When Boyede Sobitan worked as a health care consultant, traveling four or five days a week, his return home to Chicago often met with a request from his Nigerian mother: would he accompany her to the African grocery store?
Sobitan’s family has long frequented La Fruteria, a store on the south side of Chicago specializing in African and Caribbean products such as Ghanaian yams and custom cuts of goat meat. Hoping to save himself the trip after a long week on the road, Sobitan tried to order online. But it was not an option.
Sobitan found that friends faced similar frustrations: They could have their regular groceries delivered through services like Peapod or Instacart, but they had to travel in person, often long distances, to purchase foods specific to their culture. .
“These stores lacked digital integration,” Sobitan said. He reached out to his friend Fola Dada, a Nigerian immigrant who worked as a software engineer at a financial technology company, and together they created OjaExpress to bring the convenience of same-day grocery delivery to aspiring immigrant communities. to taste at home.
“A lot of underrepresented communities, when we had problems we would wait for someone else to fix them,” said Sobitan, who grew up in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood and now lives in Bronzeville. “As a healthcare consultant, I learned to solve problems on my own. “
OjaExpress, which has grown from a passionate project to a venture-backed venture in 2020, bills itself as a platform designed by and for immigrants to be ‘the United Nations of food at your fingertips’. The company has a dozen ethnic grocery stores on its platform, with most selling African and Caribbean products and others catering to Indian and Hispanic customers. It currently operates only in Chicago, but significant expansion is underway.
More than 30 stores are set to join the OjaExpress platform, which aims to add 100 stores by the end of 2022. It plans to enter new markets, starting with Houston and Washington, DC this year, and to serve more “cultural communities” by partnering with grocers specializing in Asian, Middle Eastern and European foods.
In addition to offering specialty products that are hard to find in mainstream grocery stores, OjaExpress intends to provide a “culturally competent” experience for shoppers, which includes not only immigrant families, but keen foodies as well. to explore different cuisines.
“When you come to our site, do you feel seen? Do you feel heard? Do you think we understand you as a culture and a family? Sobitan said.
OjaExpress, which participated in the Polsky Center’s Small Business Growth Program in 2019 and was subsequently incubated at the Polsky Exchange, received a Chicago Innovation Neighborhood Award in December at a annual event honoring the city’s most promising startups.
The award was a welcome validation for new entrepreneurs, who learned from their initial missteps.
“I wouldn’t recommend it, to do it like we did,” Sobitan said. “We didn’t really understand the startups or the nuances of the market. “
OjaExpress was launched as an app listing 100 products that buyers could order and that the company delivered. The founders later realized that it would have been better to start by partnering with stores.
“Creating a solution is one thing, creating a service that has impact takes more buy-in,” said Sobitan. “We have to solve the problem of the store as well as the problem of the customer. “
OjaExpress now offers software as a service to small and medium-sized grocery stores to help them digitize their inventory, sell products online and access a network of delivery drivers. The company has formed delivery partnerships with DoorDash and similar services so they don’t have to manage their own fleet of drivers.
Stores pay a monthly fee to be listed on its platform. Customers pay shipping and service charges.
The potential audience is large. Some 45 million immigrants live in the United States, or about 14% of the population, along with their families. Almost a million international students attend U.S. universities, and OjaExpress hopes to work with schools to offer its service to those who might crave familiar meals.
“They come from all over the world to study at the University of Chicago,” Sobitan said. “We could be that connection to their home. “
Sobitan initially joined Polsky Exchange because it was the closest coworking space to his home. There, he discovered the Small Business Growth Program, where he learned to network effectively, think from a product-solution perspective, and navigate the intricacies of sales.
OjaExpress recently took a pre-seed round after several years of priming by its founders. The difficulty in raising funds has been a “wake-up call,” said Sobitan, who estimates he spoke to 200 venture capitalists who turned them down.
Other challenges are on the horizon. The Great Resignation has left many stores understaffed and unable to focus on the digital switchover. Supply chain issues have caused food prices to skyrocket, making it difficult to deliver value to customers.
But while Sobitan is new to food and startups, he believes his healthcare background has prepared him to tackle the issues of the day.
“A lot of health care is a complex system, so I see the issues a little differently than most,” Sobitan said. “You need a multidisciplinary approach and involve stakeholders. “