Bringing You A Slice of Home
What if you could get your favorite African ingredients from yams to egusi seeds to garri with the click of a button? New app OjaExpress hopes to revolutionize the grocery experience for African and Caribbean immigrant communities across the United States. Building on the model of existing platforms like Peapod and Instacart, OjaExpress delivers groceries to your door within a day. With their cultural cache, they know the ins and outs of how to get the ripest plantain for maximum sweetness or where you can get the freshest smoked goat meat. Ayiba’s Akinyi Ochieng spoke to Chicago-based Nigerian-American co-founders Boyede Sobitan and Fola Dada about the growth of the newest African start-up on the block.
Akinyi: Boyede and Fola, where did you first meet each other? What strengths does each of you bring to the table as business partners?
Boyede: We met over a year ago through a mutual friend, but we are both part of a business mastermind group called the Billionaires’ Club. Fola has a lot of technical expertise and experience in start-ups. I bring the leadership and entrepreneurial strategy aspect to the table.
Akinyi: What gave you the idea to start OjaExpress?
Boyede: I got the idea through a conversation with my friend who is a physician, and his wife, who is a stay-at-home mother. Because she has two children and is quite busy, she often uses a service called Peapod, but laments the fact that she still has to do her own grocery shopping when it comes to African food.
In Chicago, depending on what side of town you are on, it can take quite a while to get African groceries. It can be a forty minute round-trip to get there and back alone, excluding parking and shopping time.
Fola: African immigrants are a growing segment of the US population, but most grocery stores and delivery services don’t cater to their dietary needs. We want to be ahead of this trend because this is a demographic that is silent but definitely has impact. Studies have shown that Nigerian immigrants, for example, are some of the best educated immigrants—that knowledge translates into higher buying power. We want to position ourselves to meet that demand.
Akinyi: Why the name?
Fola: We tested many names, but eventually came up with OjaExpress and it stuck. “Oja” means market in Yoruba. The express aspect represents what we want this start-up to give people: a fast, easy, and reliable service.
Akinyi: How did you finance the development of the app?
Boyede: We have both financed the development of the app ourselves, out of pocket. We’re very open to investors, but we’re bootstrapped in this endeavor.
Akinyi: Are you working full-time on OjaExpress?
Boyede: We’re working full-time 9-to-5 jobs, but you can consider OjaExpress full-time as well if you count the hours we’ve both spent at the end of the work day trying to develop the platform. I often find myself getting five hours of sleep a day because after I finish my duties at my company, I have to make sure that OjaExpress is moving along.
Fola: I’d echo that. The start-up life is not easy—if I go to sleep at midnight, I’ll often find myself up by 4 am. We have put in a lot of work, but we’ve learned a lot.
Akinyi: What’s the biggest stumbling block you’ve encountered thus far?
Boyede: Probably consumer behavior centered around grocery shopping. Westerners have been using services like Peapod and Instacart for years, but many Africans come from a more agrarian background where they feel the need to touch and feel their food. We’re striving to get people to trust that we will pick the best possible produce and products for them.
Fola: Like any start-up, we’ve heard “no’s” along the way, but that’s a part of business, especially one where you’re trying to catalyze a shift in behavior. A lot of people will say “no” at first because they’ll want to stick to what they’re used to, but with time and as we learn, we’ll be able to tackle that problem.
Akinyi: What’s one thing you wish you knew before launching your business?
Boyede: Being patient and being humble. Some of the people who initially might have said “no” have turned around and decided to work with us. You just need to keep pushing through and believing in your product and your message.
Akinyi: Any particular challenges from the delivery service model? You promise same-day delivery. How are you able to do that?
Boyede: Right now we’ve been able to successfully manage same-day delivery for every order we’ve received in less than two hours. We’ve had some challenging and unique orders, but we’ve still managed to make our customers happy. That’s an aspect of the company we want to continue to maintain as we grow: timely, same-day customer service.
Fola: Back in the old days, you didn’t go to the grocery store. The milkman would come to your house and bring you a customized order. It’s only in the last century that we’ve started going to the grocery store to aggregate all our purchases in one place. We’re trying to marry the personalized service of the old school with the aggregation aspect of the new era.
Akinyi: No doubt some of those orders are emergency calls—it’s never nice to realize you forgot to buy an essential ingredient like pepper for your soup! What are some of the most popularly requested products?
Boyede: Probably yams and plantains, which is interesting because those are the products that people tend to be the most sensitive about. They want plantains that are soft or plantains are under ripe or over-ripe. They want yams without blemishes, without soft spots.
Akinyi: How do you source the goods you sell? Do you work with a set of grocery stores or sell from wholesale stock?
Boyede: Right now, we source our products from local African and Caribbean grocery stores, but we also have a network of wholesalers that we use. Eventually, though, we’d like to evolve to allow African and Caribbean entrepreneurs who have products they’d like to get out there to use our platform as a digital storefront. For example, we are currently working with a young lady who has a line of natural hair care products that she’d like to get out there but is having problems getting major stores to stock her line. OjaExpress can help by allowing her to stock it in our virtual store and reach a large network of consumers. We hope to develop a consortium of African and Caribbean businesses to help them reach their target customers more easily.
Akinyi: You’re currently based in Chicago, but where do you hope to expand to next?
Fola: The DC/Maryland/Virginia area, the New York City metropolitan area, Atlanta, and the Houston area, all of which are hubs of large African and Caribbean communities.
Akinyi: Any plans to expand the service to incorporate other ethnic cuisines?
Boyede: As we grow the company, we want to be considered the virtual ethnic market for all immigrants across the world. For example, we’re looking into integrating South Asian products, particularly from India, into our marketplace. No matter what country you’re from, if you’re looking for something from home, we want you to have it at your fingertips.
Download OjaExpress now.