Ghanaian entrepreneur connects with West African customers through food: Andrew Coppolino
For the past year or so, Eddie Ameh has used a popular African tuber to grow his food retail business calling himself “The Yam Seller”.
“The name is my claim to fame,” Ameh said.
“I let the Ghanaian community know that I was going to Toronto to buy yams, and I was very surprised at the response. After picking up three boxes of yams, here I am with a 3,600 square foot store. “
Located on Victoria Street N. in Kitchener, The Yam Seller Africa Superstore opened in May 2021.
The store is a former hairdressing school and sells African and Caribbean foods such as halal meats and specially prepared goats which Ameh says are favorites in some parts of Africa.
There’s also smoked fish like barracuda and Pepper Soup Spice Seasoning which is a blend of ginger, thyme and rosemary, according to Ameh.
“We also have ripe plantains,” he said. “Africans love ripe plantains.”
A large box of red chillies awaits customers at the end of an aisle that carries spices, lentils, sauces and condiments.
As for the yams, they’re not the sweet potato-like versions found in Waterloo Region grocery chains.
Related to lilies and grasses, and native to Africa and Asia, there are dozens of varieties of yams. Their size can vary from a small potato to those weighing 50 kilograms.
Yams are more starchy, drier and tougher than potatoes – and versatile.
Ameh says that depending on their intended use, yams can be prepared in a number of ways, like a potato: they can be thinly sliced and fried for chips or cubed and boiled for soups or for mashing.
Nigeria Independence Day
Ameh is of Ghanaian origin, but he serves many Nigerian customers in the store.
“I worked briefly, a few months, at an African store in Virginia,” he said. “But that’s all.”
On October 1, he helped these clients celebrate Nigeria’s Independence Day, which was first recognized in 1960.
“It was a way of appreciating those customers,” Ameh said. “It’s not just taking their money from the store. It’s also giving back some of what they gave me. It’s a reason to celebrate with them.”
For the event, Ameh enlisted a friend and other volunteers to light a barbecue outside the store and grill some suya as a treat for visiting customers.
Popular throughout West Africa, suya is a northern Nigerian dish consisting of skewers or thin slices of smoked or grilled beef.
Much thinner than a steak grilled in North America, the suya at Yam Seller was seasoned with a blend of several spices that made it a fiery bite. It is often served with an extra portion of a mixture of dried chillies.
In addition to suya, Ameh volunteers also served versions of fish and goat (chilli) soup with jollof rice to accompany traditional music and dancing.
The origin of jollof rice, likely originating in the Senegambian geographic region of West Africa, dates back to the 14th century: it is made with a rich sauce of ground pepper, tomatoes and tomato paste, according to Ameh.
“The sauce gives it that jollof color, and our cook added ground beef and chicken,” he said.
As traffic rumbled down busy Victoria Street, Ameh and her patrons enjoyed the bright colors, music and aromas of barbecue suya that were highlights of the day’s relaxing festivities around West African cultures.
But for Ameh, there was an underlying educational aspect to the yam vendor event, an even more important reason which he says motivated him to celebrate and recognize his Nigerian customers.
“Most children born here have no idea about certain foods and part of the culture,” Ameh said.
“The presentation of traditional food, dance and music has given this young generation an opportunity to experience Nigerian culture.”