The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic was a time when many entrepreneurs faced the reality of forced furloughs, layoffs and business closures. In spite of the challenges posed by the pandemic, there was also a surge of people who were motivated by the economic disruptions and became newfound entrepreneurs. That was the case for Aminata Fofanah, who conceptualized her spice and marinade brand, Amjul, in 2020.
Fofanah has spent the last five years working as a nurse practitioner. During the height of the pandemic, she searched for an outlet to help her escape the gloom of her intense hospital environment.
“I found myself in the kitchen more often to escape reality and what was going on around me. I wanted to transport myself back home through food, so most times I cooked traditional Sierra Leonean recipes passed down from my family,” says Fofanah.
After a long hospital shift, the busy nurse found herself changing her surroundings from the hustle and bustle of the emergency room to finding solitude in her own kitchen. Equipped with her cookware, spices and native West African ingredients, she reveled in the therapeutic habit of preparing the meals she watched her parents cook during her childhood.
Fofanah is the daughter of two immigrant parents who moved from Sierra Leone to the United States in the late 1980s. She was born and raised in Lanham, Maryland, just minutes from Washington, D.C.
Being surrounded by the diverse population that makes up metropolitan Washington deepened Fofanah’s appreciation for her Sierra Leonean heritage. Fofanah also cites food as being another factor that allowed her to remain appreciative and connected to her heritage as she matured.
She has vivid memories of watching her mother make traditional West African dishes like ebeh (yam porridge) and cassava leaf stew. More than the dishes themselves, she also remembers the individual spices and flavorings used in the dishes.
“Growing up, I remember seeing all the spices cooked with common West African ingredients like mango, cassava, potatoes and palm oil.”
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Find a Need and Fill It
As stressful times fluctuated during the pandemic, the Sierra Leonean gourmand heavily depended on her family’s recipes to comfort her. While shopping for ingredients to make her beloved dishes, Fofanah noticed a lack of African flavors in her local grocery stores. With minimal international food markets in proximity, she recognized the untapped potential of having more African flavors accessible in mainstream supermarkets and began developing her business in 2020.
She later created Amjul, a spice and marinade brand that amplifies Sierra Leonean culture through bold, vibrant and aromatic flavors in a jar. “When I was developing my brand, I asked my mom what she thought I should name my brand, and the next day she suggested the name Amjul,” says the spice enthusiast.
Fofanah’s mother, Lubai, created the name by blending her name with her husband’s name, Jubal and Aminata.
Fueled by the development of her new business name and the support of her parents, the bourgeoning entrepreneur spent the next two years working on the branding and operational aspects of her business. She knew she wanted to develop a brand that looks and feels as warm and vibrant as the West African food she grew to love so dearly.
Fofanah officially launched Amjul in July 2022, and although “entrepreneur” is now added to her resumé, she continues to work as a nurse to sustain her lifestyle and support the growth of her new business. She is hopeful that one day she’ll be able to fully devote her time to growing and expanding the brand.
“As a nurse, I can always pursue entrepreneurship in healthcare, but that’s not really my desire,” says Fofanah. “I want to be able to have autonomy in what I do and how I do it and know that I make a difference in people’s lives.”
Health is the Main Ingredient
Healthy eating is important to the nurse-turned-entrepreneur. Unlike many store-bought spices and marinades, Amjul’s products are all gluten-free, MSG-free, vegetarian and contain no artificial flavors.
Despite her goal of one day running Amjul on a full-time basis, Fofanah vows to always draw on her years of nursing experience as she expands the brand’s line of products – just as she did with her initial product launch.
“With my background as a nurse, I’ve encountered many patients who share common ailments like hypertension, diabetes and high cholesterol,” says Fofanah. The severity of those types of diseases can be reduced through lifestyle modifications like what we consume through food.”
Fofanah takes an ingredient-conscious approach when developing her products. Although she only uses natural ingredients that are easy to pronounce, she also works hard to ensure her spices and marinades don’t compromise on flavor.
Amjul currently has two marinades and a spice blend available for purchase:
- BasiLe – A savory sauce and marinade with fresh basil, garlic, shallots and peppers
- Mango & Co. – A sweet sauce and marinade with chunks of mango, honey, ginger and habaneros
- Best of the West – A blend of popular West African spices that pair well with any of Amjul’s marinades
The Heat is On
Since launching her line of West African-inspired products, Fofanah has primarily sold her products online. She also participates at various pop-up markets in the local area. She admits it has sometimes been tough to balance her time between practicing her nursing career, while simultaneously operating her business.
“When it comes to fulfilling customer orders, participating at vendor events and building my network, I feel like I have a handle on those things,” says Fofanah. “The hardest thing for me is the social media aspect.”
Luckily, Fofanah has a close circle of family and friends cheering her on and willing to assist her if needed. However, from packaging her products to mailing shipments to customers — she does mostly everything herself.
She jokes, “I don’t even know how I’m doing it. I still practice as a nurse, but I manage my time during my days off to do everything related to Amjul.”
Going into 2023, Fofanah’s goal is to get her products on the shelves of local grocery stores in the Washington D.C., Maryland, and Virginia areas. Eventually, she hopes to see Amjul sold in major retail stores nationwide. For now, she continues to build her customer base by participating at pop-up markets and selling her products online.