Move Over Instacart, OjaExpress Offers African and Caribbean Grocery Delivery

My friend, Chaz Olajide, recently connected me to OjaExpress, a startup providing grocery delivery services focusing on African and Caribbean products. Since Tony and I have become quite addicted to Instacart, because of its Whole Foods delivery service, this of course seemed like the perfect idea!

We sat down with Boyede Sobitan, CEO and Co-Founder of the Chicago-based OjaExpress. We discussed everything from businesses, pan-Africanism, African-American/Continental African relations, colonial mentality, fraternities and sororities and lots of stuff in between.


SB: So what did you and Fola set out to achieve by launching OjaExpress?

BS: We wanted to achieve several things. One thing was to give access to African products to everyone who is interested in African culture – not just Africans. There may be people see something and say, “I love jollof rice and I want to learn how to make it.”  

So, we want to give them that access. Secondly, we want provide an opportunity to create economies for our people. What does that mean? We need drivers. We have a platform for entrepreneurs who want to get into stores, now we have a platform to get their products out there.

So in doing this, very grassroots, we went to all of the African grocery stores, which funny enough, the majority of them are not owned by African people in Chicago, or Caribbeans.

SB: Interesting. Who are they owned by?

BS: The three major ones – 88% of the share of them are owned by two Greek guys and one Mexican guy.

SB: Wooooow.

BS: So we wanted to disrupt that market because one of the things you find in Chicago is that when you walk into these stores, there is literally nobody working in there who looks like us. We’re giving our money to these entities because we need these products.

These are our cultural products that we can’t get anywhere else. So going back to the spirit of the Pan-Africanist, where everything is transactional, how do we create a system or a product where the money is cyclical, and the money returns to you? That’s where we’re going with the whole concept of Oja Express.


SB: That is so interesting because even with the concept of Shoppe Black, some people have asked “don’t you think that’s prejudice, to just promote Black owned-businesses?” And we’re thinking, but every other community does this…and furthermore, what’s wrong with promoting ourselves so that wealth can circulate?”

BS: Collaborative work for African immigrants is foreign. People have the mentality of stacking their chips, purchasing a house back in Africa, and not really caring about what’s going on here. But, you have kids here who are struggling to find work.

I don’t have twenty-five friends I can call and say, “I want my kids to work for you.” So one of the things we echo in our team meetings is that we’re a company that’s for us, by us, and with us. As we grow, all of our vendors are Black – our lawyer, designer, printer…and we’re proud to say that. All of the things we need, we’ve sourced from our community.

SB: So what’s up with the Continental African versus African-American divide that sometimes plagues our community here in the States?

BS: Africans will come in with the mentality of “I’m not African-American” because they don’t come here [understanding] the history and legacy of slavery.

I look at African-Americans as family because honestly, you could be related to me. Also, some people come here with what Fela [Kuti] called “colonial mentality” which to me, is the same thing as “slave mentality.”

SB: Exactly! Sometimes I think that can actually be worse than slave mentality. Slavery ended here in 1865 and Brasil in 1888. Colonization/apartheid was on the continent until the 1990s.

BS: Precisely.

SB: How does this Pan-African philosophy show up in the company and how is OjaExpress different from Instacart in its philosophy?

BS: At first, a lot of stores didn’t want to work with us. One of the stores, we had a great relationship with the owner’s son, who loved what we were doing. Then we went to meet with his father who initially heard the ideas and said, “Let’s do it.” But, he didn’t know we were African.

The moment he saw us he rescinded his offer. I said, “Cool, no biggie.” Then, we met with a Mexican guy – loved it, great idea. But he looked us dead in the eye and said “how am I sure I’ll get my money from you.” We had a legal contract we were bound to right in front of him. We proceeded to bring his attention back to the contract right in front of him. So those were some challenges we faced but we didn’t want to stop.

So what we’ve done is gone into these stores and priced the items. We’re building out a network of wholesalers we can work with and have access to their goods and pay them on a consignment basis when people buy their goods.


SB: Wow. Do you think they had preconceived notions because you all are Nigerian? Because you’re African? Or because you’re Black?

BS: I don’t want to give that too much thought. One of the people said that they prefer people stopping in their store. That just lets me know that they were old school thinking you’re going to make more money with people coming into your store, not knowing that you’re leaving money on the table.

Another concept is that they think that young Black guys are going to disrupt the market, which wasn’t the plan. Our plan was to enhance the market, but now we’re going to be one of their direct competitors.

SB: How many people do you have working for you now?

BS: Right now we’re a team of five. We’re also hiring drivers. People can go to our website and sign up to be a driver. Our CTO is from Nigeria. Come to find out, we’re from the same village.

SB: Nice.

BS: Our Chief Marketing Officer, Dineo Seakamela, is South African. And we have two students, Muyiwa Adenaike and Ololade Martins from DePaul University. That’s really cool, because now we’re giving people at a very young age an opportunity to become part owners of a company. When I was their age, I definitely wasn’t thinking about having equity in a company.


SB: So the drivers both do the shopping and delivery?

BS: Ideally, we’d like the stores to do the shopping and packaging but since we couldn’t work that deal out with the stores, our drivers are the shoppers. They know how to pick out a great yam and know what a ripe plantain looks like.

SB: Speaking of which, did you all do a focus group to figure out which kind of products people really wanted that would allow you to focus on specific brands or  based on your own personal experiences?

BS: We did. We put out a survey. We also created a focus group.


SB: I know that Chicago is home to one of the largest populations of Nigerians in the US. Also, many West Africans eat jollof and most of the ingredients are the same throughout different cultures. But what about other Continental Africans? Do you include ingredients and products that would appeal to people from other parts of the Continent?

BS: We do. We’re constantly evolving. But we’re also very market-dependent. So for instance, our Marketing Officer is South African but there isn’t a large South African population here in Chicago.

But, there is a growing population from Burkina Faso, as well as Gambia. So we’ve tapped into those markets. Also, Haiti has a large population here. So we have a large inventory of Caribbean goods as well.

We want to make sure that wherever you’re from the Continent or the Caribbean, we have products for you.

SB: I’m sure people will have questions about Oja Express coming other cities. What are your plans for expansion?

BS: Those plans are coming along well. It’s also dependent on future capital. So far, we’ve been self-funded but as soon as we perfect what we’re doing in Chicago, we’re planning to take this show on the road.

SB: How do you all manage this while maintaining other full-time jobs and other businesses and manage Oja Express?

BS: Communication. My partner and I work together. We split responsibilities and communicate back and forth. We have each other so that our other jobs aren’t impacted by it.

SB: Do you bring different skill sets to the table?

BS: Oh for sure. Fola is nowhere near as loquacious as I am. (Laughs). He’s a very quiet guy but he has a great technical mind. I’m the person who focuses on business strategy and who does most of the talking.


SB: Have you all started reaching out to any venture capitalists?

BS: We’ve been focused on developing relationships. We want to make sure that we’re in a good place before attracting great investors. God willing, we can get an investor who really fits with our team, and who believes in our product and what we’re trying to do. We don’t want to take money just to take money.

SB: That makes all of the sense in the world. One of Tony’s best friends, who’s from Sierra Leone,  is working toward being able to grow enough capital to be able to support other African businesses and other Black-owned companies.

BS: That’s the same thing we want to do. We believe that we can become a 4 billion dollar business. Right now, conservatively speaking, we have an 800 million dollar market opportunity. We feel that if we can acquire a massive amount of wealth in this company, we’ll have five people who can turn around and help to fund your dream for a small piece of equity.

SB: Outside of this, what else are you involved in?

BS: I’m the president of the Nigerian-American Professionals Association.


SB: How big is that?

BS: Over a 100 people. But we get tons of people who come out of our events. I’m just really in the community, supporting as many community-owned businesses as possible. I’m an Alpha. I hang out with the bros. I’m just trying to engage with as many people as possible.

SB: As an Alpha Chapter Delta, I’m friends with lots of Beta Chapter Bros from Howard. #fiyahandice

BS: I’m from a single letter chapter, too: Theta Chapter, here in Chicago.


SB: Dope. I have love for everybody but for single letter chapters before.

BS: Yep.

"So you have gone and joined a cult Abi..." - *Ignore the grammatical faux pas
“So you have gone and joined a cult…?” – (Ignore the grammatical faux pas)

SB: We could probably go on all kinds of tangents but in terms of the role of non-African American Black people living in the US, what type of responsibility do you feel you have to Nigeria, if any?

BS: I cannot deny my Nigerian roots or heritage. My first degree was in nursing and my master’s degree is in health care administration. How I ended up here, I have no idea.

But I came up with an idea and put pen to paper and here we are. I definitely feel need to go back and invest, even in agricultural businesses. How do we develop non-Monsanto, organically grown food in Africa so that Africa can become the breadbasket of the world?

SB: How long have you been working on the idea itself?

BS: The idea originated in July 2014. I reached out to Fola and he made me go back and do more research. He wanted to see how serious I was. So I did, and he came back to him. We started working on it in January 2015 and went hard on it until we launched last November.


SB: In terms of your own education in this, what has been the biggest learning curve?

BS: Usually when I go out and do work, I have the backing of a company that gives me credibility. Now I have to stand out on my own and create my credibility. Entrepreneurship is not for the faint of heart. People think you’re just going to launch a business and sell it for a billion dollars and live on a yacht.

That’s at the latter end of the entrepreneur stage. I work two full-time jobs. I’m doing at least 60 hour days. It’s easy to do because I love it. I see the potential in what we’re doing.

An African guy who heard one of our past interviews has alkaline water and contacted us to ask if we could help sell it.  Sure. So we were able to put another entrepreneur’s product on the market without the validation of major grocery deliverers in the game. Now we’re building an economic eco-system.

SB: Lastly, in terms of support, how supportive has your family been? Are they customers?

BS: (Laughs). Funny enough, a relative has actually used the app and I went to fulfill one of her orders. It’s crazy because if she knew and didn’t use the app, I wouldn’t have left the house.

Fola was out of town and I treated it like it was a real order. I went out, bought the groceries and dropped everything off to her. I even handed her a receipt and told her to go through everything. I don’t want to take anybody for granted.

Even if a neighborhood kid uses it, I want to make sure that we deliver the same consistent service for everybody. We messed up on her order, so we gave her a free bag of plantain chips, on the company. It’s been a real labor of love.

SB: Yes!

BS: What we want to do is make African and Caribbean food as American as tacos and pizza. Now, when you go Chipotle, kids think it’s American food. So why not have jollof rice and jerk chicken as part of the American culinary lexicon?

SB: You better! You better!

Shantrelle P. Lewis

Leave a Reply

Latest from All Posts