The gift of a good education can manifest itself beyond providing a roadmap to a great career. For Ghanaian entrepreneur Abena Foli, it became a vehicle for combining two loves: food and science.
The Texas-based food scientist always had a love for food since her childhood days in Tema, Ghana growing up on her father’s farm but was encouraged to pursue the sciences. Initial dreams of being a chef or fashion designer were replaced with solving algebraic problems and chemistry labs, all of which she excelled at.
But her collegiate years in the states would create nostalgia for home, specifically the flavors of West African cooking that wouldn’t go away. Deciding to take flavors into her own hands, she began creating prototypes of seasonings inspired by her father’s early teachings in the kitchen. After blending, sampling and “daddy’s” stamp of approval, Foli launched POKS Spices in 2016, joining a lineup of Ghanaian chefs and foodprenuers introducing bold and delicious products to the U.S. market.
A Parent’s Wisdom
“Growing up on the farm, my dad taught me how to cook,” says Foli early on in our interview. Foli credits her father with instilling knowledge about her Ghanaian roots and culture through food. Long before it became a thing, eating farm to table was the family’s way of life.
However, it wasn’t until she was an adult that she could truly appreciate all of the hard work he put in day after day, as well as the importance and impact he was making in her life and others. “Growing up, in school I didn’t appreciate that because at that time farming was something that was looked down upon. Farmers were looked at as being poor and uneducated. So I really shun telling people that my dad was a farmer,” shares Foli.
As her mother worked in the corporate sector, Foli and her young brother spent most of their time with their father, who taught them how to cook from scratch, blending and creating spices and seasonings. During this time, she would get to know the West African trinity—hot peppers, ginger and onions that are the foundation for many Ghanaian dishes.
Setting the stage for a career in food, Foli says in addition to her father being a great cook, her late grandmother was also amazing in the kitchen. However, although food was his life, both Foli’s father and her mother wanted their children to explore more science-based career options.
One day they told Foli and her younger brother, “We don’t have an inheritance for you. The best thing we can give you is a good education because once you have that good education, you can build your own inheritance.” Attending a private high school opened the doors for Foli to immigrate to the United States to go to college in Massachusetts.
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While in there, adjustments to the food in her new city proved to be challenging. For Foli, the blandness and lack of spice and flavor sparked memories of farm life and time in the kitchen with her dad. But for the time being, she made do, only for those memories to eventually become the inspiration behind her future spice company.
The Spice Opportunity
Following a summer internship at Yale, Foli had her mind set on pursuing a Ph.D., with a mentor she telling her, “Abena, if you want to do a Ph.D., do it in a field that when you wake up every day, you will be excited about.” While attending a job fair, she was introduced to Cornell University’s food science program. After a few discussions and summer research project, Foli sealed her trajectory as a food scientist.
Starting in research and development, before pivoting to brand regulations, Foli noticed a lack of enthusiasm for West African products in the marketplace, something she contributes to little awareness and also the packaging. “The more I am learning and I am going to African stores, I am seeing why our products are not popular or are not respected because the packaging formats of the products imported into the United States are not on par with what the American consumer is used to and the labels do not comply with FDA regulations,” she says.
This presented an opportunity for Foli to create a product that introduced Americans to authentic flavors and do so in a way that was packaged to create interest. “I saw a wide space for products to be launched here in the United States based on the bold flavors of West Africa and also packaged in a way that Americans could relate to,” she says.
Foli began creating her signature seasonings in December 2015, sending them to family and individuals in Ghanaian and Nigerian communities for feedback because it was important to produce a product that genuinely represented West Africa, not just Ghana. Who was her harshest critic? Dad.
“He pushes me a lot. He is my biggest cheerleader, but he is my biggest critic. So the finished product that everybody is enjoying today is the result of these critiques.”
Bold Authentic Flavors
POKS (pronounced P-OAKS), taken from her second name Opokua, is available in three flavor profiles: Original Spicy (jalapeno-based), Mild Spicy (cayenne-based) and Extra Spicy (also cayenne-based). Each begins with a blend of peppers, ginger and onion to give it a kick of goodness. Bold and versatile, pick your heat intensity and add the seasoning to soups, stews, vegetables, protein and more. POKS’ flavors also lend themselves to fusion dishes, so your favorite Indian, Caribbean and Thai meals are going to pop even more with a touch of West African love.
“I summarized that seasonings would be a great way to start and then we can build upon once people understand what the flavor profiles are,” says Foli about stepping into the market.
In addition to being sold online, you can find Foli and her business partner, her husband Eugene, at select farmers markets in the Dallas, Texas, area where the response has been very favorable. While some may be a little hesitant to go all-in, she says POKS’s Extra Spicy is a top seller.
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Like other business owners navigating through changes brought on by the pandemic, Foli is excited about the journey of her company and other West African brands sharing their roots through food.
When asked about new products and expansion, the food scientist in her takes over and says, “I do work in the food industry, so I know the nuisances of the backend of getting your product into a store. And what a lot of small businesses don’t understand is, it’s not just getting your product into the store, it’s about ensuring that your product has a strong velocity.”
While the doors are open and now couldn’t be a better time to connect with food enthusiasts looking to try something new, Foli is focused on growing the company in a way that is not only impactful but also continues the food legacy her father passed to her and that she will one day pass down to her own children as well.