Mahinga Tubirori was tired of driving to St. Louis.
He made the trip from Columbia frequently because it was the closest place where he could find the African food and brands he loved. Eventually, he wondered whether traveling Interstate 70 for hours was necessary.
“Why do we have to drive two hours — and two hours to come back?” he asked himself.
When Tubirori ran out of reasons, he decided to bring the brands to Columbia and opened the African Market in June 2019.
“We opened something here to help our community,” Tubirori said. “Here they can have a place to buy their own foods. That’s the idea.”
Products and brands that some Columbia residents might be unfamiliar with, such as Fufu flour and Praise hot sauce, are staples of African cuisine and part of the African Market’s appeal.
Tubirori said the appeal extends beyond just those taste-of-home products into something more personal. He works to build relationships with his regular customers and help them whenever they need it.
At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Tubirori gave his cell phone number to customers and offered to deliver food when they couldn’t come to the store.
Business was slow at the African Market, but Tubirori still wanted to help where he could because “everyone was going through it.”
He also said he works with local churches to provide food and get the word out about his store to the African community in Columbia.
“It was tough to reach them in the beginning,” he said.
But once customers found the African Market, they kept coming back.
“They always have something new and different,” one customer wrote on Facebook.
Adding more offerings, such as the ever-growing range of produce, is the next step for the African Market.
“We see the store bigger,” Tubirori said. “Where we can have not only African (food) … maybe like an international market.”
Even if the African Market continues to grow, Tubirori said he will work to ensure his store doesn’t feel like a big box retailer.
“It is important,” he said. “There is some stuff you can’t find at Walmart.”
And when a customer finds a brand at the African Market they had given up finding in a big-box store, Tubirori knows he’s done his job.
“It’s special for everybody,” he said.