West meets North: How Toyin Kolawole is introducing African flavors to American palates

When Toyin Kolawole completed recipe development for her sweet corn and creamy coconut cornbread, her mind went back to the naturalization ceremony where she became a US citizen in 2008.

Toyin recalls tearing up as the judge overseeing the event welcomed the group of immigrants, thanked them for choosing America, and urged them to hold onto the value, originality, and unique experiences they brought with them as immigrants.

That judge could not have known it, but his speech—which Toyin characterizes as “loving"—has stuck with her ever since. As founder and CEO of Iya Foods (Iya rhymes with “see ya”), a startup introducing West African flavors to American palates by incorporating them into everyday American foods, she’s constantly reminded of how the judge’s words made her feel.

“When we finalized the cornbread mix, for some reason my brain remembered the speech,” she recalls. “And I think it’s because it felt like an embodiment of the judge’s words. With this recipe, I was digging deep into my Nigerian roots and that wonderful childhood memory of eating corn and coconut, while also drawing inspiration from cornbread, and giving America something new.”

Growing up in the bustling city of Lagos, often described as the commercial capital of Nigeria, Toyin loved anything corn. Her favorite snack was boiled corn eaten with pieces of sweet, crunchy coconut, bought from street vendors and wrapped in old newspapers. When she arrived in the US to earn an MBA in the early 2000s, she believes it was only inevitable that cornbread, a quick bread with Native American origins, was one of the first meals she fell in love with.

Toyin stands at a table wearing a rust colored shirt, getting ready to bake, with multiple bowls and oil in front of her.

Toyin Kolawole loves food, which is why she founded Iya Foods, a startup introducing West African flavors to American palates.

Where Iya began

Based in North Aurora, Illiniois, Iya Foods started out as a personal venture. Toyin, who was previously a former private equity analyst and consumer packaged goods consultant, enjoyed cooking for her family. But she wanted to feed her now-teenage, sons foods with more traditional Nigerian ingredients. The two boys were typically picky eaters, but they embraced her experimentation, and that’s when she saw a potential market—in 2015 she launched Iya Foods.

Toyin set out to create novel experiences through food with her new company. Along the way, she discovered that the corn and coconut snack combo she loved so much was also enjoyed in other parts of the world, like the Caribbean and parts of Asia. It didn’t take long before she developed a product that has since become a hit with her customers.

“I have such a deep gratitude for the American consumers who love our sweet corn and creamy coconut cornbread,” she says. “It’s so deeply personal for me because our cornbread embodies everything I love about having grown up in Nigeria with all of its challenges, and being an American. It combines the best of both worlds.”

Iya Foods - Toyin as a child

Toyin as a child growing up in Nigeria.

Iya Foods’ first line of products included West African-style simmer sauces, spices, and seasonings. The company has since expanded its product line, offering a variety of whole food powders, baking mixes, and flours. As the business grows, Toyin is always thinking of innovative ways to bring Nigerian influences into the foods of her adopted country.

“There are so many foods in America that you can trace to another culture from around the world, because it’s a melting pot,” she says. “Every time you pick up something that is innovative, and the founder has connected to their culture, you will experience something positive about that culture. And that’s what I hope to do with Iya Foods, create everyday American foods but give people a positive connection to what I love most about Nigeria.”

Have you eaten?

Toyin named her company “Iya,” which means “mother” in Yoruba, a language primarily spoken in southwestern Nigeria, and parts of West Africa and Brazil. For her, the name honors mothers everywhere and is born out of a question she often got from women in her family:

Growing up—and I think a lot of Nigerians can relate—you didn’t really hear “I love you.” But when somebody asks you back home, “Have you eaten?,” in that question is, “How was your day? I care about you. I love you.” So that’s why my personal brand is, “Have you eaten?” And Iya Foods answers that with “Let’s eat.”

Toyin’s mother is one of those women, a trained nurse who supported her chemical engineer husband and five children during often difficult economic times. She ran several entrepreneurial businesses; she raised and sold poultry during the holidays, and ran a fast-food restaurant, a kerosene business, and a pharmacy. Toyin consequently had experience managing multiple tasks at a young age. She would get up early to fry egg buns (similar to beignets), make meat pies, dust store shelves, and bargain and engage with customers.

“Looking back, I can see that I was destined to be an entrepreneur,” she says. “Of my mother’s five children, I was the one who, in my opinion, spent the most time working on her entrepreneurial ventures. Looking back, I see that I actually genuinely liked being a part of her business endeavors.”

Toyin Kolawole smiles in front of a lake holding a woven basket with the word "Iya" woven into the front.

Toyin Kolawole founded Iya Foods, whose mission is “to share love through food.”

When somebody asks you back home, ‘Have you eaten?,’ in that question is, ‘How was your day? I care about you. I love you.’ So that’s why my personal brand is, ‘Have you eaten?’ And Iya Foods answers that with ‘Let’s eat.’
Toyin Kolawole
CEO & Founder, Iya Foods

Reminiscing on the holidays

Since moving to the US, fall is Toyin’s favorite time of the year. She loves that it heralds the arrival of the holidays, along with its signature aromatic smells like pumpkin and nutmeg.

During the holidays, she practices something she calls “topping up” at home. From December 24 to January 2, she makes sure that whether it’s 2pm or 2am, her husband and kids can always count on finding something delicious to eat on the dining table. She loves it when guests in her home are drawn downstairs by the wonderful smells coming from the kitchen.

Toyin, her husband, and their two sons stand in front of a Christmas tree in 2015.

Toyin, her husband, and their two sons stand in front of a Christmas tree in 2015.

She realizes now that this holiday family ritual has roots in holiday festivities from her childhood in Lagos when she and other neighborhood kids wandered from house to house during the Christmas and New Year festivities and were fed generous helpings of meals that included jollof rice, chicken, and all the soft drinks you could handle.

“Holidays were wondrous,” Toyin laughs. “During the year, you got sugar cube-sized pieces of meat with your meals, if you were lucky. The holidays were the time when you actually got a solid palm-size piece of chicken—and your own bottle of Coke! During the year, you had to share. So that was something to look forward to.”

These days, it’s Toyin who’s happily feeding others. She recalls how one year, during the holidays, she was making pumpkin pancakes in her kitchen, while a construction crew worked on a remodeling project in her basement:

One of them came upstairs and asked, “What is that smell, can we have a little?” And then I said, “Of course!” And I heaped up an entire plate for them with syrup and whipped cream, and also gave them pancakes to-go when they were leaving. My goal is not just to make a delicious pumpkin bread, my goal is to bring people downstairs—or upstairs, in this case—with the aromas of the holidays.

In development

As the 20th anniversary of Toyin’s move to the United States approaches, she’s far from done with her mission. At the moment, she has her sights set on conquering the snack aisle with a new product she’s developed called “Chipers,” a cross between a chip and a cracker which will also feature African ingredients like moringa and tigernuts. The kindly judge from her naturalization ceremony would be proud.

“It’s not your usual recycling of the same set of flavors consumers have been having for a hundred years,” Toyin explains. “It’s something that is familiar, exciting, and bold. It provides a new experience, and it’s nutritious and affordable. Our Chipers really capture the spirit of who we are at Iya Foods, and I’m excited to share them.”

Can’t wait to try some of the foods mentioned in this article? Toyin shared the recipe for her sweet corn & creamy coconut cornbread below. Enjoy!

A small dish filled with cornbread and butter on top sit next to a package of Iya Foods Sweet Corn and Creamy Coconut cornbead mix.

Sweet corn and creamy coconut cornbread was one of the first products Iya Foods sold.

Sweet Corn & Creamy Coconut Cornbread

Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook Time: 25 minutes

Ingredients

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 375 °F.
  2. Combine all ingredients in a bowl and stir or whisk well.
  3. Pour batter into pan or muffin tins.
  4. Bake for approximately 25 minutes in pan or 15 minutes in muffin tins, or until golden brown.
  5. Serve and enjoy

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Lola Okusami
Lola Okusami
Creative Writer
Beatriz Costa Lima
Beatriz Costa Lima
Content Producer