Food Deserts: Boyede Sobitan Of OjaExpress On How They Are Helping To Address The Problem of People Having Limited Access to Healthy & Affordable Food Options
An Interview With Martita Mestey
Partnering with neighborhood communities where food deserts are located and really understanding their unique needs.
In many parts of the United States, there is a crisis caused by people having limited access to healthy & affordable food options. This in turn is creating a host of health and social problems. What exactly is a food desert? What causes a food desert? What are the secondary and tertiary problems that are created by a food desert? How can this problem be solved? Who are the leaders helping to address this crisis?
In this interview series, called “Food Deserts: How We Are Helping To Address The Problem of People Having Limited Access to Healthy & Affordable Food Options” we are talking to business leaders and non-profit leaders who can share the initiatives they are leading to address and solve the problem of food deserts.
As a part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Boyede Sobitan.
Boyede Sobitan is the co-founder and CEO of OjaExpress, a Chicago-based online marketplace and delivery service that sources cultural ingredients from specialty stores. A first-generation Nigerian immigrant, Boyede paused his career as a board-certified healthcare administrator and RN and created OjaExpress to ensure that a comparable grocery delivery service existed for underserved communities. The vision is simple — be the United Nations of groceries, making cultural foods accessible for people craving a taste of home.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
My parents came to the US from Nigeria so I grew up here as a first generation immigrant. I started my career as a Registered Nurse in the ICU and then worked my way up to Healthcare administration.
When I would travel for work, I’d come home after being away for days to a week at a time and my mom would call and ask me to take her to an African grocery store to pick up ingredients she couldn’t find at her local supermarket. It wasn’t always convenient so I was looking for a solution where I could order food for her and have it delivered but at that time there were no services that focused on delivering cultural ingredients not readily found in the international aisle of a local supermarket.
It amazed me that there wasn’t a service for people who had cultural needs and diets that would deliver to them the same day. I realized that if this was happening to my mom, who was just one of 47 million immigrants living in the U.S., then other immigrants must be experiencing the same challenge. It was then that I decided to create OjaExpress to make cultural foods accessible to everyone.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
OjaExpress was started, and is based, in Chicago. When we first launched I was fulfilling the orders and delivering the food to customers myself. I enjoyed being able to meet the people firsthand who were using our service and listen to their stories of why they were purchasing certain ingredients and how they planned to use them.
Chicago is known as the most immigrant-friendly city in the US with immigrants making up one fifth of the population. This diversity extends into the city’s food, history and culture. There are so many cultural gems in Chicago’s neighborhoods that people don’t know about.
Discovering new stores in overlooked neighborhoods and learning about the history of the owners and hearing the stories of how they got to where they are today has been so interesting and gratifying.
Serving people in these communities while helping grocery store owners increase their customer base and profits is why we do what we do.
Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?
I think success is an evolving and ever-changing aspiration. For me, food has always been a way to connect with people and to learn about the stories and traditions passed down from previous generations. That’s why the access piece is about so much more than just finding that unique spice or hard-to-track-down vegetable, it’s really an opportunity for local grocers to help immigrants in this country preserve their culture.
For that reason, each incremental customer and store we bring on is a success story because it fuels diversity, culture and tradition. The lesson is to be committed to who you are serving. Stay committed and see what you can do to add the most value to these communities.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I was lucky enough to meet my co-founder, Fola Dada, in a mastermind group that we were both involved in. Fola is a first generation Nigerian who grew up on a farm in Africa and became a software engineer in the US. He understood both the vision I was trying to create and the powerful connection of food. His background and specific skill set contributed directly to the creation of OjaExpress.
We appreciate, and are grateful, for the feedback we receive from our communities. Listening to their stories and ideas have been instrumental in building a company and product that truly serves their needs.
You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
The three traits that have been instrumental in my success are grit, humility, and being purpose-driven.
I presented 200 pitches to potential investors while garnering support to fund OjaExpress’ build out. It’s hard to hear the word “no” once, let alone almost two hundred times. But each time I was told no I took that feedback, tweaked my pitch and presented again. Building a business is so gratifying but it takes grit and perseverance to believe in your idea, and yourself, and to refuse to take no for an answer.
I’m a firm believer that one person can not do it all. Great leaders are like sports coaches, they assess their team and its talent and they put their players, or employees, in a position to win. I have always had a desire to elevate the people around me. Humility to me is being able to acknowledge that you don’t know everything and having a willingness to accept advice, or another perspective, from other people.
Since my early days working in management in the healthcare industry, I have always been purpose-driven. It’s important for me to make people feel safe and let them know that it’s ok to make mistakes. Mistakes are inevitable, it’s what you do after you make the mistake that matters most. I try to instill the importance of learning from mistakes and continuing to better yourself with everyone I work with.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I have two quotes to share with you.
The first is from my football coach in high school. He said, “Be the hammer, not the nail.” That has stuck with me after all of these years because it’s about accountability and control. The nail has no impact on the hammer so, as the hammer, you need to be prepared so you can drive your success. Take ownership and be prepared so you’re not susceptible to things that are out of your control.
The second is an African proverb — “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Success or achievement doesn’t happen alone. You can go fast and go alone but you will get burned out quickly. If you want to accomplish something together you have to bring people along with you.
Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about Food Deserts. I know this is intuitive to you, but it will be helpful to expressly articulate this for our readers. Can you please tell us what exactly a food desert is? Does it mean there are places in the US where you can’t buy food?
Nearly 40 million families in the US live 20 miles from the nearest grocery store.
When we think of the technical definition of a food desert it is areas that lack access to affordable fruits, vegetables and healthy foods. And these do exist in the US. Oftentimes, these food deserts are found in low income areas where the community rely on corner stores to buy the majority of their food. The problem with a lot of corner stores in these neighborhoods is that they do not always have fresh and healthy products, which leaves people making poor health decisions simply because they don’t have the necessary access to better foods.
Can you help explain a few of the social consequences that arise from food deserts? What are the secondary and tertiary problems that are created by a food desert?
Malnutrition is the first consequence of food deserts. And that doesn’t mean you’re not eating at all, that can mean that you’re eating poorly. Poor nutrition means poor health. And think about what not having access to fresh fruits and vegetables does to your overall sense of wellness.
The impacts have trickle down effects as well, such as lower life expectancy, obesity and diabetes, to name a few. And those, in turn, put a strain on our health systems.
Where did this crisis come from? Can you briefly explain to our readers what brought us to this place?
You have to think about people and big businesses looking at data to see where they’re going to make the most money. Big chain stores may not want to put their businesses in poor communities because there may be more theft or not enough sales. Capitalist bias takes place that ends up excluding people.
It’s not a coincidence that food deserts exist in neighborhoods that are low income, low employment, and possibly low access to transportation . And it’s these areas that are highly correlated to particular types of populations.
Can you describe to our readers how your work is making an impact to address this crisis? Can you share some of the initiatives you are leading to help correct this issue?
At OjaExpress we are working to address these concerning gaps. By virtue of our platform, we bring access to quality fresh foods to these low income communities. If we can’t build the stores in the communities, we can at least bring the product to the communities. In a lot of neighborhoods, their local grocery stores don’t even offer certain cultural ingredients. If you’ve ever walked down the “international aisle” at a local grocery store it’s not usually very extensive.
What are helping with this by partnering with cultural mom and pop grocery stores that sell specific groceries to cultural communities and to other communities at large for that matter. We are giving them a platform, and giving people digital access to ingredients they can’t find in a regular grocery store.
So it’s two fold — we are helping the store owners increase their sales and brand awareness while also making it convenient for shoppers to obtain cultural ingredients.
Can you share something about your work that makes you most proud? Is there a particular story or incident that you found most uplifting?
I’m proud of the fact that we are connecting people to their heritage through food. Most of our customers are immigrants that left their home countries decades ago. I have heard from multiple customers that they were able to find an ingredient that they had not had for years. They couldn’t find it at their local grocery and when they found it through our platform and had it delivered straight to their door they were able to create meals that they hadn’t had since they were kids. It brought back happy memories from their childhood of eating with family or friends. We have also been told stories from customers that while traveling abroad they tried a dish that they loved but they weren’t able to recreate it at home because they couldn’t find the specific ingredients at their local grocery store. Once they found the ingredients through OjaExpress’ website they were able to recreate the meal and bring the feeling they had during their vacation right to their own kitchen.
In your opinion, what should other business and civic leaders do to further address these problems? Can you please share your “5 Things That Need To Be Done To Address The Problem of People Having Limited Access to Healthy & Affordable Food Options”? If you can, please share a story or example for each.
First off, making sure there is equity in regards to food access across the board. That equity may not mean building a brick and mortar. There are a lot of communities that lack high speed internet access and are not connected. Making sure stores have access to get online and build e-commerce easily are things that should be advocated for.
Looking at food not from a mass market appeal but understanding the distinctions of how different cultural groups consume products. Approaching it with a one-size-fits-all mindset brought us to where we are now. Understanding cultural nuances of food and food availability is what we need to keep progressing into the future.
Partnering with neighborhood communities where food deserts are located and really understanding their unique needs.
Addressing issues of food waste and figuring out environmentally stable ways to reduce food waste. Could be by taxing bigger stores that waste too much food or find a way for bigger stores to get a tax write-off for donating their food to food banks.
And finally, creating physical infrastructure for micro stores or micro pick-up locations. If you had a structure where you could deliver to a locker that’s in neighborhoods where people could pick up their food easily, that also could be a good solution without having the cost and expense and carbon footprint of a big store.
Are there other leaders or organizations who have done good work to address food deserts? Can you tell us what they have done? What specifically impresses you about their work? Perhaps we can reach out to them to include them in this series.
Forty Acres Fresh Market is one that comes to mind. They are a startup grocer specializing in selling high quality fresh produce at an everyday low price. They were founded in response to the lack of fresh food options on Chicago’s West Side. I am impressed by the fact that they offer pop-up markets in underserved communities and are bringing fresh produce to people at fair prices.
If you had the power to influence legislation, are there laws that you would like to see introduced that might help you in your work?
I would like to see a law introduced that eliminates zip code restrictions. Companies restrict delivery service to certain neighborhoods and zip codes because they may not make a lot of money in those areas. This only exacerbates food deserts. If we could remove zip code restrictions and start serving people in low-income neighborhoods we could begin to introduce fresh fruits and vegetables and healthier food options to these overlooked communities. From there, we can help educate people on how to prepare meals and the benefits of eating healthier. That, in turn, could eventually lead to a decrease in certain diseases and an increase in overall wellness in minority populations.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
If I could inspire a movement, I would like to see a designated day a week where you have to eat foods in someone’s home of a different ethnic background than you. And learn about the culture and food because I’m a big believer that food is our best cultural ambassador and food brings people together.
If we all would step out of our comfort zones every once in a while and make an effort to learn about ideas, people and cultures different from our own we could make a big shift. It’s about celebrating our differences and learning from one another.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)
I would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with Jay Z and NAS because of their growth story and evolution, their mindset and how they have grown tremendously over the years. Not only do they impressive staying power, but they’re true business people who have impressive
portfolios that span across a variety of genres and industries. I would love to tap their brains on how they got to where they are.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
You can learn more about us at www.ojaexpress.com, download the app, or follow us @OjaExpress on social media.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much, and we wish you only continued success.