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Leading African Women in Food Fellowship (LAWFF) is an annual six-month fellowship program that identifies outstanding female disruptors, ecosystem enablers, entrepreneurs, policymakers, chefs, trendsetters, and storytellers in the African food ecosystem. The program believes that connections made over food can change the often incorrect narratives surrounding Africa.
Twenty-seven fellows were chosen out of more than 600 nominations. Among them are Aisha Hadejia, Yasmine Fofana, and Lynne Odiwa. Hadejia received the Ecosystem Enabler award, Fofana the Food & Beverage Narrative Changer award, and Odiwa the Trailblazer award.
They recently spoke with Cuisine Noir about their journeys. Let’s meet these amazing African entrepreneurs and changemakers.
Hadejia, who lives in Abuja, Nigeria, is an associate partner with Sahel Consulting, Agriculture, and Nutrition Limited, which focuses on transforming African agriculture and nutrition. “As part of my career, I worked on health development projects, improving access to healthcare for women and children, maternal and newborn health, child health, and malaria prevention,” she says.
In her early career years, Hadejia advocated for women’s economic empowerment and improved access to healthcare, information, and technology for girls. This work helped her realize how nutrition affects health development, which secured her role at Sahel Consulting.
“There are many issues surrounding what we consume, so the proactive thing to do is prevent those diseases,” she says. “Of course, you cannot think about nutrition without looking at agriculture and how the food comes out and about.”
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Hadejia leads the policy and public sector-facing work to ensure the promotion, implementation, and co-design of innovative policies. “My work is centered very closely with these stakeholders in Nigeria to understand where the gaps are. We’re working to push this forward to offer technical assistance internally and with donor organizations.”
On the Fellowship
Hadejia and all recipients of the fellowship are initially recognized by someone who noticed the worthwhile actions of the women. “Someone nominated me,” she says. “I’m quite close to the team and actually doing the work, so I knew quite a lot about it and was excited because it was like, ‘Okay, I’m worthy.’”
While thrilled and honored, Hadejia was a bit intimidated by the other fellowship categories: Disruptors, Trailblazers, Food and Beverage Narrative Changers, Top Chefs in Africa, and Ecosystem Enablers.
“Others were doing these amazing things out there, and I was working on policy,” she says. “When I got nominated, it was a whole process. In the meetings, we had the sessions exposing us to leading industry experts on people in food, and then you begin to realize that we are doing what they’re doing.”
Hadejia also noted that Africans should also familiarize themselves with other African cultures outside their own. “It’s one thing to reclaim our narrative outside our continent, to say, ‘We are putting African food out there.’ But within, I also need to be familiar with Ivorian cuisine and vice versa. Let’s claim back on every level: chef level, policymaker level, consumer level, everyone. There’s still more work to do, but there’s visibility. I mean, you can’t beat it.”
What’s Next for Aisha Hadejia as an Ecosystem Enabler
Hadejia is eager to see what the next generation of food enthusiasts can do. “From my end, in the farm and processing line, you can see how they use technology to make everything efficient and attractive to young people,” she says. “And when it comes to the dinner table as well, you see a lot of fusion, so I’m excited to see what this next generation will be like. I just want to see what they’re doing differently. We can’t keep doing the same things.”
Yasmine Fofana – Afrofoodie | Ivory Coast
Fofana resides in Cote d ‘Ivoire and 11 years ago, started the first Ivorian food blog, Foodies Diary now called Afrofoodie. “It was out of a passion for eating out and sharing what was happening in my country for Ivorians living here in Cote d ‘Ivoire or the diaspora,” she says.
“It was just a platform I was doing for fun and little did I know this would become my full-time job eleven years later.” Realizing she had a strong interest in blogging, Fofana got her master’s in international tourism development, focusing on the tourism industry and food tourism as a niche.
The successful transition of blogging into a full-time career still fascinates Fofana. “The platform has evolved from a regular blog and WordPress to a full-blown, bilingual platform where I amplify people’s stories through blogs, social media or YouTube. I still wake up sometimes and can’t believe it.”
Fofana also organized Abidjan Restaurant Week, a New York concept that originated in 1992 and has since spread across the globe, where various restaurants participate in discounted lunch and dinner specials. “I launched the Ivorian version of Restaurant Week in 2017,” Fofana says. “And I am launching the first edition of Cocktail Week. Still, my main mission has shifted, or at least contributed, to the shift of the African narrative.”
On the Fellowship
Fofana’s nomination was for the Food and Drink Narrative Changer category for AfroFoodie blog. “The fellowship was huge,” Fofana says. “It was beneficial because I can connect weekly with the ladies and like being paired. Even though I’ve had regional or international recognitions, I don’t take any of this for granted.”
Fofana remains humbled by all the opportunities that have come her way and stays gracious. “Everything is puzzle pieces coming together; every opportunity I have is for me to keep on and understand our different challenges.” She goes on to explain that despite her nomination in the narrative category, it’s not enough to tell stories. “You have to understand the different challenges the storytellers face,” she says. “What the chefs and entrepreneurs are facing, our business, etc. You must first understand what is happening in Uganda. You have to understand what’s happening in Ethiopia.”
Fofana also echoes Hadejia’s sentiments about knowledge of other African cultures. “For me, the fellowship helped connect with all those women because, funny enough, even though we’re Africans and living on an African continent, we don’t know each other that well,” she says. “We keep learning about each other, the challenges, trying to find solutions, and being aware of what’s out there. It was just a beautiful thing to leverage on and to keep on doing a better job at telling the stories. That’s what I took from there.”
What’s Next for Yasmine Fofana as an African Entrepreneur
Fofana agrees with Hadejia and says her words resonate with her. “I’m so proud to see African cuisine, African-inspired cuisine, African influences at dining tables, or small and big major events,” she says.
“I’m so proud to see pop-ups, chefs, and entrepreneurs making sure they use our products; this is what we grew up with. So for us, having those products being now at the forefront of things, I’m excited about this. Like I said, there’s a whole movement; we’re all part of it, and I can’t wait to see it grow. African cuisine has taken the place that it deserves worldwide.”
Lynne Odiwa – Nature’s Best Green Culture Limited | Kenya
Odiwa is the co-founder and executive director at Nature’s Best Green Culture Limited (NBGCL), a social enterprise whose goal is to nurture a vibrant community around local and indigenous foods.
“Our work mainly involves aggregating, processing, and distributing wholesome, minimally processed, and frozen African leafy green vegetables,” she says. NBGCL’s collaboration empowers female smallholder farmers in rural Kenya to cultivate and harvest nutritious vegetables
“Through this,” Odiwa says, “We are crucial in making affordable, healthy and wholesome vegetables available for people in urban and peri-urban communities.”
The fruition of the enterprise was due to a need for more nutrition, something Odiwa experienced personally. As 2019 ended, Odiwa lost her job. “I was unexpectedly expecting, and I also had a 4-year-old girl. My savings were depleted and we faced real-life hunger, where we would go hungry sometimes. You should be eating healthy when you’re expecting, so I was facing malnutrition as well.”
A friend helped out Fofana financially, but that was just a temporary fix, and she wanted to rely on something other than asking friends for money. With her and her daughter’s health declining and concerns for her pregnancy, a memory suddenly resurfaced.
“I grew up in a village in rural Kenya where we had these green, leafy African vegetables that would go a long way,” she says. The food lasts for a long time once it has been cooked and kept warm, even without a cold storage facility.
Odiwa made a trip to the market and got the vegetables, which provided much-needed health benefits for Odiwa, her daughter, and Odiwa’s unborn child. “Everything improved,” she says. “At my prenatal checkups, my doctor said everything was returning to normal, and I didn’t need to continue taking the supplements. So, I realized something was happening; people in urban and peri-urban areas need to be able to get these vegetables.”
Due to the time required to grow, care for, and distribute these vegetables, Odiwa decided to collaborate; rural women would produce the vegetables and Odiwa would process them. “I contacted a friend with experience in the hospitality industry,” she says. “She’s a good chef, and we realized we could make these vegetables. So, we did a first trial, which was excellent.”
The vegetables were immediately popular with the tasters and they asked about placing orders. After raising money, Odiwa and crew started taking orders, processing vegetables in a house, and making deliveries.
“People really embraced the vegetables and were thrilled,” she says. “Having experienced their health benefits, I know how valuable these vegetables are, especially with the affordable handling of the produce and nutrition. That’s how Nature’s Best Green Culture Limited came to be.”
On the Fellowship
So, of course, Odiwa received the Trailblazer fellowship. “I saw this nomination as a great opportunity to learn, build capacity, and take advantage of all the opportunities that come along with it, especially to connect with other amazing women all over the continent.”
Odiwa agrees with Fofana and Hadejia about carrying forward the lesson of getting to know all elements of the African continent. “We realized there is so much in our food that we have to tell and understand,” she says. “And not just from the clinical perspective, but from the cultural heritage perspective; we must be proud of it and own it as a nation. That aspect could have been clearer in this venture, but now I’ve dedicated my time. Someone must tell the story of indigenous foods in our local area.”
What’s Next for Lynne Odiwa as a Trailblazer
Odiwa also looks forward to new local food-centered food creations. “The story needs to come from Africa,” she says. “So, whether we are talking about innovation, technology, or how to leverage technology, let it center around what we already have because it is still so much like we’ve just begun. There’s still so much to do. There are so many opportunities in our traditional foods and cuisines for how we can tell our story. So that is what I’m excited to see.”
Read about all 2023 Leading African Women in Food Fellowship fellows.