After Esther Ajiboye was laid off from her banking job amid the Great Recession of 2008, she decided to try her hand outside of the finance industry. In the years since she’d moved to Columbus, OH from Nigeria, she hadn’t seen much Nigerian cuisine outside of her own cooking at home — so in 2010, she and her husband opened Intercontinental Restaurant, serving traditional Nigerian dishes like jollof rice, fufu and egusi stew. Intercontinental Restaurant is one of just a few Nigerian restaurants in Ohio, but 11 years since it opened, Ajiboye said its reputation has spread beyond the Columbus area.
“I’ve seen people travel from Cleveland, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, West Virginia and Michigan just to buy food,” Ajiboye said. “There was one guy who came — he said he’s been in America for four years and this was the first time eating his food since he left Nigeria. He was eating, and he was in tears. He was crying because…it was making him remember his mom that he had not seen in four years.”
Historically, the Midwest has not been a major center of African cultures and cuisines. In fact, Ajiboye said it is often difficult for African Midwesterners to access the traditional food that keeps them connected to cultural traditions. In 2016, when a group of researchers surveyed transnational African migrants about their dietary attitudes, many said they struggled to access affordable ethnic food. Not only are African restaurants scarce, but for some, even accessing the ingredients necessary for cooking African cuisine can be a challenge. Ajiboye said that this can be isolating for African immigrants.
“Coming to America… Nigerian food is very scarce, and most of us Nigerians have to cook our food by ourselves in our houses,” Ajiboye said. “[This is] a great challenge for Africans, especially Nigerians, because they just [can’t] get the food they wanted to eat.”
Food inaccessibility can also have health consequences. African markets can be difficult to find, and ordering ingredients online can be costly. The same researchers found that when immigrants struggle to find international markets that sell the groceries they need, they often turn to cheaper, less healthy foods. This may be one reason why immigrants that maintain their traditional diets have lower rates of illnesses like hypertension than those who fully acculturate to non-ethnic food.
Boyede Sobitan, a first-generation Nigerian immigrant, said that accessing traditional African cuisine can also be an important part of maintaining cultural identity.
“People have moved thousands of miles away from home to pursue a living here in the U.S., and often food is the last vestige of any culture,” Sobitan said. “The ability for that young mom from… Nigeria to be able to tell stories around food… is hard to quantify, but people who have that distance between their homeland and the land where they work, they know all too well.”
Having grown up in a Nigerian family in Chicago during the 1980s, Sobitan said accessing African groceries was especially difficult. Often, people would have to rely on friends and family members to bring ingredients back with them from overseas trips, and even when international markets began proliferating, he said it was difficult to constantly travel across the city to find markets when there weren’t any nearby.
After seeing the difficulties his family and friends experienced trying to access African groceries and ingredients, Sobitan decided to try using technology to make life a little easier for immigrant communities. He created OjaExpress, a Chicago-based app that partners with many small, ethnic markets throughout the Chicago area, allowing users to search and order ingredients for delivery to their homes.
On top of making ethnic ingredients more accessible for users, Sobitan said the app’s structure can also boost visibility for small ethnic markets, something that was especially important during the pandemic.
“A lot of these stores don’t have a website, a lot of these stores don’t have a consistent social media presence, so if you’re not in these communities, you don’t know,” Sobitan said.
For now, OjaExpress only operates in Chicago and the surrounding area. But for growing immigrant communities in Ohio and other Midwestern areas that aren’t as densely populated as Chicago, finding ethnic cuisine can still pose a challenge. But that may finally be changing.
Since 2000, Ohio’s African immigrant population has nearly tripled, jumping from 22,034 in 2000 to 95,856 in 2019.
And Ohioan African communities are no monolith. As of 2019, East, West, North and Central Africans were represented in significant numbers in Ohio. Ajiboye said it’s important to remember that each African culture has its own unique food culture, flavor and history. Nigerian, Somali and Ethiopian food are no more similar than Greek, German and Italian food.
And as diverse African immigrant communities settle throughout Ohio, various types of African cuisine are becoming more accessible. In 2018, the Ohio General Assembly created the New African Immigrants Commission (NAIC) to research and advocate for sub-Saharan African communities throughout Ohio. In 2019, NAIC released a report finding that African restaurants — serving a wide array of Nigerian, Ethiopian, Senegalese, Ghanaian, Somali and Kenyan cuisines — are playing important roles in the revitalization of cities and metro areas throughout Ohio, especially in the Columbus area.
Although these restaurants’ popularity may have started within African immigrant communities, Ajiboye said non-African Ohioans are becoming more and more eager to try African cuisine. She said some of these customers are coming to Intercontinental Restaurant without any familiarity with Nigerian food.
“I think social media has really, really helped in creating awareness,” Ajiboye said. “[Non-African customers] just want to try something different. So when they come, they see that the flavor is not what they are used to because we use a lot of African spices.”
Outside of the restaurant industry, Sobitan said he’s hoping to make OjaExpress an app that people can use when cooking ethnic foods at home for the first time, as well. Although it isn’t finalized yet, he’s working on a recipe feature for the app that will allow users to upload a recipe and then see local markets that carry the ingredients needed to make it.
“Food is an excellent cultural ambassador and… we have a big opportunity to introduce multicultural ethnic foods and products to the masses, and highlight these stores that have served these communities… [and] have been often overlooked,” Sobitan said. “I’m able to [share] a lot more robust stories about myself and humanize myself and the culture I come from over dishes.”
Although the Midwest’s growing African food scene is largely confined to areas like Columbus and the Chicago metropolitan area right now, demographic trends indicate that the market for African cuisine is likely to continue growing in towns, cities and states throughout the Midwest.
“Last Saturday, [people] came from Cleveland… and they are begging me, ‘Please, come and open in Cleveland,’” Ajiboye said. She also mentioned that this was far from the first time.
“They’re seriously begging us, ‘Please come to Indianapolis, please come to Cincinnati, come to West Virginia,’” she said.
Although Ajiboye said she’s content to stay in Columbus, African food options for her out-of-state visitors are likely to become more available as African communities continue to grow and share their cuisine and culture throughout the Midwest.