When entrepreneur Hawaba Kebe first opened Africa World Market, she set up shop in a small location on Rideau Street, selling a curated assortment of food, clothing and cosmetics. Some 20 years later, she has grown her business into two large, thriving locations, with no signs of slowing down.
“(The business) started out of her desire to eat foods that she missed from when she was back home,” says Mory Kaba, Africa World Market’s chief operating officer and Kebe’s son.
Kebe immigrated to Canada from the Ivory Coast in 1992. When her mother would come to visit, she’d typically bring suitcases filled with various ingredients and foodstuffs from the Ivory Coast – items that piqued the interest of many of Kebe’s friends in Ottawa, who would ask where the products were from.
Seeing the major gap in the city’s food market, Kebe – already an entrepreneur with her own cleaning company – switched gears, using her savings to open up Africa World Market in 2001.
Within five years, the business had outgrown its first home and moved to Charlotte Street. Four years after that, it moved to its current 4,000-square foot location on McArthur Road. By 2019, Kebe opened a second location in Cyrville, quadrupling to 17,000-square feet.
It’s important for Kebe and her team that Africa World Market incorporates the style and culture of the different African countries it represents.
“We use a lot of African art on the walls (and) on the top of the shelves,” Kaba says. “We always have Afro music playing – things that bring culture out when you come into the store.”
Kaba was just six years old when Africa World Market first opened. When he wasn’t swimming or playing basketball, he was in the store.
“I think it was easier for (my mom) to have me around instead of trying to hunt down a babysitter all the time,” he laughs. “I’d go there after school, just seeing how things were being done.”
Fast-forward several years and, in addition to creating business strategies and ensuring operations run smoothly, Kaba is launching an online shopping platform for the store.
“That’s something we wanted to do for a while, but the pandemic accelerated the timeline for that,” he says.
Supply chain bottlenecks
With food and grocery stores deemed essential businesses and allowed to remain open throughout the pandemic, Africa World Market has seen an influx of customers, keeping its 40 employees busy.
But it hasn’t all been smooth sailing. The pandemic has made sourcing products from overseas a challenge, with expensive shipping costs and longer wait times. However, thanks to its large warehouse, Africa World Market is able to stock up its products, creating a buffer between deliveries.
That same warehouse has played a key role in Africa World Market’s charitable events. Last year, the business partnered with the African Canadian Association of Ottawa, donating items for COVID-19 relief packages that were assembled in its warehouse space and distributed using its trucks.
Africa World Market eventually hopes to open its own charitable foundation.
“We do love to give back to our community, and we definitely are looking at doing more of that in the coming future,” Kaba says.
As well as being the chief operating officer of Africa World Market, Kaba is an independent consultant, working with international businesses for their procurement needs. Seeing his mother’s entrepreneurial journey, “gives me the courage to be curious in my own endeavours, to push the boundaries of what entrepreneurship can be,” Kaba says.
The Bright Side of Business is an editorial feature focused on sharing positive stories of business success.
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