Liberian product boosts West African representation in the American marketplace.
Speak of West Africa and let’s be honest, some might think it’s a country in itself. Others might call out Nigeria or Ghana as being part of that side of the African continent. But Liberia? Most don’t recall where that is.
Niaka Porte, CEO and founder of Philadelphia-based Sasas Mix, the first West African banana bread baking mix in the American marketplace, plans to change that for the better—one Liberian product at a time.
Establishing the business last year and heading into production about six months ago, Porte made a quick transition from selling freshly made products to packaged baking mixes, guided by macro trends she observed during the pandemic. Her first offering to hit the market is based on her favorite Liberian dessert—rice bread—made from rice, sugar, ginger and nutmeg, a recipe passed down through generations, inspired by her grandmother and shared by her mom.
Appealing to the Market and the Masses
Porte’s observed the rising trend for banana bread baking at home and people wanting to be transported to other places from the comfort of their home during the pandemic. This resulted in the Sasas Mix finding its way into stores and on to Amazon and her online site. “I thought having a product that encompasses both of those trends would be appealing to the market,” she says.
“That’s why I launched it, along with showcasing foods that I grew up with and [that] are super nutritious as well.” She now sells two products, the same dessert but in two different flavors —original and chocolate chip—with additional flavors such as red velvet and products such as a doughnut mix in the works.
The baking mix, manufactured in New York via Hudson River Foods, which also handles the ingredient sourcing and distribution, is gluten-free, plant-based and top eight allergies friendly; a conscious decision on Porte’s part.
“I saw that in terms of the baking industry, people were seeking baking mixes that are healthy and cater to people who have special dietary restrictions as well,” she shares. Porte’s previous experience with a baking company she first established as a 17-year-old high schooler helped.
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“I was enrolled into the Young Entrepreneurs Academy in Philadelphia, and through there I was able to develop a business plan. I also pitched to local investors in the area and learned a lot about how people perceive the product itself because many times, it was people’s first time trying the actual dessert. I got a lot of feedback on what to change in terms of the texture and the taste. And that’s how I was able to implement that feedback and then make it into the baking mix.”
She views the experience as critical to her journey as an entrepreneur and is glad she could translate some of her learning to Sasas.
Bringing Liberian Cuisine to the Marketplace
Born and raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Porte’s ties to her Liberian roots are strong. Her parents immigrated to the United States, settling in Philadelphia in the 1990s to flee the civil war.
Growing up, her mother would make many traditional Liberian dishes, such as rice bread, and Porte mentions potato greens is a favorite. There is also a Liberian shortbread dessert eaten during breakfast with coffee and tea that Porte is hoping to replicate into a baking mix so people can make that at home as well.
Overall, flavors in Liberian cuisine are bold and vibrant, she shares. Ginger and red and yellow peppers are some of the primary ingredients in desserts and entrees, and most mains are soup-based or plant-based. Some popular dishes are cassava leaf and palm butter, and rice is a staple.
“The mission is to showcase a region that I feel has been underrepresented in the food marketplace, and I do see a trend that people are seeking more West African flavors,” says Porte, who plans to visit her grandparents back in Liberia for the holidays this year.
“But I would say people just have this obscure reality of what Africa is in totality. And I do have many experiences with people just thinking it’s safaris or the dark continent. That’s why I’m excited to spotlight a new version of Africa that people just don’t see. People are excited to hear about a product from Liberia, to hear that there’s a banana bread, which is America’s favorite comfort food, and that it’s gluten-free, plant-based and allergy-friendly and easy to make. A lot of moms have been appreciating this. And a lot of people who are seeking new, exciting flavors have also appreciated this.”
She hopes one day to source ingredients from Liberia that are Fair Trade and give back to provide economic resources to people there.
Next, Porte is eyeing marketplace categories that are lacking in terms of international flavors. The baking mix aisle is one, but cookies, other dessert products, snack bars, chips, and more are also in her plans to scale the business and diversify offerings while showcasing her Liberian heritage.
The brand name, Sasas, is part of that endeavor, and she credits her father with the inspiration behind it. Sasa is a Liberian word for the shekere, a West African percussion instrument played during times of celebration to symbolize a new beginning. Sasas Mix heralds the introduction of bold and vibrant West African flavors in the same joyous way.
Porte also launched a brand ambassador affiliate program she is looking to expand in the next few months to gain better market reach and strengthen social media presence, having found success through Instagram.
Challenging Journey in the Marketing Foray
Porte is candid in her wins and challenges establishing her business and launching her first product during the past few months of the pandemic. She credits the business climate for sprouting the idea of transforming the freshly made rice bread she would sell at pop-ups into a baking mix that people could enjoy easily at home whenever they wanted. “With that, I was able to scale and have a more efficient business model,” she shares. But there were also challenges with the timing of her efforts taking off.
“In terms of finding a manufacturer, that definitely hindered the timing because I wanted to roll out three months after I had the idea, but to find a manufacturer to produce the mixes was extremely hard. Especially given that I had special restrictions on the type of ingredients I wanted, having it gluten-free, plant-based and allergy-friendly. And along with that finding a team.”
Now Porte has a graphic designer and photographer as part of her small team, but it took her some time to find the right partners to collaborate with on her startup journey. Another factor she confides in might have played to her disadvantage is her age. “I’m pretty young. I don’t have any experience in the CPG realm, but I know that it’s a good idea. I just have a lot of drive. So, I just followed what I wanted to do. And along with that, I was able to gain funding from my school,” she says.
Porte enrolled in the Entrepreneurship Co-op at Drexel University, where she is now a senior majoring in Marketing and Business Analytics (she will graduate next March) and was granted $15,000 to jumpstart her business. She has clearly put her funding to good use with the progress made thus far with Sasas.
On her takeaways in this entrepreneurship journey, she says, “Keep going even when it seems daunting, and have people who support you surround you. God puts ideas in your mind for a reason. And if it’s in your heart, always go for it.”