Oja bags $3.4M to build an online supermarket for ethnic products

As investors continue to pour billions into super speedy on-demand grocery delivery — trying to dislodge the dominance of traditional supermarket giants via a hyper convenience lever (whipping up some local opposition to their 24/7 dark stores and delivery methods in the process) — other entrepreneurs are spotting opportunities to slow things down a little. And, well, spice things up.

Their goal is to slice off specialist market chunks by serving particular communities, requirements and tastes — say by delivering premium, locally sourced groceries or catering to cultural difference by stocking a wide range of ethnic produce.

On the latter front, meet Oja, a London-based startup that’s just scored a $3.4 million pre-seed round, led by LocalGlobal, to build what it’s billing as the first online supermarket targeting the country’s growing cultural communities.

Other funds backing the startup include Acequia Capital; Tiny VC; and black angel group, HoaQ Fund. The round also includes a number of angel investors — including Darren Shapland (CFO of Sainsbury’s); David Vismans (CPO of Booking.com); Dimple Patel (COO of Trouva); Anton Soulier (formerly Deliveroo, now CEO of Taster); Sharmadean Reid (CEO of The Stack World); Spoken Word poet Suli Breaks; Azeem Azhar (with a family link to the Asian food manufacturer TRS); and Riccardo Zacconi (co-founder of King.com).

Starting with a focus on serving London and its large African and Caribbean community — Oja means “market” in Yoruba, a Nigerian language — the startup’s plan is to expand its inventory and app to serve a diverse range of ethnicities and cultures by stocking the foods and other wares (e.g. beauty products) which are sought by those communities; and by tailoring its app to provide what it describes as “a unique culturally-specific shopping experience”.

Oja’s pitch suggests its customers might span first-generation immigrants; busy young professionals looking to enjoy the food of their heritage; university students missing home comforts and who live in areas where it’s hard to buy ethnic food produce; and returning expats who want an easy way to access the specialist ingredients to cook the food they’ve been eating abroad.

For now it’s early days. The 2020-founded startup has run a small-scale pilot with around 200 users — which it says showed appetite for the service, with 67% of orders coming from repeat customers, and basket counts and sizes “exponentially rising” as more products were added to the online store.

It also notes that the app’s user base grew 56% “from word of mouth alone” during the pilot — arguing this shows the strength of community appeal that can drive reach of the app.

“Favourites include plantain, yams, Scotch bonnet chili peppers, oxtail and more… fresh produce is extremely important to these communities,” adds founder Mariam Jimoh, who bootstrapped the MVP (and previously founded the WCAN social enterprise for black women).

She says the goal is to provide multicultural communities with “an essential service” that far surpasses the experience they can get in the “world food” aisle at a mainstream supermarket.

“The choice of ethnic produce in some supermarkets are very limited and Oja has everything you need in one place. Not only this, there are nuances for particular foods and items that are culturally specific that we aim to include; people care how ripe their plantains are or the way their meat is cut. We aim to include these nuances to speak directly to our customers,” she tells TechCrunch.

“The app will allow you to shop by culture as we add more and more ethnicities to the assortment. Right now we sort things into cultures within one specific cultural group; African & Caribbean. As part of our expansion plans, we will look to expand the other ethnic produce we offer in the future.”

One challenge here is that an online supermarket stocking specialist ethnic produce will inevitably be competing with the small, local markets that have served these communities for years — and can also act as a vibrant community hub — so the app could be seen as breaking a crucial, IRL link for ethnic communities to get together on a daily basis, in and around buying fresh food.

At the same time, app-driven convenience is already eroding in-person retail. And younger generations may be less keen (or able) to spend the time to actually go to a market in person to buy their groceries. So there’s little doubt that traditional markets will face increased competition from specialist apps and online platforms.

But, ultimately, those startups that find ways to work with — and help sustain — in-person local ethnic produce markets might get the best reception from the communities they seek to serve.

Currently, Oja has one central fulfilment center which it’s using to serve the whole of London — with Jimoh saying its focus is on “access and ease vs extreme convenience at this stage”.

“This number will grow as smaller dark stores are launched based on where demand in cultures and products are strongest,” she adds.

On the delivery side, Oja is working with third-party delivery services to pick up that piece — putting its initial focus on operations and customer experience, per Jimoh.

Scaling to cover more regions of the U.K., as well as expanding the range of cultures it serves, is the goal for the pre-seed funding.

While Oja still has plenty of expansion to keep it busy within the U.K., does Jimoh have any ambitions to scale the business outside the country?

“Everyday we have a tweet or message asking us when we are coming to Italy or France or even Ukraine — we think there is a market for this solution across all of Europe,” she says.

“Our mission is really to unlock access to foods from every culture, from anywhere in the world. Our focus is London initially but we will quickly expand across the U.K. and then we certainly have our eye on Europe.”

Commenting on the pre-seed raise in a statement, George Henry, general partner at LocalGlobe, added: “In a sea of grocery delivery services and apps, Oja stands out for taking a new and refreshing approach. One that centres on community, heritage and access, as much as speed, convenience and variety. From the use of technology to her relationship and deep connections with suppliers, and her full-stack approach, Mariam and her team are building a game changing company that is set to raise the bar for the underserved communities across London, the UK and Europe.”

On the competition front, we’ve recently heard tell of a meaty seed funding round headed for a continental Europe-based ethnic grocery delivery app — so this slice of on-demand groceries certainly looks like it’s heating up.