oko river

OKO River: Celebrating Caribbean Flavors and Empowering Food Entrepreneurs

To commemorate Caribbean American Heritage Month, we want to shine a spotlight on OKO River, a brand that wholeheartedly embraces the authentic spices of the Caribbean while providing a platform for diverse voices within the food industry.

In our interview, we had the opportunity to speak with Oslene Carrington, the co-founder of OKO River Sweet Potato Flour Cake Mix.

This unique brand, deeply rooted in Guyana and produced in New York State, seamlessly combines the vibrant flavors of the Caribbean with the entrepreneurial spirit of young, passionate food enthusiasts.

What inspired you to start OKO River Sweet Potato Flour Cake Mix? 

OKO River Sweet Potato Flour Cake Mix is a unique, Caribbean-inspired brand that has its roots in Guyana, but is manufactured in the Big Apple–New York State–where the majority of Caribbean-Americans live. More specifically, the product began as a college project from a budding, under-thirty female food entrepreneur in the South American country of Guyana.

The project involved identifying alternative uses for the very versatile and nutrition-packed root vegetable called sweet potato. The Caribbean has a long history of creating naturally gluten-free flours from root vegetables, like cassava, tarot, and, now, sweet potatoes. The difference is, OKO River brand is not just the flour, but a complete cake mix that contains all the natural dry ingredients to make a delicious, gluten-free sponge cake.

How does the Caribbean influence the flavor profile of your product, and what unique ingredients or spices are used in the recipe? 

The Caribbean, and Guyana specifically, is very lush, with lots of fertile land used for farming. Remember, the Caribbean is the land of sugar cane.  So, sweet treats are endemic to the region. Additionally, because of the fertile ground, many lovely spices are grown in the region.

Most Caribbean-Americans know about and enjoy the various sweet delicacies from their home countries.  So, all we’ve done is bring the natural sweetness of sweet potato (without the sweet potato taste), plus some traditional Caribbean spices to a bold new product that is, in fact, healthier than many “instant” bake mixes. 

There is no gluten, it is all-natural (all of the ingredients could, in concept, be purchased in any local supermarket), and it can be customized with additional ingredients to take on the favorite flavors of the Caribbean. For example, adding pineapple and rum turns this into a perennial favorite in the region, which is the pineapple upside down cake, but without the gluten of wheat flour. I’ve made it, and it’s delicious! 

As a brand that celebrates the agricultural heritage of Guyana and empowers young agricultural entrepreneurs, can you speak to the importance of supporting diverse voices in the food industry?

Absolutely! Launching a food brand is extraordinarily difficult. From sourcing ingredients to manufacturing, then product sales, whether directly to consumers or through retail–the unit economics are tough and the competition is fierce.

There are so many new cottage or artisanal brands vying for attention that it can be overwhelming and expensive to break through. Additionally, there aren’t many food accelerator programs that help ‘hold your hand,’ as it were, to succeed in getting into the packaged goods industry. 

However, we do.  The Economic Development Accelerator, which is supported by the United States Agency for International Development and the Inter-American Bank, plays a vital role in helping us to develop Caribbean food brands, starting with our program in Guyana, and helping the business owners with all the product launch elements I mentioned earlier.

Ultimately, the EDA aims to help bring more variety or diversity to the food industry by helping to make more small-scale Caribbean packaged food brands available widely in the U.S.

oko river

Can you speak to the importance of nontraditional uses of traditional foods, and how your brand represents that philosophy? 

Diet plays an outsized role in overall health; there are lots of studies that point to this.  In fact, many “traditional” foods familiar to immigrants to the U.S. are incredibly good for you in their original form. Sweet potatoes are a great example. They are an exceptional source of beta carotene, vitamin A, vitamin C, and potassium, among other important nutrients.

Unfortunately, other than during the holidays, most Americans are not consuming sweet potatoes regularly.  We’re upending that fact by providing all the health benefits of sweet potato, but offering it in flour form–with the same health benefits as the raw vegetable because there are no other flours or flour substitutes in the OKO River Sweet Potato Flour Cake Mix.

This complete baking mix is made with 100% sweet potato flour.  But the twist is that this is more than the flour because it’s a complete cake mix.  Essentially, we support the trend toward more healthful eating that reduces the consumption of foods containing additives and preservatives, unhealthy levels of fat and sugar, etc.  And using traditional foods as the building block for that movement is inspiring to us.

What sets your brand apart from other products on the shelves?

OKO River Sweet Potato Flour Cake Mix contains absolutely no chemicals or preservatives, is low-carb, does not contain gluten, is comparatively low fat, is nutrient dense as a result of the sweet potato, and so on.

Can you tell us more about The Guyana Economic Development Trust and how they have supported the growth and success of food-tech and ag-tech startups in Guyana? 

This initiative was born in 2018, so it is five years old this year. As mentioned, we operate a food industry accelerator program in Guyana now, along with other initiatives to support startups in the country.  The food-industry accelerator’s express purpose is to help small-scale food manufacturers scale the distribution of their products in the country of Guyana, the Caribbean region, and North America.

What are your future plans for the company?

We see OKO River Sweet Potato Flour Cake Mix as an artisanal brand. It’s a premium product because of the premium, all-natural ingredients used in manufacturing.  We manufacture and distribute from New York State. So, we are Caribbean-inspired by way of the Big Apple!

We desire to engage true foodies–lovers of great-tasting, high quality, and healthful foods, to have them choose our brand, and to have them “big us up,” as we say in the Caribbean, everywhere they can to everyone they can.  

by Tony O. Lawson

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