Joy, love and the Grand River: How gourmet Nigerian chocolate made it to Hagersville
'I wanted to send a message that's just more than chocolate,' says Shola Ekperigin
Nigerian-born chocolate maker Shola Ekperigin isn't just passionate about hand crafting quality chocolate, he also wants to spread joy, peace and love.
"I wanted to send a message that's just more than chocolate," he says. "I try to incorporate multiculturalism into my chocolate."
Every chocolate bar Ekperigin makes at his shop, My Sweet Sweet World, located in Hagersville, Ont., is imprinted with a continental map. And each of the 10 flavours he offers is packaged with its own theme like joy, peace, love or laughter in a variety of African, European and Indigenous languages.
That includes four of the Six Nations languages — which Ekperigin says customers have helped him to translate — to acknowledge that Hagersville is on Haldimand Treaty territory. He also hopes to include Seneca and Tuscarora as he makes more flavours.
"I've always been fascinated by multiculturalism and I think it embodies what I am. It embodies what Canada is," he says.
When he moved to Canada on a student visa at the age of 17, Ekperigin says his first group of friends were from all over the world.
"I really loved learning about new cultures, new people and what was really interesting was not just seeing our differences but just how similar we were."
Throwing out the rule book
Along with the multicultural themes, Ekperigin says his chocolate is different as he's a self-taught chocolate maker who "threw out the rule book" and learned through trial and error.
"My inspiration was, I wasn't satisfied with what we had out there," he says. "You either had candy that was filled with preservatives, sugar, things that were just not good for you, or you had chocolates that were just unaffordable or unattainable."
Stepping into My Sweet Sweet World off Main Street, the sweet smells of chocolate, nuts and fruit fill the air. In the back, Ekperigin can be found amid whirring machines of liquid chocolate, which he carefully pours into molds.
The artisanal chocolate shop isn't something you'd expect to find in a town with a population under 3,000 people, but Ekperigin likes it that way.
"It's a small space but it's an amazing local enterprise," says the 33-year-old shop owner. "I love to run it the way it is. I want to keep high-quality artisanal chocolate cheap and affordable."
At the family owned and operated shop, Ekperigin does everything from roasting and winnowing the cocoa beans, or removing the outer shells, to tempering the chocolate. He says his secret is grinding the beans for at least 72 hours to avoid having to use additives like sunflower oil.
"I just prefer to grind the heck out of it until it's silky smooth," he says with a laugh. "It does take a long process but it's worth it."
Ekperigin is also proud that he uses cocoa beans from Nigeria, where he was born and raised and where his parents still live. His father buys the beans from farmers in Edo State — Ekperigin's mother's home state — and sends them north. Ekperigin says he's the only Canadian chocolate maker he knows that's importing cocoa beans from Nigeria.
"Bringing in this new flavour variety, bringing in beans that come from my mom's home village … I have that passion working with the beans," he says.
'This is where I want to be'
Ekperigin has lived in Toronto, Markham and Brampton, but he says after the birth of their third child, he and his wife wanted a quieter lifestyle where they could get to know their neighbours. That's when they visited Haldimand County.
"The moment we drove and we saw the Grand River I said 'this is where I want to be,'" he says.
While Ekperigin knows it was risky opening a niche shop in a small town he says they've been doing well thanks to the support of people in Haldimand. My Sweet World recently celebrated its first year and was even awarded two reader's choice awards.
"I've just been blown away with the amount of support," he says. "We survive and we continue to grow because of the continuous love and support from this small town community."