Grocery delivery service allows customers to bite into culture despite the pandemic

By Ryan Rosenberger, Staff Reporter

Wesley Enriquez

As the child of Nigerian immigrants growing up in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood, the only way Boyede Sobitan’s family could get their hands on authentic Nigerian food was from friends and family smuggling it into their suitcases from Nigeria.

They would bring a “years’ worth of food” at a time, Sobitan said, replacing his tireless efforts to find Nigerian food at his local grocery store in the one aisle that offered “culturally significant” food, he said.

Eventually, in April 2016, Sobitan co-founded a grocery delivery service called OjaExpress with Fola Dada, also a Nigerian immigrant, to address the lack of available “culturally relevant” foods and connect immigrant communities with their cultures, Sobitan said.

“If you talk to somebody who’s from India, there’s only one part of town they can go to to get their stuff,” Sobitan said. “Or if you have somebody who’s Jewish, who exclusively wants to adhere to a kosher diet, they have to go to a particular part of town they might not live in.” 

Recently, Sobitan said the revenue of OjaExpress has tripled during the coronavirus, or COVID-19, pandemic due to Illinois’ stay-at-home mandate and restrictions on dine-in restaurants while other small businesses are struggling to stay afloat.

The “virtual marketplace” partners with local mom-and-pop grocery stores in Chicago to sell and deliver groceries through an app to have it delivered straight to customers’ doors.

At first, Sobitan said he was not worried about the business going under because he and his partner prepared with “purpose and intent.”

“COVID definitely has helped us, but COVID is not a business strategy,” Sobitan said. “We were prepared in that regard.”

Sobitan makes a point of only working with smaller grocery stores because they serve a purpose by bringing immigrant families together and keeping ties to their home countries strong, he said.

Stores that have partnered with OjaExpress have also seen an increase in business, he added.

Christian Oseguera—store manager at La Fruiteria, 8909 S. Commercial Ave., a South Side grocery store that specializes in foods with ties to Africa and the Caribbean—said OjaExpress’ deliveries have made business more efficient.

“They reduce those lines and they give us the same business that we did before,” Oseguera said. “It’s more efficient.”

Sobitan said one of the company’s main objectives is to keep independent, immigrant-owned grocery stores thriving because he said a lot of them cannot afford to invest in technology that larger delivery systems such as Amazon or Instacart utilize.

OjaExpress has also caught Columbia students’ attention.

Students from the “Agency” class, taught by Anne-Marie Mitchell and Kevin Christophersen, associate professors in the Communication Department, have partnered with OjaExpress to assist in bringing more attention to the company’s brand.

The class breaks into groups, with each group being assigned a different real-world client, to gain experience as to what it is like to advertise and create public relations campaigns that can later be used for their portfolios.

The team really understood the problems OjaExpress set out to solve and has been instrumental in offering their own ideas, Sobitan said. For instance, Sobitan wanted a way to address shortages of culturally significant food in immigrant communities and find a way to connect immigrant communities in the U.S.

Senior social media and digital strategy major Angelica Hornewer said the partnership her group has formed with OjaExpress has benefited them because of the experience they’ve gained from working with a real company.

“We’ve been able to create a real-life partnership with them,” Hornewer said. “Even though we’re not actually employed by them, it still feels like we’re invested in this company now, and we’re a part of their story.”

Sobitan’s ultimate goal with OjaExpress is keeping the cultures of Chicago’s immigrant communities alive and thriving.

“I want to be able to walk in one day with my son, and tell him, ‘This is a shop that me and your grandmother used to shop in when we were kids,'” Sobitan said. “‘These are some recipes that my grandmother taught me.’ This is how you move family stories and family cultures forward.”