It's a First: Sweet Potato Pasta Hits The Market!
Foodie News...Thursday, December 03, 2020
Onel Williams is a food innovator, entrepreneur and marketer who grew up in Kingston, Jamaica and owns and operates Kingston-based food services company Essential Goods and Services Trading Limited. What Thursday Food is delighted to share, however, is that in September Williams launched Nella's Tendaronis under his Nella's Foods Ja brand, making him the first person to bring to market sweet potato pasta the world over.
A graduate of the University of Technology Kingston (UTech), he actually ended up in the computer science faculty as the faculty of business administration (his first choice) was oversubscribed.
A few jobs followed, in addition to the development of a voracious appetite for self-help and business books. The goal was to see if he could combine his professional and personal experiences to create a profit-making venture. Since July 2014 he has started three food-distribution ventures, with Essential Goods and Services Trading Limited being a consolidation of all three.
The idea for Nella's Tendaronis came from his work in buying, selling and promoting gluten-free sweet potato, cassava and breadfruit flours for another local brand. During that time he realised how uninformed consumers were about the uses of these gluten-free flours. So he started to conduct his research. He realised that what was missing was the availability of super value-added products made from these indigenious and versatile food ingredients. So he delved deeper by analysing the food aisles to see what products could be reimagined and improved.
It wasn't until August 2017 that Williams started work on bringing to market his novel idea of sweet potato and breadfruit pasta. But of course, like any new product there were challenges, both from within himself and navigating the harsh realities of the market.
A major hurdle was to first accept that he could do it! And that he was capable of interacting with the prominent business leaders who had assisted him along the way. It's one thing to interact with them on the level of a trader/food distributor but it's quite another to be in the game as a food innovator/manufacturer. The conversations are different at this level.
Additional challenges included securing and funding the supply chain partnership; negotiating production and packaging; convincing the retail stores to take a chance on this new product and of course, sourcing the requisite human and financial capital.
Thankfully, through the JBDC Incubator Programme he was able to find workable solutions, though there were still major setbacks along the way. For instance, his first commitment for funding fell through and caused the delay of the product coming to market. The intended launch date was meant to be August 2019, but with the absence of those funds, it simply was not possible. It would take another six months before another opportunity for funding presented itself, but unfortunately, that too did not materialise.
His breakthrough came in March 2020. Right before the novel coronavirus hit Jamaica! Fast-forward to September 2020 and Nella's Sweet Potato Tendaronis is now a reality. His choice of sweet potato was the result of market research. “l was [as previously stated] already selling and distributing gluten-free flours for another local brand and found consumers were stumped [as to] how to use them. Plus, I was doing the rounds one day at Select Grocers Manor Park and saw the chairman, Derrick Cottrell, in the aisles. Cottrell is an entrepreneur that I have long admired... On a whim, I approached him and proceeded to inform him of the products I sold,”he shared with Thursday Food.
It wasn't until Williams mentioned his plans to make pastas that he truly got Cottrell's attention. He said “If you ever get them produced I would personally sell them in my stores!” This was the necessary jolt he required and, too, confirmation that he was on to something!
Indeed, the feedback from customers since the product launched just over six weeks ago has been extremely positive and Williams is already planning other innovations like breadfruit pasta, pita breads and a snack line for kids. These are tentatively planned for the second quarter of 2021.
On the horizon, too, is gluten-free. Williams is quick to inform, however, that from a technical standpoint, a product cannot be promoted as truly gluten-free if it is not manufactured in a gluten-free environment or facility, and at this stage now there are no such dedicated manufacturing facilities in Jamaica, unless they were retrofitted or expanded to do so. He is exploring this possibility for himself in the near future. It's something that hits close to home.
“I started to learn about the benefits of a gluten-free or reduced-gluten diet lifestyle and how it may be useful in treating and sometimes curing health and skin issues such as eczema. My son suffers with eczema and is limited to food options that will not trigger his condition... I was always at odds about finding foods that were not boring or bland for him to enjoy while living with this condition. Here started my curiosity about what if we could rethink food and recreate some of our favourite foods and meals into a healthier version.”
Fun Fact: Nella is a combination of Onel and the daughter he wanted to have. His daughter would have been called Nella, a play on his name Onel. He got a son instead! Not wanting to 'waste' the name, he used it for the product instead.
The product's target customers are female family homemakers 25 - 65 who are conscious about healthier, local-based food options for their family, as well as health-conscious individuals who are aware of the benefits of a plant rich-based dietary lifestyle.
Nella's Sweet Potato Tendaronis are available at Loshusan Barbican, Progressive Grocers, Hi-Lo, Shopper's Fair, MegaMart, Lee's Food Fair. More details on additional stores can be found on Nella's website ( www.nellastendaronis.com) and IG page ( @nellasfoodsja) or firstname.lastname@example.org
Williams has a few suggestions on how to improve food manufacturing for small businesses. “A wider network of research and development incubators dedicated to assisting in creating value-added food options is required... The Government has to come to the realisation that the business of food and agriculture is no longer restricted or based on a 'from ground to table' model but one that has evolved, which is inclusive of using data and technology to predict demand and use of products.
The Government also has to be open to suggestions on how to move quicker to respond to demands from the world for our products. This is inclusive of providing industry-wide support from an admin level for areas of international certification and export. As it operates now it is not cohesive but more preferential and that is not a good thing for growing an important industry.”
Much food for thought!