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How Oja took its founder’s cultural heritage to a $3.4 million funding round

Oja-Mariam-Jimoh

Oja, an online ethnic grocery delivery service, recently closed a $3.4 million funding round. Like most startups, it hopes to succeed by filling a gap in the market. However, Oja’s roots are far more personal than most startups.

Oja‘s name comes from the Yoruba word for ‘market’, reflecting Mariam Jimoh’s Nigerian background. Named as one of Forbes ’30 under 30′, Jimoh is undeniably a Londoner, “I was born here, I went to university in London, I’ve barely left London for more than a month. I’ve pretty much been in London my whole life.” 

Despite this, she grew up with Nigerian cuisine sourced and prepared by her parents. But when she left home and started living independently, she realised that she had lost that part of her life. Working long hours in a corporate environment, she couldn’t get to the shops that sold the food she once ate regularly.

The limits of London’s multicultural retail

Despite London being a proudly multicultural city, much depends on geography. Stores that specialise in ethnic produce are often located in the first generation of immigrants. Established in an age of traditional grocers, they survived because of their specialism and the local population. However, new generations are unable to access them.

Having moved to other areas of London and becoming heavy users of online ordering and delivery, they would find themselves struggling to order the ingredients they wanted. While retailers have filled some of the gap with world food offers, they tend to be market-driven, often resulting in only the most popular and generic items being available. This causes a problem for those who grew up in immigrant families.

“I think when you’re a second-generation immigrant, food can be the closest thing you have to your culture,” Jimoh explained. “You can always bring along recipes and memories of those things that your mum or your grandma might have ever cooked for you.” Jimoh also discovered that she was not alone in the desire for easier, specialist, grocery retail. It was not just immigrant communities that wanted them either. Others, like religious communities or people who had spent time living abroad and wanted to recreate the cuisines they had enjoyed, were also looking for easy ways to source food and ingredients.

Focused cuisine, with all you need

Oja’s mission is to fill that gap. And, by making it easier for anyone to find quality ethnic ingredients, widen the market, making it accessible to people who might not have convenient bricks and mortar ethnic retail near them. It will, in other words, not just help people recreate their culture’s dishes, it will expand the market, the culinary horizons, for anyone who is interested in world food.

The first focus of Oja will be the customer experience. Currently, anyone seeking to recreate a dish from their heritage is likely to need a bit of luck. That luck might be still living close to an ethnic retailer or relying on the world food section of their supermarket stocking the ingredient they need and having it in stock. Oja aims to offer a selection of products — they currently have over 500 products and hope to double that over the rest of the year — that are never out of stock and available for next-day delivery. “The actual customer experience of shopping these products is not the same as shopping all other products,” Jimoh told TFN, speaking of Oja’s aim to change that. “Everything we do is customer-centric. And that’s the question that we ask before we make any decisions: what would the customer want? It might be a bit more difficult for us, but what might make the customer’s life a bit easier?”

But what sets Oja apart is its commitment to the cuisines that it serves. Although it plans to expand its range, its intent is, as Jimoh puts it, to go ‘narrow and deep’. The aim is not to offer a representation of a cultural cuisine, but to focus on specific cuisines and offer every ingredient needed to for it.

The product range has started with African and Caribbean products. “What we find is that often when people say African and Caribbean, they mean Nigerian, maybe a bit of Jamaican,” says Jimoh. As well as expanding the Oja delivery, they are also planning on expanding the Oja range, building from the ingredients that overlap allowing them, to, for example, offer cuisine from other subcultures.

The goal is to be the premier resource for any cultural cuisine they offer. Reflecting on the ‘deep and narrow’ offer, Jimoh’s aim is simple, “to serve everyone who wants to be served in this market; the premier destination for people from cultural communities to shop all the products that they recognise.”

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