Northwest Arkansas Program Seeks to Develop Local Food Economy

Applications for the Cureate Course spring cohort are due Jan. 21.

Asami Tea founder Ola Atilola stands behind a table topped with his bags of tea products
Asami Tea owner Ola Atilola participated in the inaugural Cureate Courses program in Northwest Arkansas. Photos courtesy of Sorella Photography.

People may not always think about where their food comes from, but Asami Tea founder Ola Atilola wants to change that. Asami, which means “my culture” in the Yoruba language, is a Northwest Arkansas-based company created in 2016 with the desire to promote African products and support African farmers.

“We want to invest in those farmers and tell their origin story,” Atilola says. 

A native of Nigeria, Atilola has developed relationships with farmers across the African continent, sourcing ingredients from countries like Ghana and Tanzania. This year he’s working on creating new packaging for his tea and cocoa products that will include a code customers can scan to trace the origin of the product and learn more about the African farmers who produced it. 

These farmers often don’t have their stories told because of the supply chain, Atilola says. When big commercial companies put their own labels on African products, the focus is the brand instead of the farmers.

“That’s why we started building our relationship with those farmers,” he says. “We can promote what they do and let people know that there are good quality products that can come out of Africa.”

Asami Tea has some products available in local stores and coffee shops, but it is mainly an e-commerce business. In an effort to become a fully sustainable company, Atilola plans to transition the company’s packaging from a plastic standup pouch to a more eco-friendly corrugated box. Atilola won $5,000 in the Cureate Courses Pitch Competition in December that will support that project.

Asami Tea founder Ola Atilola smiles while holding large $5,000 check he won in the Cureate Courses Pitch Competition

Cureate is a woman-owned, small business with a focus on empowering food and beverage entrepreneurs and building local supply chains. Founded in Washington D.C. in 2014, CEO Kim Bryden launched a hub in Northwest Arkansas in 2021. 

Cureate partnered with FORGE, Inc., the oldest revolving community loan fund in Arkansas, to launch Cureate Courses for 10 Northwest Arkansas entrepreneurs last October. During the free 10-week program, the inaugural cohort received assistance in thinking through how to diversify their revenue streams, Bryden says. Participants met weekly and the program wrapped up with the pitch competition Atilola won. 

“We do not dictate what growth and success should be,” Bryden says. “It’s really up to the entrepreneur to come through each of our Cureate Courses and see these as resources to help make a decision for themselves as to what success looks like for them.”

In addition to learning tangible business skills, participants are also creating social capital and developing a network that can be a source of support. Because of challenges with the supply chain, people are recognizing the importance of building a local and regional food economy, Bryden says.

“We’re really trying to create a space for entrepreneurs who are ready and interested, and excited to grow and learn together,” she says.

Although Atilola studied food science in college and has always worked in the food industry, he decided to participate in Cureate Courses because he felt he didn’t have the knowledge to successfully run his own business. Now a cohort alum, Atilola says the program was engaging and well put together. 

“It was a great journey overall and a very outstanding experience,” he says. “I would encourage more people to participate in that program.”

A new group of entrepreneurs can participate in the upcoming spring 2022 cohort. Cureate is looking for food and beverage entrepreneurs who have gross revenues between $30,000 and $750,000. The program is also focused on supporting underrepresented founders, which includes women and BIPOC-owned businesses.

Applications are being accepted now and are due by 5 p.m. Jan. 21. More information is available at www.cureate.co/courses-nwa.

Antoinette Grajeda
Antoinette Grajeda

Antoinette Grajeda is Editor-in-Chief of Arkansas Soul, the host of the Affirmative Action podcast and a Northwest Arkansas-based journalist. She has covered race, culture, politics, health, education and the arts in Arkansas for nearly 15 years.