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Sola Ajao is on a mission to spread African food across the United States

Founded by Nigerian American Sola Ajao, Destiny African Market is a grocery store and catering business in Massachusetts, USA that sells a wide variety of authentic African food products and goods. Sola migrated to the United States in her twenties, and Destiny African Market is her dream  – she’s building up her local African community and giving back, while filling a massive gap for ethnic food gap.  

Sola shares more about herself and her big vision of making African food accessible across the USA.

Tell us more about Destiny African Market. 

Sola: Our business model is two-fold. In our retail location, we sell indigenous food items from Africa. We also operate a ghost kitchen through which we cater weddings, graduations, corporate events, and other special events. Our catering menu features specialty African foods such as our beloved Jollof Rice, Fufu & Egusi, Okra Stew, and other African party foods. We also recently launched our own line of African food, starting with West African bean cake also known as Moin Moin.

What inspired you to start Destiny African Market? 

Sola: I am a Nigerian American. I was born in Nigeria and emigrated to the United States in the 80s. When I came to the States I was devastated because food was such an important part of my life, but I couldn’t find the seasonings, raw foods, or snacks that I’m used to. Unfortunately, it’s still the same today. Importing food from Africa is difficult and is why most people aren’t willing to do it. Yet, I do because of my love for food as a means to serve people.

My mother inspired my journey. Until her death in 2010, she also had an African market located in Nigeria. Sometimes, people would visit her shop just to receive encouragement and hear her speak. She was also very philanthropic and was known for giving away food for free because she lived in a food insecure community. She is the reason I have been cooking since I was a child and will continue to do so for the rest of my days.

How has your Nigerian heritage influenced your work and success?

As a proud Nigerian, my culture influences everything I do, from the food I cook to the way I label my products. My heritage is not only a part of my work as a chef and store owner, it is the driving force behind it.

I exist to serve African and Caribbean communities because I believe we are the most underserved in food. It is easy to find an Italian restaurant or Chinese market in nearly every community in America, but African food businesses are few and far between.

I get up every morning and work at Destiny African Market in hopes to open locations across the country so that every community not only has access to African food, but can also see it as the culinary mastery that it is.

I want African food to be a part of the American palate, and I believe that Destiny African Market can help to make that happen.

How does your work positively impact culture + community?

Sola: In my third week of business at Destiny, a first-time customer walked into the market. She looked around our small store with curiosity, picking up items and reading the labels before putting them back. After a few minutes, she stopped in her tracks. Her serious face broke into a smile, and she began to cry tears of joy. My husband and I rushed over to her, concerned. “I haven’t seen this in over 25 years!” she exclaimed, holding up a box of St. Louis sugar cubes. The familiar blue box, with its distinctive branding, had not changed in decades.

She told us how her grandmother would add a cube of St. Louis sugar to her tea every morning. It was one of the few things she remembered about her grandmother, who had passed away when she was young. St. Louis sugar is not easy to find. It can only be found in a few African stores, and even then, it is not always stocked. This customer was so happy to find it that she cried tears of joy. I know I am doing something right when a customer is so moved by our products that they cry.

It is our mission to provide nostalgic products that remind people of their home and their loved ones. We also want to empower people who have emigrated to this country by giving them access to food that is truly their own. This encounter was a powerful reminder of the impact our business has on people’s lives, how our culture makes its stamp in the states and our overall community.

We are not just providing nostalgic products; we are giving agency back to those who emigrated to this country, empowering them with food that is truly their own. Destiny is more than just a grocery store. It is a place where people can find a sense of community and belonging. It is a place where people can connect with their roots and their culture. It is a place where people can feel at home. It is an honor to witness customers like her reconnect with their culture and heritage through the products we offer at Destiny African Market.

Funding is a difficult area for our community of women in business. How have you been able to fund this dream project? 

Sola: At first I used all my savings and life’s earnings, because I could not get approved for business funding from a bank. It’s been tough to run a business on limited financial support. However, I would be remiss to not thank my granters who believe in Destiny African Market, including the Celtics, the NAACP, Vistaprint, GK Fund, Heinz Black Kitchen Initiative, and my local community for helping fund Destiny in a substantial way over the past two years of our existence. With their support we’ve been able to keep the business afloat and reach more people, as well as cover major expenses for special projects, our bills, and overall operations. 

What has been one major highlight and one major challenge you’ve faced on your entrepreneurial journey so far, and how have you found balance along the way?

One of my proudest accomplishments to date is being featured by Google in their Economic Impact Report for 2022. The report highlights how Americans across the country are using Google tools to connect with customers and create economic activity for their local communities. Every year, one business from each state is chosen to be featured, and I am honored to be representing Massachusetts alongside other innovative businesses. Google CEO Sundar Pichai was so inspired by Destiny African Market’s story that he highlighted us as one of the businesses that had stood out to him the most. As a result, we were invited to attend Google’s exclusive summit for small business owners, where we participated in workshops on advocacy and policy.

The marketing and promotional support we’ve gained has helped our foot traffic significantly and has established Destiny as a leader in the African grocery food space. It’s also a testament to the hard work my team and I put in. 

One major challenge is running the business altogether. I only went to high school and still have lots to learn about business, including leading/motivating a staff, taxes, making sure all my licenses are up to date.

I’ve been balancing by joining business accelerators to learn all the important information I missed out on while running the business. 

What is a crucial piece of wisdom you’ve learned as an entrepreneur that you can pass on to others who are either dreaming of starting their own business or have started, but are struggling?

Sola: NEVER GIVE UP! If things aren’t working out it’s ok to change course, but never just throw in the towel, because entrepreneurship is an everyday work. It never ends and its a process. 

Check out Destiny African Market at www.destinyafricanmarket.com + on IG @destinyafricanmarket

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