NigerianFoods.com cofounders Tosin Osibodu and Ian Cohan-Shapiro saw a need and have found a way to meet it: their website brings high quality, authentic Nigerian food to Africans living in America. Ayiba’s editor-in-chief Eyitemi Popo spoke with Tosin to find out how he created an online retail experience that keeps shoppers coming back.
Eyitemi: Tell me about your educational and professional experience prior to launching NigerianFoods.com.
Tosin: I grew up in Nigeria but came to the U.S. for university. I studied systems engineering at UPenn and then got a Master’s in Engineering Management at Dartmouth.
After school, I knew I wanted to work in the consumer internet space. I worked in Direct Marketing for an e-commerce retailer called Wayfair.com. Then I worked for an advertising technology company called AppNexus. At both Wayfair and AppNexus, I was fortunate to work with extremely smart people and be part of two companies experiencing hockey-stick growth.
Eyitemi: Why did you decide to start NigerianFoods.com?
Tosin: At grad school in Hanover, NH it constantly snowed. I felt isolated. I often craved Nigerian food but the nearest African shop was three hours away. This wasn’t surprising. What was surprising was how other isolated Nigerians were solving this problem. They were either packing extra suitcases from Naij, begging friends and family to send them stuff, or making hour-long trips just for ten minutes of shopping. I was amazed at how hard Nigerians worked to get our food.
Considering that 60% of Nigerians in the US live away from metros with Nigerian stores, we asked ourselves, “how can we make it dead simple for US Nigerians to get the food they want?” Instead of going to search for ingredients, they should come to you—just like all products in your life can. We founded NigerianFoods.com to deliver the widest selection of Nigerian ingredients to anyone anywhere in the US.
Eyitemi: How did you take NigerianFoods.com from concept to reality? How did you source funding?
Tosin: We first tested demand by setting up a prototype site. Then we found reliable suppliers who met our quality standards. We got out and talked to our target market as we refined our site and our offering to match customer needs.
In terms of financing, we’re self-funded from our life savings as well as friends and family.
Eyitemi: What has been the biggest challenge in growing your business?
Tosin: Winning the trust of Nigerians is not easy but those who order from NigerianFoods.com keep ordering. We’re constantly building trust by fulfilling our promise to more and more people and listening to how we can improve.
Eyitemi: How do you stay above the competition?
Tosin: Products, shopping, and delivery. By sourcing and cataloguing extensively and continuously, we offer the largest selection of Nigerian ingredients in the US. Our catalogue only expands. We serve up these products in a clean and intuitive shopping experience that’s different from your typical African store. We put a lot of thought into the total customer experience so that receiving your package is more than receiving a box. You’re receiving a personal gift from people who care.
Eyitemi: Is your return customer today different from your initial target customer starting out?
Tosin: We’re reaching our target customers but there have been some surprises. We’ve been surprised by how many people close to metros with African stores—New York, Maryland, Houston, Atlanta—are ordering. We didn’t expect the convenience of delivery in these regions to be as pronounced as it is.
Eyitemi: What are the most popular sale items on your site?
Tosin: We’re seeing the expected popular native items like pounded yam, garri, and crayfish. But we’re also seeing some unexpected popular items like Chocomilo and stockfish bites.
Eyitemi: Where do you see your company in the next two to five years?
Tosin: Our long term mission is to preserve and support a crucial aspect of Nigerian culture for Nigerians abroad. We’ll offer Nigerians everything they need to cook Nigerian food—ingredients, recipes, and a supportive community.
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