Nearly three years ago lawyer Lovelyn Bassey (36) took one of those tentative trips into downtown Johannesburg in hot pursuit of the delicacies of her native Nigeria.
Like many of her fellow expatriates living in a foreign land Bassey had a craving and a deep longing for something familiar, something that tasted like home – in this case dried catfish.
However, her experience on that day prompted her to reimagine the concept of the African convenience store in the diaspora. It lead to her opening a fresh produce market and grocer in the suburb of Randburg and lovingly name it Urban Ethnic Market.
In her 18 years of living in Johannesburg, Bassey would normally avoid the inner city at all costs. But this time she had missed home so much that she ventured into Yeoville to gather supplies to prepare a traditional Nigerian meal for her husband and three small children.
“Believe it or not, I got my handbag stolen from my car. I kid you not, while I was looking for parking, they reached into my window grabbed it and ran. It was truly a traumatic experience, I ran after them thinking they would show some compassion,” Bassey says with a deep sigh.
While Mzansi may be home to thousands of African expatriates, the foods from across the continent have been relatively underrepresented in the country, argues Bassey. Hers is a business that arose from a need to buy African food for herself and her family in a country that does not really accommodate her needs.
Today her business specialises in importing African ingredients and delicacies from as far as Côte d’Ivoire and Cameroon to our neighbouring Zimbabwe.
“There is nothing wrong with African food. It is just as good as any other cuisine on the shelves of any supermarket. But when you want it you have to go get it in such a place?” a frustrated Bassey asks.
Her business has since become a safe haven for African expats bringing the flavours of the continent to Johannesburg.
“95% of what I source from Nigeria I import myself, part of what I sell from Ghana I also import myself. It helps me assure quality as well, and I can answer questions of traceability for it because I know where it is from,” she affirms.
Starting a business is a challenge on its own. But keeping it afloat amid a global pandemic is a true test of resilience, she says. “A lot of people lost their business during the pandemic and the fact that I had something that would bring in money, even if it was one thing here and there, I was grateful for that.”
While travel restrictions may have eased, vessel delays continue to hamper her business operations. “We have now run very short on supplies and in fact, I am still waiting for one container from Nigeria, it has seemingly taken some sort of trip around the world,” Bassey says.
Ports have been plagued by major backlogs and have become a thorn in the side of suppliers from other countries, Bassey explains. “In the Congo it was an issue of shortages because of border closures which made it difficult to restock Congolese products, we were out of stock for a whole lot of things that you should not be out of stock for,” she laments.
Things are seemingly looking up again, slowly but surely, she says. “It is an act of balance. Trying to find that balance and keeping customers happy and keeping your lights on and paying the bills. Customers don’t know how much of the cost we absorb just to prevent costs from going as high as it went to source products on my shelves.”
The blows of the lockdown turbulence have been softened by appreciation from her clientele.
‘There is nothing wrong with African food. It is just as good as any other cuisine on the shelves of any supermarket.’
“It’s the little things really, they appreciate the effort that goes into accessing products from home, giving them what they want in a safe place. The place is quite decent, you know and you won’t have your bag snatched from you,” she adds.
A balancing act
Every business has its fair share of ups and downs and it is quite difficult when you enter an industry that you did not originally study for. But then you learn and find a way to navigate it and make a success of it, Bassey says.
A registered lawyer with the law society of South Africa, Bassey also runs a corporate firm based in Gauteng called Bassey L Attorneys Inc. She holds an LL.B from the University of Pretoria and a master’s in law from Howard University in Washington D.C. in the USA.
She is also a mother of three small children under the age of ten. When asked how she does it all, a panicked Bassey exclaims that “there are not enough hours in the day!”
However, she believes that she was prepared from her youth growing up in Nigeria to be a jack of all trades as her father ran a supermarket there. “It was not too farfetched that I would end up owning one at some point in my life,” she laughs.
Charged by her family’s entrepreneurial spirit Bassey adds that, “the goal has always been to have multiple businesses. To do what you love in different areas and making a success of it as much as possible, pushing it,” Bassey says passionately.
“Ultimately what keeps me going is doing something where I am fulfilled. I know that right now I must put in all of this effort and invest and sacrifice. I know it will pay off in the end, I will not work this hard forever,” she adds.
Entrepreneurship is not for the faint of heart she warns. “Some people think it’s easy. It’s never that pretty, for lack of a better word. You constantly have to elevate and improve your business.”
Bassey’s advice to prospective entrepreneurs is simple. “Keep at it,” she says sternly.
She admits that she was never a foodie until she opened the Urban Ethnic Market. “I would never eat or try foods from outside of my country or South Africa.”
“Starting this store, I had a mind shift, imagine I am selling food, but I am scared of trying new things? How will I explain what is on offer to other people?” an amused Bassey asks.
“Broaden your horizons if you look for an opportunity that you can find joy in,” she advises. “Then do it.”