WOMEN OF THE IRISH FOOD INDUSTRY – EDIZEMI ONILENLA, CEO
If you shop in SuperValu you might have come across a brand of African snacks made in Ireland called Mama Shee. But do you know about Edizemi Onilenla, the woman behind the brand?
I asked Edizemi Onilenla to tell me about herself. I knew very little about herself. She is Mama Shee, that much I knew. She fed our front line HSE workers during the pandemic. I keep an eye out on her snacks in my local Supervalu (Churchtown) as it is one of the very few places where you can find her products. Those are the things I know about Edizemi.
If like me, you want to try an authentic taste of Africa, you can find Mama Shee products at Supervalu in Deansgrange, Lucan, Rathgar, Heuston South Quarter, and Churchtown. You will find Edizemi Onilenla on Twitter and Facebook, so why not give her a follow and say hello.
The one thing that strikes me from this interview with Edizemi is her perception that there are not many Irish women in the food industry. It reinforces, what I’m trying to achieve with this series of blog posts. If you can’t see her, you can’t be her. It is vital to shout about the great women that feed us. It also, tells me, that maybe, us women of the Irish food industry, haven’t really been as inclusive as we should be. We need to make an effort and reach out to all the women of the Irish food industry, not just the Irish ones. I know that if you make your space, you are welcome and taken in, but carving that space can be intimidating.
In her own words, Edizemi Onilenla a.k.a. Mama Shee is originally from Nigeria and she is a professionally qualified social worker, a wife, a mother, and an entrepreneur. She grew up in Nigeria not knowing her father as he died when she was only 3 years old. Her mother brought her and her brother up. Edizemi Onilenla describes her mother as a pillar of strength, a disciplinarian per excellence, an entrepreneur, and a great of support to them. She ensured that they had everything, including education.
In 2000, just when she thought her life was starting in earnest after having gotten married and given birth to two lovely boys, Edizemi’s mother suddenly passed away. She suddenly had to grieve, be a mother, and look after her younger siblings and overwhelmed, she decided that starting a new life outside Nigeria would be better for her and her family.
She came to Ireland in 2002, a lifetime ago. She found herself alone in a strange land with no understanding of how the system worked but she was determined to learn and make her life better. Her mother had always been a great cook. Edizemi Onilenla honestly can’t remember her formally tutoring her about cooking but being the first girl in the house, she was always the first person to be called to help. Her mother cooked with precision and loved her guest to enjoy her sumptuous meals. Edizemi was always around to see all the drama in the kitchen and at the dinner table.
Edizemi explains that she learnt quality and style from her mam, this incredible woman who stood tall in a man’s world doing jobs meant only for men. Her mother did everything with passion. When she looks back today, Edizemi she now understands when people say we are role models to our children, research also proves it, children copy what they see from the adults around them. In those days, there were always guests at their home and there was a particular stew my mother made when she was about 13 years old and to this day she says she can still feel the freshness of that stew.
Despite this passion for good food, Edizemi Onilenla says that she never thought of going into the food industry or look at food as a viable business and that she just loved to cook good food and make her family, friends, colleagues and guests happy!
I’m talking to women in the Irish food industry. How did your career path bring you here?
My journey, in a nutshell, can be best understood in the words of this unknown writer “the road I have travelled has not been an easy one and the path was often full of stones, but I am still here. I know the only reason I was able to make it this far is that God was walking the road with me every step of the way.”
The journey was rough, it was tough, the cultural shocks, settling down in Ireland, and looking after 3 young children as a single parent was tough but God saw me through it all.
My first assignment was to understand how to integrate into the new system and the most challenging was knowing where to start. I started anyway, the first step was doing one FETAC level 5 here and there, I started working as soon as I got my residency (the wait was very long and uncertain). But when I eventually got it, I felt liberated and couldn’t wait to start working. I got involved in voluntary work, community work, and brought a feel of African culture to my community through drama and cultural awareness presentations in some primary schools in Newbridge.
As a young girl growing up my dream was to become a Counsellor or a Doctor of letters so that I can be addressed as “Dr Mrs somebody.” .Very ambitious indeed and for some weird reasons I always knew I was going to live abroad, not sure why but maybe because I had an Aunt that lived in America. I love meeting people and making an impact on their lives, so I was not surprised that I ended up studying Guidance & Counselling back in Nigeria.
My entrepreneurship spirit began in College, I loved buying and selling stuff and was always selling something, from fabrics to shoes, name it, I sold it. I love fashion, I love to look good and I love to make a fashion statement without any apology.
Here in Ireland, I worked in various capacities starting as a healthcare worker, I worked in different hospitals and nursing homes and residential settings. I decided to upskill in 2007 so I went on to study Social Work at University College Dublin. In 2010, I completed my Social Work programme, became a professionally qualified Social Worker and by the grace of God I was happy to have secured a permanent job almost immediately as a Child Protection Social Worker with the HSE and later transferred to the Child and Family Agency (Tusla) in 2014 when the Agency was created. I work 3 days a week currently at the TUSLA Crisis Intervention Service which is a 24 hours 7 days a week emergency service. Our main role is to keep children who are at risk safe at night, we work in collaboration with the Gardai, hospitals, and other Agencies that deals with vulnerable children and their families.
S0 you may wonder, why food?
My passion for cooking has all the while endured, so once in a while, I cooked for my colleagues, sometimes provided lunch for my team. When my friends are celebrating their special occasions I cook for them and most importantly they always express love for my spices. Then I observed that there are no African delicacies in the stores, I do see different Chinese spices and foods, I see Indian cuisine and so many more but nothing African on the shelves of Irish stores, and it became a personal challenge because I knew we have healthy food, good spices, and delicacies that are unknown to the Irish community because no one is promoting them. I, therefore, took up the challenge to blaze the trail by introducing and promoting African cuisines and spices to the Irish food community with the sole aim of blending them with the Irish cuisine and enriching the Irish food culture. This was my driving force, the motivation that propelled me to start my food business. “Mama Shee the pride of African cuisine.”
Starting was tough as this was a new area for me and my products are all new products. My first task was to determine my market, the consumers, and how to reach them, from primary research and asking questions, I started with the Irish markets in order to create market awareness. I also came on board the Food Academy Programme, a project ran SuperValu through the LEO. I can’t overemphasise the benefit of the programme, which is designed to help local producers with good business innovations to launch out at their own pace. At my presentation, they were not as enthusiastic as I was because they have had experiences of many types of beef jerky in the market which have not done well but I was hopeful and all I needed was just one store to prove the viability of my product. So I was very delighted when they said they will try with one store. I started in September 2019 at Deansgrange SuperValu, great people there, very welcoming and supportive, I was confident and passionate to let the customers know that this is a healthy dried beef snack, which is high in protein. I went for an in-store tasting which is very good way to get customers feedback. This product became a success in that store and today I have 6 more stores and going further as soon as I have my kitchen all sorted.
How does your career fulfill you?
I must say I am one of the lucky few. I do jobs that interest me and challenge me to do more. The desire to bring the taste of Africa to the Irish and European food culture is a dream that I passionately worked hard at, to translate into a reality. The two products that I launched in September 2019 are African and highly sought after snacks, especially by the Nigerian diaspora. Kilishi is a Beef Jerky and the second product is an oven grilled beef called Suya. Kilishi was a project that I started from scratch and it took me years to perfect and arrive at the quality that I have on the market today because I wanted it to look and taste exactly as it would taste at home in Nigeria. Achieving that goal was a fulfillment for me, great satisfaction and I work on making it better every day.
Kilishi and Suya have their roots in Northern Nigeria where they are very popular snacks. I grew up in this part of the country. During the course of my research I discovered that there are many types of beef jerky in Ireland but none tasted or can be compared to Kilishi. These products are new in Ireland both in ingredients, and processing. Both products are high in protein with natural ingredients and with no preservatives or additives, they are simply exotic and their tastes can be addictive.
Does my career fulfill me? As a social worker I love what I do though challenging and can be emotionally and physically draining but with my current role it is less stressful as we deal only with crisis as they happen at each shift. My work is flexible in that I am in 3 nights a week, I have time to fulfill my dream of promoting African food on the Irish shelves, I feel fulfilled to the extent of my accomplishments so far but not completely yet. I still have a long way to go in creating the awareness and in building the business so that one day I can say goodbye graciously to Social Work even though it is fulfilling on its own.
What are your professional ambitions? What’s next for Mama Shee?
I am working on vegetarian options of ready meals. It is my desire that Mansions Foods aside infusing new tastes into the existing exotic Irish food culture grow into a big business; big enough to create job opportunities for people who are interested and passionate about food and other noble ideas and are ready to make an impact with their innovations. I also desire that one day, I will make contributions towards the cause of the homeless through a foundation “Each One Feed One”. This is an area I am interested in, to contribute my quota to social emancipation and social security. I also plan to one day write a book that will extol my experience as an immigrant who worked through the Irish Markets. The markets are great fun.
It was a pleasure to have supported our frontlines workers during this pandemic by providing food from my resources for over 10 weeks to staff of James’s Hospital and the Tymon Community Nursing home. This, I did with so much joy and honour and fulfillment.
In your opinion what challenges do women face in the food industry in Ireland?
I think women need to desire more, women need to challenge themselves more, not overwork NO!!! But believe more in what they can do, believe more in their abilities, go for it, and see how far they can go. I believe that God has given us such great capacities, women are builders so if you believe in yourself you will achieve a lot. The general problem from my viewpoint is that women tend to be contented with very little when they have the capacity to do more. Women need to believe in themselves if you have a good product and it is selling why not go global? Why not push it out more? I also observed that there are more men in the food industry than women or are the women more silent that the men?
Women tend to move towards the fashion industry, I don’t see many women in the food business I think we need to change and challenge ourselves that we can do as much as the men in the food business. Some women can easily give up in the face of challenges but if you have a vision and your goals are clear the resources may be huge but with a strong will you will stand firmly tall and be ready to face the challenges as they come, just believe in yourself. My journey has not been very smooth either but success comes when you don’t give up. Remember “Winners don’t quit and Quitters don’t win.”
Tell us of one woman in the Irish industry who consistently inspire you and why ?
So many women are doing great things in different industries and professional capacities, however in the food industry, I will say that Mama Nagi is one woman who I admire and can feel her zeal in a crowded industry and still surging ahead with a strong determination to succeed. She fascinates me and also Debbie Crowley of Funky Monkey Foods whose success story I had the privilege to hear. I find her story very inspiring and I see in her an example of one who believes in herself and despite the challenges, she is resolute and succeeding. You must have a force, something must move you, and you must intentionally decide to succeed. Show me a woman who is passionate about something and I will show you an achiever.
What do you think can be done to help raise the profile and visibility of women in the food industry in Ireland
We need more women in that industry. We need the support of the media to push women out there who are doing great work. Women need to be encouraged to see themselves as being able to successfully lead a food chain and grow better at it. Just like what you are doing getting to know more women and encouraging them to share their stories which can help others.
Look at me, an African with a desire to promote African cuisine, I can’t do it alone if I don’t have the support of the media and people like you, I am proud to say we do have good food and healthy ones as well. I have learnt to blend the two cultures so that the food can be acceptable, I have built customers that says when they eat the food it feels so good. We just need to promote women more.
What was the proudest moment of your career so far?
The day I saw my product on the shelf of an Irish store was the highlight for me. I had tears in my eyes. I looked back and I am like, “yea this is a dream come true”.
I am still building on this, my goal is to go global in the business as my products have global potentials. The beef snacks are one of the best treats that we have in Nigeria and it is beloved by Africans in the diaspora.
I have built a network of Irish customers who believe the products are unreal, it is fascinating because it is very different from what is obtainable in the market. I am about to launch my ready meals products these also are new, I look forward to that day. We are launching them in SuperValu very soon. When a customer gives positive feedback that tells me I am doing something right. I want to make it better and accessible to everyone, these products are going beyond Ireland and I will get there by the grace of God.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Be the best you can at all times if you have a goal, pursue it with all doggedness. There will always be challenges along your way but nothing is insurmountable at the end you win, so do remember that in the valley, see nothing but victory if you fail while trying, keep trying, you will succeed one day.
Have a good knowledge of anything you wish to do and don’t underestimate your capacity, once there is a will there will always be a way. Don’t be contented with little especially when you can do more. Above all take a good rest and eat well at all times. Life is but only one, live it well, live it right, and enjoy it to the fullest.
What are the top skills required to do your job and why
For me, cooking was just a natural thing but I needed to develop the skills that would allow me to create a good food business in Ireland so it took me to learn how to blend the two cultures in terms of presentation and acceptance, communication skills are essential to get your products across, marketing skills, organising, knowing all the legal requirements and doing it right. People must trust you that you can deliver, so consistency is another skill you must learn.
What’s an underestimated spice?
A good spice that has multipurpose health benefit for me will be an underestimated spice. Ginger and garlic are one of the many. Put these two in any of your meals and you will get a different taste and different feel. I take a drink of ginger, garlic, lime, lemon and mint every morning in hot water drop a small amount of honey and you get a perfect taste. A little secret out there for free !!!