Mama Africa has big plans for her popular pili-pili hot sauce

Cathy Tshilombo-Lokemba aims to expand production, export, and add new flavors to her product line.

(Rachel Rydalch | The Salt Lake Tribune) Cathy Tshilombo-Lokemba — who, as Mama Africa, is known for her pili-pili hot sauce — at Harmons Emigration Market in Salt Lake City on Friday, Jan. 14, 2022.

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The pili-pili sauce that Cathy Tshilombo-Lokemba, aka Mama Africa, makes isn’t like the usual bright-red hot sauces.

Pili-pili — translated as “pepper pepper” — is golden orange, and uses onion, garlic and vinegar to create a robust, complex flavor that’s more than just heat.

“You taste it, and you feel like nothing’s happening,” said Lokemba, who has been selling her sauce to Utah food lovers for the past 12 years. “It takes a bit of time, and then it starts building, and building and building. It’s so flavorful. You cook with it, use it for barbecue, use it to marinate your meat — you can play with it.”

The recipe originated with her grandmother, Mamu Mtongo wa Mfwamba (known as Mimi), who passed it down to Lokemba’s mother, Monique.

“My mom passed it on to me, and I passed it down to my children as well. So it’s a recipe that’s been in the family for four generations,” Lokemba said. “My mother always had a little jar of pili-pili at the table next to her, and when there was no pili-pili in the house, she sent the maid to run to the market to grab some ingredients, smash them together and put them on the table. Then she’d eat. That’s my mom!”

(Rachel Rydalch | The Salt Lake Tribune) Cathy Tshilombo-Lokemba, aka Mama Africa’s Pili-Pili sauce on the shelves at Harmons Emigration Market in Salt Lake City on Friday, Jan. 14, 2022.

Lokemba grew up in the Kasai region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, from which she fled as a refugee. She’s also lived in Belgium (where she worked as a fashion designer), California and Texas, where she met her husband and ran a successful bridal business in Dallas.

When the couple moved to Utah more than a decade ago, she discovered the bridal business was too hard to enter, because flowers and gowns and everything else “gets done by aunties and grandmas. It’s a family thing. So I didn’t have much market going on. But I noticed that Americans love to eat.”

So she shifted to food, opening her first booth at the People’s Market at Salt Lake City’s Jordan Park on 900 West.

“I was cooking my chicken, my rice, my fish, and some plantain banana,” she said. “I had two sauces, peanut sauce and the pili-pili. Every time I would serve a plate, I’d put a little sauce on the side. And people would come back and ask, ‘Cathy, can I have some pili-pili so my mom can test it?’ Or ‘I’m going to Jamaica — do you have a little container, so I can take it?’ Another one was like, ‘I’m going to Mexico, can I take some to my friend?’ And I thought, wait a minute — it looks like I have a market.”

Lokemba sent samples of her sauce to the University of Utah and Utah State University, to get the nutrition breakdown, and got an authorization from the FDA. Then she set out to get her pili-pili sauce on store shelves.

“I went left and right and here and there, but nobody seemed to like my sauce,” she said. “They looked at it, and said, ‘It says Africa, I don’t think my people like this,’ or ‘Ah, I don’t know about this product.’ I was very, very rejected.”

Then she went to Tony Caputo — she calls him “Papa Tony” — the founder of Caputo’s Market & Deli in downtown Salt Lake City.

“He welcomed me into his store, and gave me a small space to be able to sell my sauce every Saturday. He was the first to accept my sauce. Caputo’s is still the best buyer of my sauce,” she said.

Besides Caputo’s, Utahns can find Mama Africa’s Pili-Pili Sauce at all Harmons stores. The Milk Street store sells the sauce at its Boston location and online. It’s also available online at such specialty retailers as Chef Shop. Caputo’s handles domestic distribution, and Lokembo is assembling an export team to expand her reach overseas.

“There’s a demand in Canada, in Germany, in France, Australia, Singapore,” she said. “People [are] asking me for this sauce all the time.”

Lokemba is developing other sauces — including a peanut sauce, a spicy oil and a ginger sauce — but progress has been slowed by life events. In 2019, she was running a restaurant on Redwood Road while caring for her sister, who was ill with cancer. In March 2020, after her sister died, Lokembo suffered a stroke and was in the hospital for almost eight months. That happened just as the COVID-19 shutdowns were beginning.

“But I’m very active,” Lokembo said. “I need to do something with my hands and with my brain. So I decided to get back into the pili-pili sauce.”

A group of volunteers — “lovely ladies and guys who come and help,” she said — fill the bottles of pili-pili sauce, by hand as they always have been. They fill about 1,000 bottles every two weeks, which isn’t enough to keep up with the growing demand. So the Caputo family organized a GoFundMe campaign to help Lokemba buy a filling, capping and labeling machine, which will speed up production immensely. “What we do in two days can be done in an hour,” she said.

Even though her sauce may be going international, Lokemba and her husband are happy to be in Utah (they now live in Tooele). She said she has seen the state grow more diverse in the last 12 years, and that the Latter-day Saint culture offers a bridge of understanding as more immigrants and refugees move to the state.

“Missionaries connect with people like me at the farmer’s market,” she added. “They hear a little French [in my voice], and say, ‘Parlez-vous français?’ And we start speaking French. Some of the missionaries have been in the Congo, and they speak my language and they know the food. It’s amazing. …

“People who say, ‘we have all these refugees, they’re going to take our jobs’ — they’re missing something. We’re all citizens of this world. It’s good to welcome new food, new thinking. That’s the beauty of it — now I’m thinking in French! — there’s beauty behind everything.”