Toyin Kolawole put her love of Nigeria into the success of Iya Foods

January 24, 2024 | By Justin Kirkland, copywriter

When Toyin Kolawole, founder and CEO of Iya Foods, is at her best, you can find her bustling around the 40,000-square-foot production facility that manufactures products made from cassava, a root vegetable that can serve as a key substitute for grain-heavy ingredients. Among the machinery and factory employees, she’s the one with the thick-rimmed glasses and infectious grin. You might smile, too, if you were Kolawole; creating a thriving small business, born from her Nigerian roots, has been her dream since childhood.

Since its founding in 2015, Iya Foods has grown out of its initial facility, a fraction of its current size and into its role as a thriving producer of wheat-alternative baking supplies. Producing a staggering 6 million pounds of snacks and 20 million pounds of dry baking blends a year, Iya Foods has blossomed into a multimillion-dollar company whose products can be found across the country and on the Amazon store. But Iya Foods is, first and foremost, a love letter to Kolawole’s mother and their Nigerian culture. To tell the success story of Iya Foods, you have to start a few years back.

Nigeria is the world’s largest cassava producer, accounting for over one-fifth of the global cassava supply,1 but it’s also the country Kolawole hails from. The second child and first daughter of her family, Kolawole left Nigeria to come to the U.S. in 2003 to pursue an MBA in entrepreneurship and innovation from Northwestern University. Inspired by her mother’s string of businesses and side hustles, Kolawole has always had an interest in business, leading her to get her advanced degree and then dive into the world of entrepreneurship herself. Kolawole remembers her mom being a source of inspiration. “My mom had a lot of … I’ll call them small businesses, but really they were hustles, right?” she says with a smile. “They were home businesses just to make ends meet. I would support her a lot. That was my informal entrepreneurial background.”

As a mother of two U.S.-born children, Kolawole felt an imperative to make sure her kids had pieces of the world she grew up around. While Kolawole put together her plan for Iya Foods, she kept returning to her Nigerian roots. Cassava seemed like a natural place to start. Not only is it a staple of her home country, but its hearty growing patterns meant her key ingredient for grain-free products would be more stable than a lot of other crops, despite the ongoing issues that farmers face. And the potential for cassava-based products—ranging from gluten-free pancake and brownie mixes to powders and flours—spoke to a moment when people are being more conscious of the types of foods they consume.

“You can take away everything … you can’t take away food,” she says. “People must eat or people die, so I’m one of those entrepreneurs that really thinks seriously about alternative ingredients that are sustainable and scalable.” Beyond those technical specs, Kolawole is entrenched in the culture of food. Cassava isn’t just some kind of miracle root that can be ground up to help ease the cooking woes of gluten-free consumers; it’s a key export from Africa, whose narrative in global cuisine is too often overlooked.

That brings us to the farmers, who remain at the heart of the company’s ethos. “It’s no secret that Africa has been used to build a lot of Western economies,” she says. “I was determined to do what I could to make sure that whatever prosperity is being created through cassava is shared.” Iya Foods works with over 10,000 Nigerian farmers, and she ensures that they’re paid fairly and that they are aware of how their products are being used. It always goes back to the cassava, which is inseparable from the people of Nigeria.

As the business started, the workforce in the U.S. was a party of one. Kolawole remembers offloading an entire truck by herself. Like so many other small businesses, Kolawole had to wear the hat of facility manager, financial analyst, and, of course, marketer. Getting product in front of retailers was difficult, and even when they were interested, she remembers a six-to-eight-month lag time from the time they signed on to the point when products actually appeared on shelves.

After a series of product launches, Iya Foods looked into spices and baking mixes, which could be packaged in a way that they could be sold online. That led Iya Foods to Amazon. Kolawole saw the shift to Amazon in 2016 as an opportunity to directly pitch to customers, as well as a place where she could size up competitors to Iya Foods’ slate of products. And it was the selling on the Amazon store that helped prove the purchasing power to grocery stores.

When it comes to advertising on Amazon, Kolawole has seen the ability to advertise through Amazon Ads as a foundational step in Iya Foods’ expansion, creating more buzz for the product and, in turn, making it more alluring to sell in brick-and-mortar stores. She likens the tech-enabled solutions to be a level playing field for sellers. “We used Amazon sponsored ads a lot. That is the No. 1 way to get the attention of the customers that you want to try your product for the first time,” she says. “We consistently use Amazon Ads to get in front of customers because it’s a very, very competitive space.”

With experimentation and the right combination of keywords, Iya Foods found a sweet spot for their advertising strategy with the help of Amazon Ads. The positive impact of the ads has led to expansion on Amazon and other websites, whether that’s in the form of celebrity shout-outs online or being able to establish a stronger presence in retail stores, just from the recognizability. “Amazon is where we got our first million dollars as a business,” she says. “And everybody knows how hard that is.”

As for what the future holds for Iya Foods, the goal isn’t too far off from the company’s original intent. If Nigeria has the bulk of cassava production, Iya Foods wants to account for a large part of the free market share of businesses using cassava as a driver. But more than that, Kolawole wants to honor the tradition and culture of cassava and the country it hails from. As a Nigerian American, she is constantly thinking about identity and the power of the business she’s created—how she inspires Black Americans and women and small-business CEOs. But when all of those layers are pulled back, there’s one common thread: the food. And by Kolawole’s estimation, food is love.

“Food reminds people of their shared humanity. I believe it’s impossible to not connect with someone when you share a meal,” she says. “Where you share food, you share love.”