Doing the business

Edizemi Onilenla of Mama Shee on bringing African food to Irish supermarket shelves

The entrepreneur has steadily increased her range of products to include ready meals, snacks and freshly prepared meals

Edizemi Onilenla, founder of Mama Shee: “When I first came to Ireland, there was very little African food available.”

The origins of Jollof, a West African dish made with rice, tomatoes and spices, have long been debated, with Ghana, Nigeria, Liberia and other countries each claiming to make the original and best version. Its backstory notwithstanding, the best jollof I’ve ever tasted was from the Mama Shee food stall at the Merrion Square food market.

Founded by Edizemi Onilenla, who is from Lagos in Nigeria, Mama Shee was borne of a true gap in the market.

“When I first arrived to Ireland 20 years ago there was very little African food available here, and very few African stores where I could buy Nigerian food and products,” she says. A social worker by training, Onilenla felt a strong desire to bring her beloved food culture to her adopted home.

“I love to explore things and for me, coming to Ireland as an African, I wondered what benefits will my host community gain from me? I wanted to help educate the community about where I came from, our culture, my people and our food,” she says.

“I’d seen lots of other communities, like Chinese and Indian people share their food here in Ireland, so I thought why not us too? I could only go to the African stores and I felt like that was not how it should be. If we are here, then our presence should be felt in every area of the community.”

Onilenla’s journey had begun. She began by organising African drama classes for schools in her locality. Next came the food mission.

“The first thing that came to my mind was that Nigerians in the diaspora loved was beef jerky – South Africans call it Biltong and there are a lot of Irish versions here,” Onilenla says. “I went to the store, bought loads and tried them all. I realised that while they might look similar, they were different to the Nigerian version. I knew the difference in taste and knew that I could do better.”

In order to produce her jerky, which is called kilishi as it is in Nigeria, Onilenla undertook a serious amount of sampling and testing which involved ordering lots of it from Nigeria, working with her butcher to get the right cut of beef, developing a suitable spice mix and much more. After considerable effort she landed on a version she was happy with.

“In the fourth year of sampling, around about 2013, I got it right,” she says. “I started making it at home to supply to African stores, who told me that once it went into the stores it would just disappear. It was really flying off the shelves, to the point that the store owners would ask me when I was launching my proper kilishi business.”

In 2017, Onilenla received a phonecall from an environmental health officer. “He had seen my product on a shelf with my name and phone number on the front,” she says.

“I was so scared to receive the call, but he said I wasn’t in trouble. Instead he wanted to advise me on how best to ensure my product could meet all standards, to educate me on what to do next; he even led me to the first kitchen I used to prepare my products in Kildare.”

Following this process, Onilenla applied for the SuperValu Food Academy, which helps small businesses to get their products on shelves. While she was unsuccessful in her first year, a second attempt in 2019 saw Onilenla progress and link in with a mentor to help her work on her kilishi and another product called suya, a grilled beef.

Starting with a couple of stores, almost like a trial run, her products now sell so well that Onilenla is poised to launch an expanded range, including ready meals, into most SuperValu stores.

The ready meal range grew from her market experience, which began in 2019, the same year as the food academy. Often seen in markets around Dublin, Odinenla – and often her children too – would serve up delicious joloff rice, stew, plantain and more.

“When you want people who are not in your tribe to accept your products, you give them the best, not what's most convenient or best for you,” Onilenla says. “I started developing my best dishes into ready meals for stores in 2020, and launched my second product on my one year anniversary with SuperValu.”

The Mama Shee range has since expanded and is available online (, with ready meals, snacks, freshly prepared food and more available for pick up and delivery.

Additionally, Onilenla recently won the Lion’s Den entrepreneurship competition, which is organised by the African Professional Network of Ireland. The competition is similar to Dragon’s Den in the UK – which she is determined to one day appear on – and awarded a €3,000 prize to use for her business.

Now that Mama Shee is really starting to find its feet, Onilenla is determined to maintain momentum.

“It’s become way bigger than myself, so I think I will start to look for investors,” she says. “First though, I want to grow my team; I’m doing a lot by myself so I want to hire more people. I’m also going to launch a new product soon. They’re plantain chips and are ready to go, so they’ll be in stores very soon, lots of stores. I want to keep expanding and these chips are the first part of that.”