A Taste of West Africa in Harlem

A Taste of West Africa in Harlem

Johnson Houses resident Naima Afoatti is the proud owner of NINI, a company that shares a taste of her home through the traditional drinks of Togo, West Africa. Thanks to what she learned in NYCHA’s Food Business Pathways (FBP) program, Ms. Afoatti is growing her business online and sees herself closer to one day opening a West African café.

In 2016, Ms. Afoatti, age 24, graduated from FBP, a 10-week competitive business course for NYCHA residents interested in owning food businesses. The program is a collaboration between NYCHA’s Office of Resident Economic Empowerment & Sustainability (REES), NYC Department of Small Business Services (SBS), Citi Community Development, Hot Bread Kitchen, Start Small Think Big, other kitchen incubators, and REES zone partners.

“FBP makes sure you understand the business aspect,” Ms. Afoatti said. “I had already done a lot of research and did a business plan, but once FBP started, I listened to what the teachers said and fixed the errors I made.”

Ms. Afoatti was one of four students from her cohort to receive free kitchen incubator space at Hot Bread Kitchen. There she was able to work on recipes for the healthy juices she sells, made with fresh ingredients such as pineapple, lemon, and ginger. 

The idea for her company grew from her childhood. When Ms. Afoatti was 10, she moved from Togo to the U.S. and into Johnson Houses in Harlem. She and her mom made and sold drinks to people in their neighborhood. Eventually, their customers would stop them on the street for additional orders. As she got older, Ms. Afoatti wondered if she could turn their work into something bigger and began researching and planning—which is how she found out about the FBP program. 

“I am very grateful for this opportunity with Food Business Pathways because it confirmed so much of what I was doing,” said Ms. Afoatti. “It’s been hard trying to think of how I can push through to be successful, and this program really pushed me to do more.”

NINI is currently sold online at drinknini.com and in two physical locations in Harlem, New York Grill and Healthy Selection. She also sells NINI at special pop-up events throughout the city and is finalizing the process to sell through Amazon Fresh. Ms. Afoatti’s goal is to sell NINI at Whole Foods and in the meantime she is working to expand her products’ online presence. Five percent of NINI’s profits support the professional development of women entrepreneurs working in the agricultural industry in Togo, West Africa.

Since it launched in 2015, Food Business Pathways has empowered 167 residents to launch their own businesses by providing them with business education, startup capital, and affordable space to help them turn their business dreams into reality. 

Ms. Afoatti’s ultimate dream is to open a West African café that teaches people more about the history and culture of that region, brings the community together, and also supports African-owned businesses. 

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