Arts + Culture

Afropreneurs: Essie Bartels Aims to Be West Africa’s Premier Culinary Ambassador with Essiespice

Essie Bartels speaks to Okayafrica on her spice and sauce brand that will soon be in your grocery store's spice aisle, Essiespice.

After living on three continents and traveling across 25 countries, there’s one place where Essie Bartels has always felt at home—the kitchen.

Growing up, she helped her mother and grandmother with dinner, and developed her own stovetop experiments for her father, who graded her on a scale from 1 to 10. “There were a lot of “9’s” and “10’s,” but every so often I’d get a “5,” which only made me try harder,” she laughs.

When she moved to the United States to attend college, she continued cooking for friends who soon encouraged her to think of starting her own business. But with only a little bit of capital, she wondered what to do. “I didn’t see myself having a restaurant, but I did see a gap in the market for spices and other condiments,” she says. “I already pre-made sauces at home to make cooking easier for myself, so launching a spice company seemed like the logical way to enter the food market.”

Photo courtesy of Essie Bartels.

Essiespice, her eponymous spices and sauces brand, launched in 2013 following two years of researching and refining recipes. Today, the company has four signature multi-purpose blends: Tamarind Oh!, CoCo-for-Garlic, Mekko Dry Rub, and Mango Chili Medley, its bestseller.

Fresh ingredients for the product line are sourced from produce distributors in the Tri-State Area in an effort to support local business and reduce Essiespice’s carbon footprint. The uniquely African spice blends come directly from a businesswoman named Hajia Limata in Makola, Accra’s sprawling open-air market.

In two years, demand for Essiespice has doubled as big-box grocery stores like Whole Foods and Shoprite take notice. But it’s been hard to meet demand with limited resources.

“Essiespice is a labor of love—I depend on my family and friends to help me on production days,” the spice mixologist says. “We rent out an industrial kitchen and get to chopping and blending to produce the deliciousness that is Essiespice, but it’s hard to meet demand because production is contingent on their schedules.”

Earlier this year, Bartels lost her corporate job. While transitioning to working on Essiespice without the cushion of a full-time salary may have been daunting, the shift turned out to be a blessing in disguise. “Since losing my job, I finally have the time, patience, and energy to fully devote myself to nurturing my brand. No one can be a better advocate for your business than you can—especially at the early stages of a company,” she says.

Photo courtesy of Essie Bartels.

Now, to help take her business to the next level, she launched a Indiegogo campaign to raise $48,000 to expand production, staff, and research and development. The campaign features a wide range of rewards that give a preview of future Essiespice products: hand-stitched aprons made with Malian Bogolan fabric and brass Adinkra symbols, pottery made from red earth sourced in Kumasi, Ghana and even cooking classes with Essie herself.

In the next few years, she also hopes to expand her product line to include signature Essiespice milks, nuts, butters, and oils inspired by the flavors of Africa and its diaspora. She’s also in talks with farmers in Ghana’s Northern Region to introduce ancient grains like millet, sorghum, and fonio, which have high nutritional value, but aren’t widely available in global markets.

With endorsements from culinary heavy hitters including Pierre Thiam, Africa’s leading celebrity chef, and support from Nyema Tubman, President of Sundial Brands—the makers of crowd favorites Shea Moisture and Nubian Heritage—Bartels aims to be one of West Africa’s premier culinary ambassadors.

“African food isn’t visible enough on the global stage,” she says. “Our voices aren’t heard, so I want to contribute to that conversation so that things like millet and dawa dawa are recognizable in the same way as spaghetti or curry powder. Many studies have shown that West Africans have some of the healthiest diets in the world, so we should see our food represented more on television and in magazines.”


A Candid Conversation With Olamide & Fireboy DML

We talk to the Nigerian stars about the hardest lessons they've learned, best advice they've ever been given and what Nigeria means to them.

Olamide and Fireboy DML have been working together for three years, but the first time they sit down to do an interview together is hours after they arrive in New York City on a promo tour.

It's Fireboy's first time in the Big Apple — and in the US — and the rain that's pouring outside his hotel doesn't hinder his gratitude. "It's such a relief to be here, it's long overdue," he tells OkayAfrica. "I was supposed to be here last year, but Covid stopped that. This is a time to reflect and refresh. It's a reset button for me."

Olamide looks on, smiling assuredly. Since signing Fireboy to his YBNL Nation label in 2018, he's watched the soulful young singer rise to become one of Nigeria's most talked-about artists — from his breakout single, "Jealous," to his debut album Laughter, Tears & Goosebumps, hit collabs with D.Smoke and Cuppy, and his sophomore release, Apollo, last year.

Even while he shares his own latest record, UY Scuti, with the world, Olamide nurtures Fireboy's career with as much care and attention as he does his own, oscillating between his two roles of artist and label exec seamlessly. His 2020 album Carpe Diem is the most streamed album ever by an African rap artist, according to Audiomack, hitting over 140 million streams. When Olamide signed a joint venture with US-based record label and distribution company, Empire, in February last year he did so through his label, bringing Fireboy and any other artist he decides to sign along for the ride, and establishing one of the most noteworthy deals on the continent.

Below, Olamide & Fireboy DML speak to OkayAfrica about their mutual admiration for each other, what makes them get up in the morning and how they switch off.

Keep reading... Show less

get okayafrica in your inbox


Adekunle Gold Is Living His Best Life

We speak to the Nigerian star about how marriage and fatherhood have led him to find both newfound happiness and newfound freedom as an artist.