oumar Barou Togola, who grew up in Mali and moved to Canada in 2000 to finish his high school education, Farafena has operations on the ground in Mali run by Togola’s parents (his mother is a retired midwife and his father retired from a 23-year career with UNICEF as a hydrologist, project manager, and country manager for Burkina-Faso).
The team has direct relationships with almost 900 African women (all smallholder farmers), building partnerships that have provided increased business opportunities and earnings well above the national average.
Farafena – which is building a 23,000 sq ft processing and packaging facility in Tabacoro, Sikasso Region, Mali due to open in September 2020 – is also developing a blockchain / distributed ledger solution that will enable consumers to see exactly where their foods are coming from via QR codes on pack, said Togola. (Currently the products are being shipped in bulk to Canada and packaged there.)
‘People want to try new products and support businesses that do good’
Farafena - which won the 2019 British Columbia Food Processors Association 2019 Food & Beverage Sustainability Award - has focused thus far on selling retail packs of certified organic fonio grain and flour, and moringa leaf powder and baobab powder (it’s now in 950+ stores in Canada including 500 Loblaw stores).
However, it has recently started engaging with ingredients distributors, gluten-free bakers and foodservice players looking to buy wholesale quantities of fonio grains and flour, and is also gearing up for the launch of nut-free butters from tiger nuts and fonio pancake & waffle mix, and experimenting with adding baobab and moringa to bars and other products, said Beechey.
“There’s an education piece. A lot of people haven’t heard of fonio or tiger nuts, and they don’t know how to use them, so introducing ready to eat products is one way to familiarize our audience with the raw ingredients.”
Generally speaking though, he said, Farafena is pushing at an open door: “The story is a big component. People want to try new products and support businesses that do good, and the great thing about fonio is that it is also a great product. It has some protein, it’s low-GI, it’s gluten-free, it’s easy to cook and it a nice nutty flavor that some people to pseudo grains like quinoa.”
As for the retail strategy, said Beechey, “We’re in talks right now with a large grocer in the US that’s interested in carrying Farafenia fonio, so we hope to be in the US within the next few months. We’re also talking to a company looking to be a distributor in Europe.”
The story is a big component. People want to try new products and support businesses that do good...
Consumers are looking for alternative grains, whether it’s teff or kamut or fonio
Togola added: “Consumers are looking for alternative grains, whether it’s teff or kamut or fonio. But we’re also learned some lessons from what happened with quinoa [where demand from overseas markets outstripped supply, pushing prices out of reach of consumers in regions where it was actually grown].
“We will not buy more than 80% of what our partners produce, so 20% remains for local consumption.”
Asked about funding, Beechey said: “We’ve been able to take it to this point with the original funding, but right now we’re looking for funding - capital in exchange for shares - to grow the business to the next level, develop the ready to eat products and reach new markets.”