Deal Flow

Will RI invest in an urban farming enterprise in South Providence?

A relish and spread made from the crop of African garden eggs offers a potential economic opportunity for a community of urban farmers, but the enterprise may be forced to find support for its expansion in Massachusetts or Connecticut because of a lack on interest here in Rhode Island

Photo by Richard Asinof

Julius Kolawole holds a jar of the relish made from garden eggs grown on urban farms in South Providence, which he hopes to be able to market commercially, with support from a USDA grant to develop a market feasibility study.

Photo courtesy of Julius Kolawole

The vegetable egg being grown on urban farms managed by the African Alliance.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 11/21/16
Julius Kolawole, working with the African Alliance, has developed new kinds of food products from the crops being grown on urban farms in South Providence that could prove to be a catalyst for sustainable economic development. The question is: will the state of Rhode Island step up to the plate and support the endeavor, or will the enterprise find its partners in Connecticut or Massachusetts?
What will it take for a minority-run commercial food enterprise in South Providence to become visible? What restaurants in Providence would be willing partner with Kolawole to market the relish as part of their menu? Is there a way for students at Johnson & Wales University to assist in the development of new products and new markets? Is there a farmer willing to make an arrangement with Kolawole to provide five acres of farmland to expand the growing acreage for the garden egg crop?
At a time when immigration and immigrants have become a hot-button topic in our divided political landscape, the success story of the African Alliance and its efforts to build a sustainable enterprise in urban farming does indeed deserve recognition about the vitality of the diversity that Rhode Island offers. More than just an economic stepping stone, the urban farmers, mostly women, have become a new kind of community endeavor that builds up the health equity within South Providence. In this week when we celebrate Thanksgiving, with the Pilgrims being the original immigrants, the crop of garden eggs is perhaps a new kind of sustainable food that can be shared as part of future festivities.

PROVIDENCE – In person, Julius Kolawole is charming, direct and serious. He chooses his words carefully.

Kolawole serves as president of the African Alliance of Rhode Island, vice president of Urban Ventures of Rhode Island, and in his day job, he works as a professor in the Mathematics department of Bristol Community College in Fall River.

Kolawole is a forceful advocate for developing a new market for what’s known as the African garden egg, a crop being grown as part of his efforts to create a sustainable agricultural enterprise in South Providence through the African Alliance.

Working with a team of diverse chefs, Kolawole has developed a tasty recipe for a nutritious relish and spread, in spicy, mild and sweet varieties, that features the garden egg, a member of the aubergine family.

The plant, a staple of African cuisine, comes in a number of different colors – pink, white, yellow, green and red – as well as numerous shapes and sizes. The demand for the crop of garden eggs being grown in South Providence keeps increasing, according to Kolawole.

On Saturday, Nov. 19, the relish was featured as part of cooking demonstration at the Pawtucket Wintertime Farmers Market, sponsored by Farm Fresh RI.

Kolawole recently received a $37,500 from the USDA to hire a consultant to do a marketing feasibility study for his relish, a matching award that will help him design the best way to scale up production and bring the relish to a larger market.

Kolawole, working with students and professors at Brown, is also exploring creating a regional market for dried okra grown by his crew of South Providence urban farmers.

He is also in discussion with a Boston company about the potential to development a ready-to-cook soup mix, using the vegetables grown as part of his farming enterprise.

In search of support in Rhode Island
Yet, as Kolawole told ConvergenceRI in a recent interview at Olga’s Cup + Saucer in Providence, he wondered why his South Providence enterprise appeared to be “invisible” in Rhode Island.

“I’m going to say this to you,” Kolawole said. “I don’t think people are seeing us, the minority community in South Providence. I don’t think so.”

For Kolawole, who has spent the last 30 years in Rhode Island, there is mixture of anger, sadness and disappointment in his voice as he talks about what he perceives as a lack of support here in Rhode Island to expand the South Providence enterprise.

“My message is that the effort in South Providence should be given some kudos,” he explained. “The crop is grown in South Providence. It is sold in Rhode Island; the [relish] is made here in Rhode Island.”

Kolawole continued: “I think it would be a good idea if there were some attention paid to what we are saying – and what we are doing. We bring a lot of know how. We think that the production of this [relish] can be a major economic opportunity.”

In his opinion, Kolawole said, it was difficult to find “one footprint” in the South Providence community that has been left behind by state economic development agency programs.

Kolawole said he had recently traveled to Hartford, Conn., and to Amherst, Mass., where he said he has been received warmly in his search for the kind of partnership that will enable the venture to succeed, to provide the additional farmland and the financial support that has been hard to find in Rhode Island.

Here then, in the ConvergenceRI interview with Julius Kolawole, who is creating nutritious, delicious food products using the African garden egg as a way to build a sustainable enterprise in South Providence, supporting a community of urban farmers.

ConvegenceRI: I heard that you were marketing a new relish. Can you tell me what the project is and how it came about?
We grow the crop here in Providence. We’ve grown quite a lot. And, we are selling it in farmer’s markets.

In the last few years, this has become a very high-demand commodity, among Africans, Latinos, Brazilians and Whites, who all like this particular crop. They eat a lot of it.

ConvergenceRI: What is the crop?
The name of the crop is the garden egg.

Last year, working with our food development committee, we ame up with the idea for a relish and a spread. When it is fresh, we make relish; when it is frozen, we run it through a processor, and we make a spread.

We have spicy, mild and sweet varieties.

ConvergenceRI: Are you ready to move to a commercial stage?
The relish has been made in a commercial kitchen, at the Harvest Kitchen in Pawtucket, which is part of Farm Fresh RI – they have been wonderful in assisting us.

A couple of weeks ago, we were lucky enough to receive some funding from the USDA to hire a consultant to do a market feasibility study for the relish. That work is going on right now.

We have also explored a location in Connecticut that can mass produce [the relish and spread].

Right now, we have been working with small quantities. With the feasibility study, we will be ready [to ramp up] for large-scale production.

ConvergenceRI: Is there a name for the product? What it is going to be called?
We are not yet given it a name. We want to brand it when we pick the name for the relish and spread.

Everyone that has tasted this, everyone, has a lot of good things to say. They love it.

This past Saturday, I was in Hartford, Conn., attending the [Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Working Group] conference. We made a presentation about this product. Everyone tasted it, and everyone had good things to say about it.

Everywhere we go, we continue to get [positive feedback].

ConvergenceRI: Have you discussed being part of the accelerator program at the Social Enterprise Greenhouse?
I’ve met with them. We’ve talked.

There is another organization, called Urban Ventures, and that agency has been working with us. I sit on the board of directors. The main thrust of Urban Ventures is support of minority businesses, to cater to minority businesses.

ConvergenceRI: With all the ongoing conversations and different kinds of entrepreneurial activity around the food industry cluster in Rhode Island, it would seem that folks in Rhode Island would be welcoming you with open arms to help you get your venture off the ground. But it seems that Connecticut, at this point, appears to be more welcoming. Is that accurate?
I would say yes.

ConvergenceRI: Have you met with Sue AnderBois, the new Rhode Island food czar?

ConvergenceRI: How did that go?
It went well. She’s very nice. I think she has a big job to do.

But I’m going to say this to you: I don’t think people are seeing us in the minority community. I don’t think so.

My message out of that effort is that South Providence should be given some kudos. The crop is grown in South Providence. It is sold in Rhode Island. The [relish] is being made in Rhode Island.

I think it would be a good idea if there were some attention paid to what we are saying and what we are doing. We bring a lot of know how.

ConvergenceRI: Why do you think you are invisible, if that’s the right word? Is this like Ralph Ellison’s invisible man? I don’t want to put words in your mouth.
Frankly, that’s what it looks like to us. We think that this [relish] can be a major economic opportunity. I think South Providence needs to be commended for our hard work.

I did reach out to AnderBois, I did reach out to Ken Ayres, I did reach out to Janet Coit [at R.I. DEM].

ConvergenceRI: What would it take as a solution to this to locate this enterprise and grow it in Rhode Island? Do you need additional land to expand the amount of crops that are grown?
I would say yes.

ConvergenceRI: How much do you need?
I think five acres of land would be plenty for us [to expand].

The urban farmers are 14 women, and I have another 12 who also provide support.

ConvergenceRI: Are there other culinary products that could expand the enterprise, beyond relish and spread?
We have to get to the restaurants. We are working with three chefs, they are part of this collaboration. They developed a recipe last summer, where the vegetable egg is thinly sliced to add to a pizza. It’s a little [chewy], compared to pepperoni, but if it were to be sliced thin enough, it would work very well.

In other product development, working with Brown University students and professors, we’ve taken okra we have grown and dried it, and then made it into little packages.

The okra is fresh; we run it through a drying process, and then turn it into a powder. This is another tremendous opportunity.

ConvergenceRI: In addition to the five acres, what else do you think you need?
We are still working on all of this, what do we need, and when do we need it. We are not beginning to look at the pieces, the activities, within a larger view, a bigger umbrella.

The USDA has been a tremendous asset; more than the money for the feasibility study, they are willing to hold our hands and say, here is how you can do it, here is how you can move forward.

The state of Rhode Island can be very helpful, if they choose to do so.

My determination is that the project is going to move forward.


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