British Columbia

Vancouver African food company pays Mali women directly for their crops

A Vancouver company is bringing African farm food to grocery store shelves, while aiming to improve the lives of female farmers and their families in Mali, West Africa. 

On the Coast food columnist Gail Johnson talks to foods company Farafena

Vancouver company Farafena is bringing a variety of African superfoods to grocery-store shelves. (Farafena Facebook)

A Vancouver company is bringing high-nutrient African farm foods to grocery store shelves, while aiming to improve the lives of female farmers and their families in Mali, West Africa. 

Food company Farafena works with about 1,000 women from nine different villages in Mali, paying them directly for the crops they grow.

As a result, the African women have been able to start micro-businesses, build homes for their families and educate their children. 


Farafena co-founder Oumar Barou Togola was born in Bamako, the capital of Mali. His father worked as a hydrologist for the United Nations, travelling the world to show people how to get clean water. His mother was a midwife.

Barou Togola moved to B.C. in 2000 to finish high school on Vancouver Island, and eventually worked at a financial firm. But he felt he wasn't contributing to the world, said Gail Johnson, food columnist for On the Coast.

Farafena founder Oumar Barou Togola at his office. (Gail Johnson )

While trying to figure out his next career move, Barou Togola remembered when he was young seeing a line of women waiting outside his home in Bamako. They were waiting so his mother could deliver their babies, which she did for free.

"Both of his parents have always been focused on helping communities, women in particular," said Johnson.

Barou Togola wanted to do the same.

And he wanted to introduce African foods to Canada by working with people who are already growing the crops, rather than producing them himself. 

Farafena collaborates with around 1,000 women from nine villages to grow, harvest, and market sustainable and nutritious food. (Farafena Facebook)

Agriculture is one of biggest resources in Africa, and Barou Togola told Johnson the farming is mainly done by women.

The food

Farafena sells fonio grain and flour. Johnson says it's often called the next quinoa, is gluten-free, and contains amino acids, which are vital for metabolic function.

"It has a nutty flavour. You could use it in a tabbouleh salad or as a replacement for rice," said Johnson. 

Farafena moringa pesto pasta. (Farafena Facebook)

Farafena also sells moringa leaf powder. The taste and look is similar to matcha—slightly bitter and sweet. Moringa leaf powder is high in iron and also contains fibre.

"You could add it to smoothies, salad dressings or sauces. Some people add it to pasta instead of pesto," said Johnson.

Then there is baobab fruit powder, which is high in vitamin C and also contains calcium, fibre and protein.

"Some people describe its taste as that of a sour mango. It goes really well in smoothies or it can be added to oatmeal or yogurt," Johnson said. 

One heaping tablespoon of Farafena’s baobab fruit powder has roughly the same amount of vitamin C as an orange. It's perfect for smoothies. (Farafena Facebook)

Farafena recently expanded across Canada and its products are in 600 grocery stores.

Listen to the full food column here:

With files by On the Coast and Gail Johnson.