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Big picture thinker

In bringing African superfoods to North America, Oumar Barou Togola is helping transform communities

Photo by Adam Blasberg.

Photo by Adam Blasberg.

Oumar Barou Togola always looks at the big picture. In starting his company, Farafena, in 2013, not only did he want to introduce sustainable African foods to Canadian palates, he wanted to ensure his products would positively impact the African farmers who helped produce them.

At a time when more and more consumers are turning to sustainable, plant- based diets, Togola’s big-picture thinking proved fruitful. Today, the Vancouver-based company works with more than 1,000 female farmers in nine villages in West Africa and one village in Malawi, and has developed four products based on African superfoods—a trend currently gaining favour across North America. In fact, Whole Foods Market included “Foods from West Africa” on its list of Top 10 Food Trends for 2020.

Farafena’s products include Fonio Grain (described as a cross between couscous and quinoa) and Fonio Flour, made from the ancient drought-resistant grain. The company also produces Moringa Leaf Powder and Baobab Fruit Powder, which both can provide a nutritious boost to smoothies, sauces and snacks. “Twenty years ago, no one was talking about things like quinoa or alternative grains, but now consumers are way more aware and willing to learn about products like ours,” says Togola, Farafena’s co-founder and executive chairman.

That’s not to say it was easy getting retailers to carry his products. “Whole Foods in Vancouver was the first one to take us on, but my calls were ignored for three months,” he says. Showing up at head office with some treats made with his products finally did the trick. “One of the buyers gave me a few minutes to share my story and he found it compelling enough to take us on,” says Togola.

This passion for Africa dates back to Togola’s childhood. Born in Mali in West Africa, he says it was his parents who inspired him to launch a business with a socially-conscious focus. “My mother was a midwife and the work she was doing in the community was amazing,” he says. Meanwhile, his father came from a family of 20 children and was one of only two siblings to get an education. “My father was a hydrologist for UNICEF for 23 years and I saw first-hand how he made community development his focus.”

In fact, after Togola graduated from university and started thinking about launching a business, it was his father who suggested they try and grow something on their family land in Mali. Togola wanted to take that a step further by collaborating with a cooperative of local farmers. “I thought it would be best to sit down with the local farmers and see what would benefit them, too,” he says. Togola targeted women farmers, specifically, believing they are the centre of family life in Africa. “Growing up I saw how much women did for the family, yet they weren’t valued for it and I wanted to change that.”

After three years of working with women farmers, Togola says it was the men of the villages who came forward to express gratitude. “The money their wives were making was going towards buying land, building homes and their kids’ education,” he says. “Allowing the women to make decisions was a powerful thing.”

This year, Farafena will be adding more farmers to its cooperative and plans to open a state-of-the-art North American-standard processing facility in Tabacoro, Mali, creating local jobs.

And in an effort to be as transparent as possible, the company is also now using blockchain technology to give consumers the ability to track Farafena product from farm to retailer via barcodes.

Meanwhile, the popularity of Farafena continues to grow. Carried in 950 retailers across Canada, including Loblaws, Whole Foods, Save-On-Foods and Bulk Barn, Farafena was recently listed with UNFI (one of the biggest food distributors in North America) which Togola says now opens the door to a slew of new retailers in the United States. The company’s African superfoods are creating a buzz in other retail sectors, too. One of British Columbia’s biggest gluten-free bakeries is using Farafena’s Fonio in one of its bagel recipes, while a well-known Canadian natural granola and breakfast cereal maker has expressed interest in using the grains for future products.

Yet even with all this growth and brand recognition, Togola feels there is still much to do. “I don’t feel like I’ve done much at all,” he says. “Success to me is not about the money or number of stores we’re listed in, but seeing we’ve made a real difference in the lives of people in the communities in Africa for the long term.”

This article appeared in Canadian Grocer’February 2020 issue.

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