“The Irish palate is changing”, says Michael Onalimi, owner and director of The Jungle Food Company, as he presents Flavour Safari, his innovative range of African inspired sauces, “Ireland’s first”, he points out. “People demand new flavours, they’ve travelled around the world and tried new foods and now they want those things here.”
Michael, who is based in Laois, had always wanted to start his own business, a dream that started to become a reality three years ago when he joined UCD’s Innovation Academy. After leaving Nigeria sixteen years ago, he worked for well known Irish and British banks during five years and then worked in sales of consumer goods for nearly a decade, which gave him a deep understating of the retail business.
It’s amazing how every life skill you have developed over the years can suddenly be so relevant when you start your own business
“African Food is a thing of beauty and something close to my heart”, Michael says, as he recalls his mother’s food store in Lagos -the city where he grew up and the largest in the West African country- and the dishes and ingredients he discovered at a young age such as yams, cassava, plantains, coconut, chillies, lemongrass, bitter leaf, uziza… Many which, by the way, are becoming more and more common on Irish menus.
From an early age played with spices and to create something from nothing. “My aim is to introduce Ireland to the richness of African culture and in doing so, inspire others to share their heritage and use their love of food to awaken the foodie passion within all of us.”
You can appreciate that mission when looking at the products: in every detail, Michael has worked to incorporate both Irish trends and African symbols into the branding for an appealing fusion. “My logo is one of the most important aspects of my Brand”, he says when describing an stylish Marula tree, one of Africa’s botanical treasures, which “with its delicately flavoured, copious amounts of fruit, and source of shade from the intense African sun, brings people together, which is exactly what Flavour Safari aims to achieve.”
Now he creates four different sauces out of a combination of high quality Irish ingredients and different blends of African spices. Spicy Tomato, Spicy Olive, Mild Tomato & Herb and the most recent addition to the range, Pesto. The base of the sauces is Irish rapeseed oil, “which is rich in Omega 3, 6 and 9, has less than half the saturated fats that olive oil has and a higher smoke point”, mushrooms, spinach and other fresh vegetables used in the range are also Irish.
The spice mix of each sauce is “an African blend” of almost twenty different leaves, roots, seeds and peppercorns, which adds to a delicious, deep and complex flavour. His idea was welcomed in SuperValu’s Food Academy in 2014 and since day one he promised to “come up with something really different” to put on their shelves. He’s currently present in selected stores across Dublin, Laois, Offaly and Kildare.
“The Food Academy is the perfect platform to be able to launch yourself into the Irish market, you’re with Ireland’s major food retailer and you get to be seen by lots of people and network with lots of entrepreneurs.”
The Right Type of Spicy
Michael emphasises that his sauces have a “controlled spiciness, where you get flavour before heat”. From his experience, people prefer a tolerable level of spiciness that offers an explosion of flavours instead of a palate burn and even his two spicy sauces are mild enough to enjoy, even if you’re not used to strong seasonings.
They’re also very versatile and Michael can easily list a dozen serving suggestions: with rice, spaghetti bolognese, lasagna, nachos, panini, fish seasoning, marinade, pizza topping, shepherd’s pie, BBQ, cheeseboard accompaniment, relish for wraps. We tried them hot with pasta and rice and at room temperature with nachos and crackers and they adapted very well to these serving tips.
For an African style treat, Michael suggests to bake yams and when they’re cooked, pour the sauce and let it in the heat for a few more minutes until it’s hot. Another delicious idea is to serve them with baked plantains. For this, wrap them (unpeeled) in aluminium foil and bake until they’re soft, then peel, open (like a hot dog bun) and while it’s hot add cheese and top with the sauce.
I believe that Food can break down all barriers and cross all boundaries and that no matter where you are, it can always make you feel that little bit closer to home!
Start up, do it!
Michael’s advise for those who dream of starting up as to just go for it. “Some people are afraid to make mistakes, I made a couple myself, but they’re a learning curve”, he says. It is also important to offer something original, as retailers want to support people that bring new and creative products.
He currently has the help of one staff member and is eager to take two more staff on board in the near future. Michael points out that he wishes to create jobs in Laois and that he’s currently doing the cooking and the commercial part, which is hard work, but both of his passions.
“Sales and cooking are the two things I love”, he says, and although he admits it’s hard work, it is worth the effort. “I have lots of ideas for the future, lots of fusions. I want to teach people to eat African food and to introduce new things in the market.”
He points out that the biggest challenge for a start up is funding but acknowledges that he’s been fortunate as he applied for Enterprise Ireland’s Innovation Voucher which was approved. “It helped me to get my nutritional information done and product testing, since it is labeles gluten free and vegetarian friendly.” He also thanks the Local Enterprise Office in Laoise for their support.
He mentions that he’ll be one of only two entrepreneurs from Laois at the Enterprise Village in Tullamore, Co Offaly during the National Ploughing Championships from Sept 20th – 22nd 2016 and that the opportunity will allow him to formally introduce his range at a national event.
Gabriela’s passion for writing is only matched by her love for food and wine. Journalist, confectioner and sommelier, she fell in love with Ireland years ago and moved from Venezuela to Dublin in 2014.
Since then, she has written about and worked in the local food scene, and she’s determined to discover and share the different traditions, flavours and places that have led Irish food and drink to fascinate her.