A passion for the favorite dishes she grew up eating in Gambia inspired a home cook to create Kitchens of Africa. Making slow-cooked African sauces and condiments convenient to use and more accessible became her purpose.
This year, it put Jainaba Jeng’s products on Oprah’s Favorite Things List (Meet the Founder of Kitchens of Africa an Oprah’s Favorite Things (oprahdaily.com). “Just the fact that she tried it and said she loved it really meant the world to me,” says Jeng, founder of Kitchens of Africa. “This is good for African food. It’s way beyond what I am trying to accomplish. It’s for everybody else in this movement of trying to get African food out there.”
Oprah Salutes Kitchens of Africa
Jeng became one of Oprah Winfrey’s admirers years before the world-renowned billionaire and philanthropist tasted sauces from Kitchens of Africa. The North Carolina entrepreneur sees Oprah as an example of what is possible with passion, purpose and hard work. “She’s built an empire for herself. She is recognized around the world and just to be affirmed by her is more than I could have ever imagined,” Jeng comments.
The long-time Raleigh resident shares what happened during an interview for Oprah’s Favorite Things. “I’m doing a Zoom with Gayle, and Oprah pops up. I was so emotional that day. It was like, ‘Oh my God. I’d waited for this moment for so long, but when it came, I think my emotions got away from me. It was great.”
OprahDaily.com (Oprah’s Favorite Things 2022 – Full List of Oprah’s Gift Ideas (oprahdaily.com) mentions Jeng’s mission. She is part of the growing movement to reverse decades of misconceptions about what Africans eat. “When people think about Africa, they think we just eat to sustain ourselves. They don’t equate it with gourmet food or farm-to-table,” says the Kitchens of Africa founder. “We eat a lot of delicious farm-to-table food. The original concept is from us. We go to the farm, go to the market and cook fresh from the farm.”
Oprah’s recognition of Kitchens of Africa products could benefit the current efforts to introduce a larger audience to food from the continent and gain respect for its variety of flavorful dishes. “I’m trying to do that one jar at a time. I think with Oprah’s reach and the exposure, it’s going to be good for the cuisine itself.”
Invitation to African Cuisine
The Raleigh entrepreneur’s mission puts her in the company of such celebrated chefs as Food Network’s Eric Adjepong, James Beard Award-winner Marcus Samuelsson, Ayo Foods founders Fred and Perteet Spencer and acclaimed African chef Dieuveil Malonga. However, another motivation sparked Jeng’s interest in cooking foods from her homeland. “I was craving the foods that I grew up eating. The foods you grew up eating would be considered your comfort food, what you turn to in times of happiness or grief or to remind you where you are from,” she says.
Jeng left Gambia and moved to Halifax, Nova Scotia, to pursue a degree in International Relations. While working on her master’s degree, she started cooking dishes she watched her mother and sisters make from scratch. Her interest in making food she loved grew when the Kitchens of Africa owner moved to Raleigh in 1997 to be near her sisters. “It’s always been in my blood, but it took moving away from home to nurture it. Everybody in my family is the same way. We are foodies. Food is around every celebration.”
The self-proclaimed foodie was always open to trying cuisines from different countries. She got a kick out of strolling through specialty food stores and trying cooking sauces from India, Thailand, Mexico and other countries. Jeng noticed that Africa was missing from store shelves. “When you feel like you are not being represented, you can only complain so much. You have to do something about it,” the food producer says.
Kitchens of Africa now offers African sauces, condiments and marinades that any home cook, novice or expert can use to experience the dynamic flavors of the continent. Jeng started with two sauces from West Africa and then expanded her product list to include East Africa. “When I look at the Kitchens of Africa lineup right now, it is like a playlist of my favorite foods. It’s the same recipes I use to cook in my home kitchen.”
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Her products, available online and in some specialty stores, include her signature Yassa Onion Sauce and a traditional version from Gambia. An $85 gift box contains the traditional Yassa Sauce and Zanzibar Curry, Mombasa Tamarind and Maffé Peanut Sauces. The product line also offers Kaani West African Hot Sauce and three jerk paste marinades in mild, spicy and fiery. Individual jars sell at prices from $15 to $18.
Many African dishes are known for their all-day cooking times. Jeng’s products let people with hectic schedules enjoy the food she loves with little or no fuss. “They are ideal because you don’t really need to do any work. It’s impossible to mess them up if you follow directions,” she explains.
“All you have to do is decide what kind of protein or vegetable you want to add to it, a pound or a pound and a half. Dump in the sauce and let it simmer. You can serve it over any grain of your choice.”
Kitchens of Africa’s all-natural products are popular with vegans. Jeng emphasizes the quality of the natural ingredients she selects. “Quality is very important. My biggest goal is to be proud of what I’m selling. I’d like to impress anybody who tries the sauces. We use the best of the best.”
The company’s founder cares just as much about selling African-inspired convenience foods with bona fide flavors. “My commitment is to make sure that these flavors are traditional. They are authentic and can be recognized by somebody who grew up eating them,” says Jeng. “I think what I love the most is that I have not tried to tame the flavors to make them appeal to people who have not had them before.”
Conquering Small Business Challenges
The specialty food entrepreneur launched her company in 2011 while she was still working full-time for the Department of Justice. It took more than six years for her to reach the point where she could concentrate fully on her business. “When you start anything, the profits don’t just start pouring in. It’s going to take a lot of years of just grinding. I was lucky enough to work someplace else where it wasn’t a conflict,” Jeng acknowledges.
Keeping her day job until she could afford to leave reduced the stress of worrying about paying the mortgage and other bills. Nothing could eliminate the challenges of joining the ranks of consumer food producers. “Consumer packaged goods is one of the most expensive businesses you can grow!” exclaims Jeng. “I tell people who reach out to me that getting into the stores is the easy part. Once you are in the store, they sometimes give you very little time to succeed. Your product must move, or you’re kicked out.”
Brands with more advertising money make competing harder for the small, independent business owner. Paying fees to brokers, distributors and other middlemen cut profit margins even thinner. Then, there is the pressure of inflation. “The prices for manufacturing my last batch skyrocketed. There’s only so much that you can absorb. After a while, you have to raise your prices or go out of business. Some things have increased by 500%,” Jeng says.
Nevertheless, the company founder appreciates the doors of opportunity opening for her. “Even though I had to work hard to earn everything I have accomplished, people gave me a chance. I think it all comes back to the community; your community being behind you and people seeing that you are trying to do something good.”
Driven by Passion and Purpose
Jeng is well on her way to accomplishing the goal of connecting people in her adopted country of America with her passion for African flavors and her Gambian heritage. “Most people now recognize good flavor in food. Once they get past the trepidation of trying it, they get hooked, and that brings me a lot of joy. It’s very satisfying.”
The Kitchens of Africa owner gets even more satisfaction from emails from people who have lived in Africa. They tell her the company’s sauces, condiments and marinades bring back beautiful memories. “I just got another email the other day, and this lady was so excited. She discovered me through the Oprah thing,” says Jeng. “She had always tried to make the Yassa sauce, but it was never as good as she remembered eating, so she was excited about my products. It keeps me motivated and determined to share these flavors. They deserve to be tasted and shared.”
In the future, Jeng plans to feature unique offerings from all the different regions of Africa. “I’m delighted that I’ve been able to cover two regions. It is exhilarating when you are trying to develop a new product and bring it to market. At the same time, it is very stressful. You just have to wait until the time is right. There’s definitely going to be more to come.”
For the time being, the Kitchens of Africa founder is basking in the excitement of being passionate about her purpose. “I don’t dread Mondays anymore. I can work long hours and not feel like I’m overextending myself because I get so much joy out of it. When you hear your fans telling you what a difference your products are making in their lives, it’s so fulfilling,” Jeng says.
One of the most fulfilling experiences for Jeng was hearing that Oprah is a fan who lists Kitchens of Africa among her favorite things. “When you get to a moment like this, it just makes everything, all the hardships and challenges you’ve had to overcome worth it. She saw me.”