Passion. Purpose. Profit. Plantains!
Ah yes. It makes sense. Hot, hip and happening, Jamie Saleeby—whose mission includes a plantain-inspired “cultural revivolution”—is a millennial.
Saleeby, 28, born in Virginia and with a degree in politics and international relations from the University of Virginia, grew up in Ghana, with regular trips to the U.K. and the U.S. He returned to the tropical West African country with its 335-mile shoreline—including some great surfing spots—three years ago.
Two years into the job, Saleeby—who says business, even before his New York immersion, was “second nature to me”—knew he wanted to work in Ghana. Do something relevant and transformative. Something purpose-driven. “Not just to make money.”
I Google “Ghana” shortly before I am scheduled to connect with Saleeby via Skype. What pops up at Number 10 on a list of 19 things to know before you go to Accra, where he is, is that this city “is full of young entrepreneurs, kids running start-ups from a single laptop, and returnees (people born or raised abroad who have returned). All these self-employed millennials can be found in the city’s cafés.”
Millennials. Indeed, while many of us prefer to support a cause or buy a product that adds value and enhances lives (and research has shown that brands that focus on purpose before profit grow twice as fast), millennials are reputedly the purpose-driven generation.
Which I remember as soon as he starts to tell me, “My vision was to create a company—a product—using traditional ingredients that tell a story about the environment. That reflect heritage and culture. I wanted to evolve and innately transform whatever this product was and take this narrative to the world.
“I started doing research into beverages and snacks. I had a whole list. Plantain chips were the most universal (on the list). People know about plantain chips. I wouldn’t have to explain.”
And so his company, Sankofa Snacks, was born.
Bold and Inspired Flavors
“We took the basic, rustic, raw, mundane plantain chip. Incorporated bold and inspired flavors [he worked with someone in the U.S. on flavorings for a year]. And gave it beautiful and aesthetic packaging.
“Basically, the core of what we’re trying to do with the brand, I call ‘cultural revivalution.’”
Saleeby coined this term. It means, he says, “cultural revival and evolution” or “revival and evolution of heritage and culture.
Sankofa, he explains, is an ancient Akan proverb. “It means ‘to go back and get’ (to seek and take). Essentially it is saying there is nothing wrong with taking the best of the past, taking from tradition and moving forward: transforming it.
“In this case we are taking the best of our traditional ingredients and snacks and evolving them in innovative ways to tell a story, to provide a narrative.
“One of the reasons I am doing this now is, I am of the impression that most people from Ghana, and Africa as a whole, approach this in binary fashion. Either something is traditional—or it is modern. And modern is linked directly to Westerners (as in someone from Western Europe or North America).
“I want to show that our modernity doesn’t have to be alien from our culture.”
The Soul of the Nation
And there is a bigger picture at stake than this.
“I found, when living in the U.S., that a lot of what I enjoyed was not inherently Ghanaian,” says Saleeby. “It was often western. And if anyone said anything derogatory or upset me, I had nothing to latch on too. I measured myself—was engulfed—by western standards.
“I think there is something very powerful about seeing your culture as rich and adding value to the world. There is something very powerful about being able to share where you’re from a place of value. A confidence comes with this.”
Conversely, “If you can’t believe in and value where you’re from, no matter how much money you have, you won’t feel a sense of confidence.
“I say the soul of a nation or people lives within its culture. This is one of my mantras.”
’Revivolution’ and Plantain Chips
Ghana has a strong culinary culture, says Saleeby, and also a vibrant creative arts culture.
So what he’s doing with his Sankofa plantain chips is “creating African-inspired snacking experiences.”
The intention—what he will grow as the business grows—is developing, growing and sharing the African narrative “through these Africa-inspired snacks and through the creative arts.” Their goal is to support the arts; from visual art, music, poetry, drama.
Their core brand pillar is where the “cultural revivolution” comes in. Their goal is to support the arts; from visual art, music, poetry, drama. He notes that many companies talk about purpose and product. “But mostly, when people talk about products and brands, they talk about poverty alleviation and economic empowerment.
“That is well and good. But I think people need to see their cultural story. To be able to tell their cultural story and share it with the world. Our belief is that the creative arts is the best way to do this.”
In the interest of what? I ask.
“Developing that confidence; that sense of value we talked about,” he says.
Partnerships and Plantains
It was two years ago that Saleeby moved back “with my tax returns, bonuses, savings. We [by “we” he means Sankofa] rented a small house. Repurposed it into a small factory.”
He works with smallholder farmers to source the plantains. While not certified organic, they are wild-grown and more genuinely organic than anything grown commercially in the United States.
He developed the product himself.
Flavor-wise there’s a smoked chili beef. “We love smoked meats here and heat.” There’s a lightly salt: “very traditional.” A spicy sweet chili, “inspired by the sweet tooth a lot of people here have and reminiscent of a prawn cocktail.” There’s a sweet cinnamon “with inspiration from North African cooking.” And chicken, ginger and garlic, “because garlic and ginger are cooking staples in Ghana.”
To date, they are only sold in Ghana. One of the outlets is the country’s dozen or so Vida e Caffè coffee shops. “An excellent partnership as it shows we’re a premium quality brand.”
There are no artificial flavors, preservatives or colorants and all ingredients are plant-based and vegan-friendly.
He recently got some funding and plans to set up a new facility over the next three to four months. Then the plan is to go international.
“Our main export region we’re driving initially is the U.K. I will do my first big trade show—the Specialty and Fine Food Fair—in London in September.” Followed by the Coffee Shop Innovation Expo, also in London, in November.
He sees the plantain chips as an alternative snack, like a veggie chip.
What Makes a Foodie?
Saleeby grew up in a big family house in Accra. There was his grandma, his mom, cousins, siblings, support staff. Summers were spent in the U.K., where several family members live.
Being an extended family, meals tended to be big-pot items for sharing—soups and stews that could be cooked in bulk and eaten as needed. Groundnut soup was a favorite. As was palm nut soup. And okra stew.
The main cooking day was Saturday. “We could eat during the week what was made on Saturday when everyone got a chance to be involved. It was traditional food that takes time to prepare.”
Weekdays were a free-for-all where you fended for yourself. “This gave scope for a lot of self-expression. It was possible to cook, experiment, get help from the support staff.”
Saleeby recalls how he would pull ideas from tradition and from travels in the U.S. and U.K. From BBC cooking shows. He experimented a lot with what he calls “the fundamentals: garlic, ginger, onions. Any dish with these, I will eat. Here in Ghana, they are used to spice meat and in any soup base. Tomatoes are also a big element.”
His mom encouraged his kitchen forays, which continued through his teenage years. “She indulged my interest and curiosity, allowed me to play around with flavorings, which are a big part of what I do now.”
He learned young that cooking and food are about sharing and love and expressing yourself artistically.
Slaves, Food, Drink and the Arts
“There’s an immense amount of history of relevance to the African-American traveler,” Saleeby says when I ask about Ghana as a tourist destination. Specifically, he says, a number of slave trade forts that tell the history of the slave trade in a powerful way.
And on a lighter note:
- Ghana is one of the safer and most welcoming countries in Africa. It’s a fantastic entry point to the continent. South Africa is more advanced—but in Ghana you get both the rustic African feel and also modern Africa.
- There are beautiful beaches.
- And there is great food.
“I think people might find it cool to see similarities and overlap between our food and food in other Diaspora regions. Things we eat here are similar to things eaten in parts of the U.S. and the Caribbean. Okra stew, for example, is very similar to New Orleans gumbo. The slight slime element. The spiciness. And our greens are similar to greens in the U.S.”
Then there is the street food.
“Barbecuing and grilling are a big part of our culture. Along the roadside, you find grilled kebab, grilled beef, grilled chicken, fried yam. Served with delicious and complex chili powder.”
Besides the fantastic roadside and local options, there is international cuisine.
And also, “a really great nightlife scene.”
When it comes to beverages, “We have palm wine and a local moonshine called akpeteshie (distilled from palm wine and sugarcane juice). It’s almost like rum and still consumed in a traditional fashion in rural areas.
“We also drink a lot of beer.”
Saleeby and his friends frequent “some cool local bars and clubs.” Republic Bar, for one.
Some of the bars and clubs have spaces at the back with curated art for sale. To any tourist, Saleeby would say, “grab a seat at a roadside pub and introduce yourself. People here are super-friendly.”
And Those Markets?
There are tons of them, he says.
Food markets selling fresh produce, meat and fish. And art and craft markets. “Ghana, in terms of visual arts, is amazing.”
Traditional, up-and-coming, contemporary. “It’s starting to get attention on the world stage. Now is an interesting time to come and see it, especially for collectors.”
Of course, these are areas, along with music made by young musicians who are going global, that Saleeby and Sankofa will partner with to share the narrative. Grow that “cultural revivalution”— inspired by passion, purpose, profit. And those plantains.