Hamissi Mamba and his wife Nadia Nijimbere left Burundi for the US in 2015 after a flare up of ethnic-based political violence.
They did not speak a word of English or enough money to start their lives afresh, with twins on the way. They even had to live in a shelter for refugees for some time.
“I have a degree in business administration but couldn’t find a job so I ended up working in a factory,” said Mamba.
Even with the job that at least brought in some money, life was not easy in Detroit city, in the mid-western state of Michigan. The city has a broad selection of international restaurants but none served Africa cuisine.
The couple would often have to order fresh food items from Chicago which is over 450km away.
“I thought if I could speak English in six months, I could do better for my family and improve our lives.”
He was dissatisfied with the night shift job but family commitments could not allow him to go back to school, so he decided to start a business.
A pop-up lunch buffet
“So I said, ‘why not try to come up with an African restaurant to share our culture and our food?’” said Mambo.
So one day the couple served a pop-up lunch buffet of Burundian food. The event was a hit.
“We sold over 100 dishes in 45 minutes. People are still asking when the next one is going to be,” said Mamba. The couple realised that their idea to start a Burundian restaurant was a winning formula.
To realise their dream of owning a restaurant, they entered the Commerica Hatch Competition, an entrepreneurship contest and won a $50,000 cash prize for their restaurant concept, called Baobab Fare.
The Commerica Hatch Competition was created to support independent, retail start-ups in Detroit city with funding, education, exposure and mentoring.
“This is a dream come true and the US is the only place in the world where you can get this chance,” said a delighted Mamba.
Baobab Fare is expected to open before the end of the year and the couple plan to use the money to build the kitchen and buy equipment, and also furnish the restaurant.
A Burundian dishes on the menu at Baobab Fare. PHOTO | COURTESY | BAOBAB FARE
Neither of the two have formal training in food and beverage or restaurant management, but Mamba’s mother used to own a restaurant in Burundi where he would often help out as a youngster to earn some pocket money. So he has a vague idea of how a restaurant works, and added, “I also like to eat good food.”
While his wife handles the cooking side of the business, Mamba takes care of the administrative and communication aspects.
Baobab Fare will serve Burundian specialties such as marinated chicken and onion, salted fish, spinach with peanuts and cassava leaf.
The menu will also cater for vegetarians and vegans who, according to Mamba, have limited meal options in most restaurants.
“We will offer a vegetable stew with rice, cooked just like the way its done in Burundi. Since yellow beans are available in Detroit, we will serve that too.”
The couple said common East African dishes such as ugali, chapati mayai, coconut rice, nyama choma (char grilled meat), fried plantain, traditionally brewed tea and Burundian coffee will be a must have on the menu.
In the juice bar, Mamba is planning to offer ginger-passion fruit juice and hibiscus juice alongside other tropical fruit juices.
To offer more value, the restaurant will have a market section where customers can purchase ingredients imported from Burundi such as spices, tea and Burundian coffee.
Said Mamba, “We’re going to sell halal meat because it’s not easy getting it in Detroit. We will also work with Detroit farmers to sell fresh fruits and vegetable.”
Immigrants creating jobs
While winning the cash prize and the success of the pop-up food events they have been holding are exciting, Mamba is motivated by more than just sharing good African food.
He wants to show the potential that immigrants have.
He said, “We have many skills and we need to break the chain that our destination is always in the factories. We are here to build and to create jobs, not just to take jobs.”
A pop-up buffet serving home made food
Baobab Fare will be an East African restaurant, market, and juice bar, offering an array of prepared menu items, groceries, juices, and other retail products unique to that part of the world.
The store will be curated with a great deal of thought, detail, and design dedicated to adding diversity to Detroit’s culinary community.
According to Hamissi Mamba, “The concept is different because the way people live and eat in the US, and live and eat in Africa is different.”
“We don’t have refrigerators in Africa, so we cook every single day. We go to the market, buy food, and cook, then eat. We do that every single day,,” he told Detroit’s Metro Times.
Since most people in Africa don't have a lot of money to buy oils and ingredients for cooking, a lot of the simple dishes rely on spices grown on family land. Mamba describes them as flavourful spices, but not hot.
Dishes are heavy on vegetables like green pepper, onion, tomatoes, garlic, and celery. That’s cooked with lemon and spices like white pepper, black pepper, curry, cumin, oregano, and garam masala.
Source: The East African.