While working in New York as an executive assistant at a personal care products company, Jamie D. Saleeby realised there were very few African-inspired snacks on sale in local convenience stores. This is despite demand for products that represent African heritage and culture.
After saving up some money, Saleeby moved back to his home country of Ghana in 2017 to set up Sankofa Snacks – a snack brand that makes a range of plantain chips.
“What we wanted to do is produce and share creative and authentic snacking experiences that are inspired by and that celebrate global black food culture, for Africa and the diaspora,” he says.
Creating the business
Sankofa Snacks produces six flavours of plantain chips, all influenced by North- and West African recipes. ‘Chicken with Garlic and Ginger’ was inspired by Senegal’s poulet yassa, for example, whereas the ‘Chilli Tomato Gravy’ flavour is based on jollof rice – a popular dish in West Africa.
The company buys plantain from smallholder farmers in three regions across Ghana. After the raw material is procured, it is transported to the capital city of Accra where Sankofa Snacks has a factory. The company has built its own distribution network to deliver the bags of chips across the West African country.
One of the main problems is securing a steady supply of plantain from the smallholder farmers.
“During the off season it is really challenging to source plantain,” says Saleeby. “Plantain needs to be watered regularly to grow properly and in the dry season there is very little rain. There is about six months in Ghana where farmers cannot grow an abundance of plantain.”
This increases the price of plantain by up to 200% as the supply dwindles. At the moment, the firm is able to keep the price of the chips the same throughout both seasons by offsetting the extra spend in the dry season with the money saved in the rainy season when plantain is much cheaper.
“But as we grow the model that is going to have to change because if you’re getting serious orders during the off-season, and not enough during the rainy season to compensate for that, then you are in trouble.”
The solution, the CEO says, is to build an irrigated farm that can provide plantain during the dry season.
“We are looking at setting up a very small pilot farm, so we can fall back on our own supply when the market runs out.”
About two years ago Sankofa Foods invested in a new purpose-built facility to process plantain. It has the capacity to produce far more plantain chips than its original facility’s output, Saleeby says.
During the initial stages of the company, Saleeby was unable to devote enough time to contacting different retail outlets to increase sales. As the company expanded, the CEO hired a sales director and representatives who have been able to boost trade.
“Just in the past month, our sales have gone up more than 17% on the month before. Our sales director is working to open over 800 more doors than I had access to or was aware of. He has included smaller supermarkets that are opening up in residential areas.”
While Sankofa Foods decided to build its own distribution network in Ghana, Saleeby says that throughout the wider region it will use distribution partners to “move faster” in new countries. This should allow the plantain chips to be easily distributed and sold in Nigeria and Côte d’Ivoire, the first two countries billed for regional expansion.
Taking on the US
In the US, Sankofa Foods hopes to sell plantain chips through e-commerce sites like Amazon. A key strategy to success in the American market will be creating a strong brand that is able to tell a story, Saleeby says.
“As we go into that space we need to look at the story we are telling. We are serving a millennial mindset that is craving culturally authentic culinary experiences.”
The brand will launch in the northeast, “focusing on the diaspora and anybody that forms part of the black community”. After the proof of concept in online stores, the next step will be to target big retailers like Target and Whole Foods.
“After the online sales we will approach big stores to say, this is evidence of the traction, this is the community we are building. We are adding a range of snack categories that are really underrepresented in the US right now: African-inspired snacks.”
Sankofa Snacks managing director Jamie D. Saleeby’s contact information
Contact details are only visible to our Monthly/Annual subscribers. Subscribe here.