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Check Out Abena Foli’s Story

Today we’d like to introduce you to Abena Foli.

West Africans boast of rich and vibrant cultures, which includes their foods. Currently, West African cuisine and flavors have not gained the necessary awareness it needs in the US food retail space. There is no doubt that West African cuisine and flavors have influenced other cuisines around the world, including West Indian and Southern United States cuisines.

When it comes to flavors, there is one distinct thing about West African cuisine: spicy heat. Hot peppers such as the african bird, cayenne, kpakpo shito chile and scotch bonnet peppers are a fundamental part of West African cooking. Just as the Cajuns have the holy trinity of onion, bell pepper and celery, West Africans have the holy trinity of hot pepper, onion and ginger. Often supplemented with other spices and herbs, this spicy all-purpose seasoning serves as the base for seasoning most meals. Yet, little is known about spicy West African seasoning mixes in the United States, compared to the North African harissa, the Ethiopian berbere, or the Asian sriracha. For new flavors unfamiliar to the American palette, spices and seasonings serve as a good vehicle of exposure and influence.

Abena Foli, founder and co-owner of POKS Spices was born and raised in Ghana, West Africa and immigrated to the United States in 2006 to pursue her college education. Abena’s passion for food comes from her farmer-father who taught her how to blend spices, to layer flavors, and how to cook. Since high school, Abena has been passionate about combining her love for food, with her love for the sciences. This led her to pursue her Master’s degree in Food Science after her Bachelor’s degree in Biochemistry. She has over nine years practical food industry experience, starting off as a product developer and subsequently transitioning to food labeling compliance and regulatory affairs.

Abena’s industry experiences exposed her to the gap of authentic West African retail products, excellently packaged in formats relatable to the American home cook standards, and complaint with the US FDA labeling regulations. This led her to start POKS Spices in the summer of 2016 to help Americans Discover FlavorFULL Goodness of the bold flavors of West Africa. Leveraging her food science expertise and using her family recipes, the spicy “holy trinity” seasonings are locally made in Texas using ingredients familiar to the American home cook, but blended to give that authentic Spicy West African flavor profile. The seasonings have been developed without any added MSG, Sugar or Preservatives, as would traditionally be blended.

We all face challenges, but looking back would you describe it as a relatively smooth road?
POKS Spices was formally launched in the summer of July 2016. In January 2017, the Extra Spicy variant won an award at the annual Zest Fest Fiery Food Challenge Competition held in Irving, TX. Just as the business, brand and products were gaining traction, Abena had to take a pause from the business in the Summer of 2017. She became pregnant and got diagnosed with debilitating Hyperemesis Gravidarum, which landed her in the hospital for a month and kept her handicapped pretty much throughout the pregnancy. During the pregnancy and even a year after the baby was born, Abena had to put the business at the back burner to adjust to the new changes in her life and to recover from the negative health impact she experienced. By the summer of 2019, the business had to be re-launched due to the loss of traction gained, not only with customers but with opportunities that could have been available. Currently, one of the major challenges has been securing grants to supplement the financial capabilities and resources of the business.

Can you tell our readers more about what you do and what you think sets you apart from others?
Abena’s full time professional role, involves leading teams with food regulatory expertise, ensuring compliance with federal regulations related to food and food products. Abena’s food science education and industry experience has been beneficial in understanding the complexities involved in bringing a CPG product from an idea stage to launch. Abena has been recognized by the Institute of Food Technologists as one of its Emerging Leaders for its 2019 cohort class, for dynamic high potential, talented and passionate food professionals.

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