International Food, an example of African entrepreneurship in the USA

A typical trading scene at an African market
Desmond Johnson, an African entrepreneur hailing from the West African country of Sierra Leone strongly believes in staying focused on one’s dream, he believes having a strong sense of dedication enables success in whatever human endeavor we find ourselves in. It is on the backdrop of this mentality that Mr. Johnson has come this far with his grocery shop business called International Foods located off the Richmond Highway in Alexandria, Virginia, United States (US).

Twenty years have come and gone since the International Foods grocery shop started operating, for Mr. Johnson and his wife Rita, the road has not been an easy one, yet the couple can today look back and say if they had the opportunity to do it all over again, they still will have gone into the same business without blinking twice about it. Some two decades ago, the couple from Sierra Leone had been brooding over the idea of establishing a grocery store where they would sell products that basically cater to the needs of Africans within their community.

In 1990, the time finally came to put that dream into reality. Today, what started as a small grocery store has become an international food market particularly catering to Africans. The grocery store in line with expansion to cover more interests also caters to foods of importance to the Jamaican and Latino communities. International Foods is one of the pioneering African grocery markets in Virginia, US.

When the business began, it received patronage not only from within Virginia, but from all parts of the States as customers were traveling to do business with the shop owing to the quality of goods and services it provides. The shop today also sells products like African fabrics, movies, household items like culinary utensils among other things that one will only find at an African grocery store.

Desmond Johnson holds a bachelor’s degree in Political Science and a master’s in business administration, Rita; his wife holds a degree in business management. Despite their educational backgrounds, the couple for the past two decades has been doing this store business full time. Something which goes to give credence to their strong dedication. For Mr. Johnson, there has been little time for self as this business makes no room for that, something which has on the plus side allowed his business to flourish.

In order to meet demands and obtain the satisfaction of their clientele, the couple does all it takes to ensure that customer satisfaction is always exceeded. They travel to Ghana, Sierra Leone, Asia, and wherever in the world they need to go to find the items their customers need.

According to the couple, this is a small price to pay to leave their customers happy. The mere smiles on the faces of satisfied customers are priceless and to the Johnsons, it is something worth maintaining because, in times past, people in need of the goods and services the International Foods grocery store provides today had to endure rather difficult means to get them.

Today, people from all walks of life can enter the International Foods store located off the Richmond Highway in Virginia and be assured of obtaining the goods and services they hoped to get, this created a lot of convenience for shoppers and shopping.

The Johnsons started the International Foods grocery store with the intention of nurturing it into a family business, their children however have dreams of their own. The couple from Sierra Leone have three children between them; Raymond, Clifford, and Desmond Johnson Junior. One of their three boys is a professional working within the finance community and another is a recent law school graduate.

In Mr. Johnson’s view, the reason why his children are for now seemingly uninterested in getting so involved with the business is due to its time-consuming nature as he explains ‘we work seven days a week and don’t have lives of our own’. Young people today like to enjoy the freedom they have and it is only natural that they feel too stagnated by the demands of the business of their parents. Yet all is not lost, and for Desmond and Rita, they still believe when the time is due, one of their children will develop an interest in the business, else they’ll have to wait on their three grandchildren to see if any of them takes over the business.

Desmond Johnson shrugs off the popularity he has in the Metro area and says that for him and his family, it is not all about being well known in the African community or making money, it is rather all about the joy of being able to meet the daily needs of customers and seeing the contentment on their faces, to him, that is a fulfillment of social responsibility. He continually speaks of the encouraging patronage the business receives from the African community though he also laments the downsides of this community.

“We as Africans always feel the need to bargain until we get a price we deem fair enough or measures up to the standards of our affordability” this is most unfair to the African entrepreneur. It rarely happens that an African shopping for a good or service at Walmart or GEICO respectively will ask for a price reduction. I therefore wonder why they don’t translate this to their fellow African neighbors in the world of business,” decries Mr. Johnson.

This phenomenon is common amongst most Africans and sometimes is done unconsciously purely based on old habits. Yet with the present state of the economy, people tend to do it a lot often, though it is yet to happen in places like Walmart or Greyhound’ says Mr. Johnson.

The hopes of the International Foods in the words of Desmond and Rita, is to stay around for a few more years, given the fact that they signed a five-year lease in 2010 with the owners of the building where their business is located. As much as they need money to keep their business, they also hope to positively impact the community by providing relatively affordable pricing for quality products.

In Mrs. Rita Johnson’s opinion, sometimes the price doesn’t really matter, so long as you are able to establish a good business rapport with your customers because they will hopefully overlook your pricing for the good service you provide. She strongly believes this on the premise of her twenty years of dealing with African women, who form a chunk of her customer base. Mrs. Johnson has developed the ability to understand her customers and work with them to meet their respective needs.

Rita recounts stories of her experiences in times past when she had to juggle school with managing the home whiles raising three boys mixed with managing a new business and being a wife in the entire process amidst sharing one car with her husband. ’We had to do what we needed to do to survive’ and giving up in the face of adversity wasn’t an option worth considering for us she said.

For Africans who are intending to start businesses of their own outside their home country, the Johnsons advice that you stay faithful to your cause, be dedicated and disciplined and also have very reliable partners back home if your kind of business requires you to travel to, or contact persons back home for supplies or advise.

You also need to expect difficulties, yet don’t let them be a deterrent and above all, have faith in God and also have someone trustworthy behind your cash register, especially if you’re going to pay your mortgage and utility bills from the proceeds of your business.

Written by Oral Ofori

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