Salt Lake City, Utah
When Tshilombo-Lokemba arrived in Utah, she brought along the recipe her mother taught her for African pili-pili hot sauce. Pili-pili (meaning "hot-hot") is popular in the Congo, where Tshilombo-Lokemba is originally from. Displaying a yellowish-orange hue, the hot sauce possesses a creamy body, drizzling leisurely from a bottle. Ingredients include onion, garlic, vegetable oil, a bit of vinegar -- and copious amounts of habanero peppers. "It's the way you cook it, you process it, that makes it pili-pili," Tshilombo-Lokemba says. But that's a "secret family recipe," she states, before playfully adding, "And I'm not going to tell you!"
But word is getting out about Mama Africa's hot sauce, it's no longer a secret. In 2021, Tshilombo-Lokemba and her assistants made about 2,000 bottles every two weeks at the commercial space, the Square Kitchen. And A Priori -- a company more perhaps prominently known for its portfolio of chocolates, bitters, and tinned seafood -- presently distributes her pili-pili across the United States.
But Tshilombo-Lokemba has her eyes set on overseas markets, as well. "People are requesting it everywhere," she says. In part due to the African diaspora across the globe, she sees the sauce taking off in Canada, Australia, and European countries like France, the UK, Switzerland, Italy, and Belgium.
In order to meet increased production needs, Tshilombo-Lokemba has sought out a co-packer. She was in the midst of closing a deal with one she declined to name when CompanyWeek spoke with her. "They can do, like, 8,000 [bottles] a week," she says. Still, Tshilombo-Lokemba envisions needing exponentially more than even that in the near future.
In contrast to some products originating in Africa itself, Tshilombo-Lokemba sees an easier route ahead for her hot sauce when it reaches foreign shores, given its FDA-compliant food preparation. She expects it to clear other countries' customs units without any problems, which might not have been the case for people bringing it from Africa themselves. "The food is safe to travel and they trust the product," says Tshilombo-Lokemba.
Despite securing a co-packer, Tshilombo-Lokemba intends to remain at the Square Kitchen. But instead of manufacturing pili-pili, she'll be preparing her beignets and plantains at festivals, as well as two new products. Tshilombo-Lokemba says of her hot sauce Ndungu Nzitende, "That one is hotter [than pili-pili]. It's so hot that, if you're a pro [at eating spicy foods] then you can handle it! It's the same recipe but a different pepper."Another product is a marinade containing oil infused with hot pepper, coriander, rosemary, bay leaf, peppercorn -- lots of "good stuff in it," she says.
If her pili-pili reaches across the globe, it will become as well-traveled as Tshilombo-Lokemba. After being conceived in Belgium, she was born and grew up in the Congo -- and, for a time, California. Then, she spent 30 years in Belgium, which is where she received her degree in interior design. Tshilombo-Lokemba returned to the Congo, but took flight in 1996. "We had a war going on and it was really really tough for me to survive," she says, "so I decided to go, to leave everything and flee back to the U.S." From New York, she went to Arizona and then to Texas, before settling with her husband in Utah.
Tshilombo-Lokemba began bottling her pili-pili several years ago. She dreamed of obtaining a co-packer to take over the job -- which, when it comes to the raw habaneros themselves, requires masks and gloves, she told the Harmons grocery chain within a podcast interview they conducted. (The Harmons interview coincided with the company awarding Mama Africa a development grant in 2021.)
But, for several years, no co-packer would take her on, she says with frustration evident in her voice. That didn't stop her, however: "I'm a fighter! I'm a go-getter! When you say no, I say yes!" Now, it appears her search is over.
For Tshilombo-Lokemba, the name Mama Africa represents the "motherland." Also, "mama" is a nickname she's been called since childhood for her maternal demeanor, she says.
She's also fond of saying that pili-pili "talks to you." In fact, it carries on a conversation.
"It just elevates the taste of the food that I'm trying to eat, when you put the pili-pili next to it," Tshilombo-Lokemba says."When you take a little bit in your mouth, and then you don't feel [it fully], and then a few minutes later, it's building and building and building. So that's what the talk is about!"
Challenges: "It was really tough for me to get any support" in terms of co-packing assistance, says Tshilombo-Lokemba.
Tshilombo-Lokemba also saw her restaurant Mama Africa Grill close after she suffered a stroke. She's on the rebound, but could still stand assistance via her GoFundMe page.
Opportunities: The chance to now work with a co-packer: "That is amazing," says Tshilombo-Lokemba. "That's what I was dreaming for all these years."
Needs: "Go to trade shows and connect with buyers all over the world," says Tshilombo-Lokemba.