Truly groundbreaking businesses have the potential to change the world – but they are also a step into the unknown.
Mariam Jimoh knows all about that. Already making waves in the world of entrepreneurship, having claimed a prestigious Forbes 30 Under 30 award, she has also raised £2.5 million in pre-seed funding for her ethnic grocery delivery service and app from an eclectic group of investors.
Oja, which means ‘market’ in Nigerian language Yoruba, is on a mission to give rich and diverse communities – traditionally not catered for by the grocery industry – access to cultural produce.
“I had the idea whilst I was working in investment banking. I worked long hours, which left me no choice but to order my groceries – and I was never able to find the majority of the products that I had grown up using and eating,” Jimoh tells TechBlast.
“My parents are Nigerian immigrants that came to the UK over 30 years ago, but I am British born and bred and spent my whole life in London.
“I was left frustrated that I couldn’t easily access these foods and products in the way I could get everything else. To me this included cuts of meat such as oxtail and tripe, plantains, hibiscus, okra and more… so this is really where the idea for Oja was born; a really personal problem I was ready to solve.”
Founded in 2020, Oja buys at wholesale then ships orders from its own warehouses and dark stores to homes in London.
It is focused on Afro-caribbean cultures – the largest communities in the capital – and has plans to expand further to cover more cultures, and more communities, nationwide in the coming year.
“The biggest challenge was starting from zero – this is a really interesting stage of business where you can start almost anywhere and there is no data or playbook,” she explains. “It’s the most challenging but most exciting part of this.
“We take pride in going deep and narrow into every offering we embark on. Right now, we have over 1,500 products, and we are going deep and narrow into African & Caribbean culture with South African, Nigerian, Ghanaian, Congolese, Zimbabwe and Halal offering so far.
“We serve 3 postcodes but will be London wide and beyond before year-end.”
The pre-seed funding round last year was led by LocalGlobe with Acequia Capital, Tiny VC and black angel group HoaQ Fund also participating in the round, alongside leading angels associated with Sainsbury’s, Taster, Booking.com, Deliveroo, Trouva and King.com.
“[In our investors,] we looked for people who resonated with the problem and how big it could be – and also people who genuinely wanted to build this side of the business,” she says.
It’s no secret that ethnic minority founders – and especially female ethnic minority founders – are underrepresented when it comes to VC funding. So how did she find the fundraising journey?
“It was something that needed a lot of focus and clarity on your vision – this made it exciting and rewarding for me,” says Jimoh. “I did sometimes feel doubt creep in, as I am a solo founder: but I believe in this vision and business so much – it was about making that infectious.”
There are plans to raise a seed investment round in the coming months.
“I think Oja gives a real community-orientated platform for people to interact with our founding pillars: familiarity, culture, connection, access and ease. However you feel to interact with these, Oja can offer an avenue,” she continues.
“We are also very focused on community ties as we have build up an ‘extended family’ of direct-to-consumer brands we work with and stock within the community, have partnerships with charities like Brixton Soup Kitchen and have a lot of focus on under-estimated causes and holidays in the communities we focus on.
“We think that increasing participation in this cultural supermarket industry will only increase volumes and affinity for cultural products – we hope to become that facilitator.”
On being crowned a Forbes 30 Under 30 entrepreneur, she adds: “It was a lovely surprise, I found out the day after my birthday – it was very exciting to be seen amongst some very cool changemakers in Europe.”
So what advice can she offer fellow entrepreneurs – and what is her favourite dish to cook for friends or family?
“Focus and do the boring parts as well as you do the fun parts… I love to make jollof rice and efo riro stew and fried plantain together – it’s not what you normally eat together but this is one of my favourite things to enjoy.”