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9 mins read

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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12 mins read

The State of the Caribbean Tech Ecosystem

The Caribbean is breaking away from its dependency on tourism and focusing more on building its tech economy.

TechBeach Retreat is a tech platform built to connect Caribbean startups with leading global technology companies. They also provide founders with access to the resources needed to solve problems and accelerate their growth.

We caught up with Kirk-Anthony Hamilton, Co-Founder of TechBeach Retreat. to find out more about the platform.

Kirk-Anthony Hamilton, Co-Founder of TechBeach Retreat

What inspired you to start TechBeach?

I have started numerous platforms focused on various industries to help drive investment, innovation and transformation in the Caribbean region. Being from Jamaica, I came to a stage where I realized that if I wanted to pursue an innovative idea in the tech space, I didn’t have the immediate ecosystem and resources surrounding me to make this happen.

My Co-Founder, Kyle Maloney had the same thoughts and experience and so we decided to build the ecosystem to allow those who aspire to be successful in tech to access the minds, capital, partnerships and other resources they need to grow a strong business.

So in 2016, we got started by inviting the existing tech ecosystem of the region and anyone from anywhere elsewhere in the world to the idyllic backdrop of the beach in Montego Bay to discuss building and growing tech businesses. That has led us to where we are today.

Kyle Maloney, Co-Founder of TechBeach Retreat

How would you describe the current technology industry in the Caribbean?

The Caribbean tech landscape is still at a nascent stage but our current momentum is promising. We are seeing more of our legacy companies and governments embrace digital transformation and more startups being formed and accessing capital and resources.

What we need is for these groups to collide more intentionally and to build a strong coalition of angel investors who understand how tech businesses grow and how to leverage their influence to support this path.

What’s exciting is that Africa and Latin America are seeing billions in investment. As these ecosystems grow their talent becomes more expensive and we believe the Caribbean can be the next great market for talent, which we hope will result in new enterprises and more global investor interest.

Imagine, studies by the World Economic Forum and the Africa Report show that in 2013, venture capital funding in Africa was at merely $13 million, but by 2021 that number had grown to $4.65 billion. We are hoping the diaspora in the Caribbean can experience the same meteoric shift.

The high level team from Google comprising (L-R), Suezette Yasmin Robotham, Diversity, Equity, Annie-Jean Baptiste, Global Head of Product Inclusion;  and Inclusion Manager and Alan Tetley, Director of Engineering

How is your company supporting the growth of the tech ecosystem in the Caribbean?

We work to fill any unfilled gaps in the market. Tech Beach offers a series of summits throughout the region that take a multi-stakeholder approach to ecosystem building in a region that has traditionally operated in silos.

We are known for our success in partnering with and ability to attract decision makers from numerous areas of the ecosystem, whether it be the private sector, including established businesses and SMEs, to our Governments and perhaps most noteworthy, global tech companies such as Google and Amazon who are otherwise not represented in our market. Based on our relationships and reach, we offer Governments and Corporates market insights and support with digital transformation efforts.

In 2021 we launched our accelerator program with funding from the Inter-American Development Bank. We have partnered with the DMZ, a very successful decade-old incubator and accelerator program. DMZ was spun out of Ryerson University and has a portfolio of companies that have raised in excess of US$1 billion.

We have an incredible team led by Eric Sonnier, better known in the US than in the Caribbean. He’s a Harvard Business School and Y Combinator Alum, and a two time founder with experience raising capital and scaling businesses. We offer our companies access to up to US$600,000 in perks from entities like Microsoft, Shopify, AWS and Stripe alongside expert led workshops, access to mentorship and networking opportunities.

In this short space of time the companies in our program have raised in excess of US$50 million. All credit is due to the hard working founders, but we believe this represents a paradigm shift for the Caribbean and we are ready for the next chapter.

To take our vision a step further, we are keen on launching the region’s first tech focused venture capital fund to write first checks to Caribbean entities. Currently, the market is underserved and capital is raised sporadically, often from unlikely sources that don’t necessarily have a strategy around tech investment, so these serve as one off investments. Our fund will back the best in and from the Caribbean.

Jack Dorsey, Co-Founder and CEO, Twitter and Square on stage at Tech Beach Retreat with Co-Founders Kirk-Anthony Hamilton and Kyle Maloney

Do you feel that the Caribbean is often overlooked as a location for investment and business opportunities?

This is my life’s work. Our region is definitely overlooked and we fall out of the sphere in conversations of global consequence. My mission is to better profile success stories in the region and leverage global influence to highlight that our market is abound with opportunities. The truth is we often overlook ourselves as well, so my hope is to champion the region as a place to invest, for ourselves, and the rest of the world.

Do you feel that more attention is being paid to high-growth industries outside of tourism?

The pandemic definitely woke up a lot of people in our market to the realization that tourism cannot be our sole focus, but I don’t think we should lose sight of the value the industry creates nor its untapped potential. I believe people are now looking beyond tourism, with the challenge being that new industries take time to blossom and often require wholly new skillsets, so our people have to adjust and adapt.

It’s hard to navigate from a model that has proven itself for well over half a century, but many of us have always known that the model was broken. I’d love to see us develop a more integrated tourism industry that can support other high growth industries and leverage our tourism infrastructure and image to attract new investment and opportunities in other areas.

A promising start brought on by the pandemic is the remote work movement which flooded the region, I think Mia Mottley definitely led this race with the Welcome Stamp in Barbados and while there may still be much to be desired, you can definitely see the economic impact this move had on the island and more importantly the untapped potential. It’s maybe hard to appreciate, but something as simple as the long stay visitor may be the greatest tourism innovation in our market’s history since the dawn of the all-inclusive resort.

Premier of Bermuda, Hon. E. David Burt (middle) with Tech Beach Co-Founders Kirk-Anthony Hamilton (left) and Kyle Maloney (right) at TechBeach Retreat, Bermuda

What are some of the unique advantages that the Caribbean has compared to US or European markets? What are some challenges?

The Caribbean is a nearshore English speaking territory with a much more affordable workforce than you can find in the US and Europe. Our people are well educated through our traditional education system and simply access to environments that allow them.

Most islands offer a lower cost of living despite our heavy reliance on imports for energy and consumer goods. Our friendliness is a commodity that can be leveraged to service the globe, and contrary to common knowledge, we have some of the best and most reliable telecommunications infrastructure in the world, notwithstanding the need for improvements.

We have challenges faced by all emerging markets trying to innovate within our new world order. We don’t have historical benchmarks to reference to support the growth of new industries and we don’t have enough people with experience in these spaces to prop up these new ventures.

Most importantly we don’t have enough risk takers across the necessary stakeholder groups including Government to pursue the unknown. A structured call on the diaspora to incentivize the return of our best placed people could be helpful, note that one in every two foreign born Black people in America is of Caribbean heritage. We think this is huge and we see it when we talk to many of the most successful Black Americans in tech, who often trace their lineage to the Caribbean.

-Tony O. Lawson

1 min read

Venture Investment Opportunities in the Caribbean

Dmitri Dawkins is a Jamaica based entrepreneur and investor. He serves as managing director at Graft Ventures, a venture capital firm focused on scaling Caribbean-based businesses.

investment opportunities

In this interview, we discuss the investment climate in Jamaica and what effects the pandemic has had on opportunities there.

We also discuss some misconceptions about the Jamaican economy as well as the unique advantages and challenges that the Caribbean region has compared to US or European markets.

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Tony O. Lawson

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