Grocery shopping poses challenges for many immigrants.
"We don't get all of our products from a corner store," said James Sanigular, a native of Liberia who lives in Shoreview. That often means making extra trips to more than one store to track down certain items.
To help bridge that gap, Sanigular started Global African Foods, headquartered in Brooklyn Park, to import foods from Africa and the Caribbean and other parts of the world to the Twin Cities metro area.
After negotiating with the Supervalu-owned Cub Foods, his product line launched in 17 of the chain's local stores this fall, while several more will soon follow.
The products include many items African immigrants use regularly, like fufu, a thick paste that's used in soup, palm oil, and Maggi brand bouillon cubes, Jamaican-style hot sauce, a pineapple-flavored drink and a strong coffee blend.
The coffee is grown in the wild, without fertilizers, "just the rain and sun," he said. "If you taste it, you won't want to drink any other coffee."
The idea is to make large retailers like Cub in Minnesota and across the country a one-stop shop for ethnic products, he explained. It's an ambitious mission, but one with plenty of potential, he said.
In the past, the former stockbroker invested in a mom-and-pop grocery store in Crystal, where he saw a high demand for ethnic foods. His research shows that at least 100,000 African immigrants live in Minnesota, with the majority of recent immigrants to the state coming from the continent.
"They're becoming a large part of the landscape," especially in the northern suburbs, he said.
Sanigular also has discovered a clientele in those who've visited Africa or who want to stretch their culinary tastes.
The demand is there, but "not a single individual has capitalized on it," he said. "That's where we want to have an impact in the community."
Sanigular gets most of the products from Africa through Ghana or New York City, and he's lining up vendors in Liberia and Kenya as well.
In the near future, he hopes to supply certain stores with different goods, depending on neighborhood demographics. For example, he's trying to get more Halal foods into a couple of Cub stores in south Minneapolis and St. Paul, which serve a large Somali population.
In the future, he hopes to bring the products to other grocery stores across the country. "I want to introduce these products to the majority population," he said.
He'd like to also export some American products -- like bottled water, paper towels and perfumes -- to Africa. To expand the company, though, he needs to raise $5 million in capital. That's what it will take to become a major player in this space, he said.
"It's always difficult when you're the first person on the block, but we are in front of it and making progress," he said. "We're familiar with the terrain; we know the people and the market."
Cub spokesperson Luke Friedrich said that for the chain, "A major focus of ours is making each of our individual stores locally relevant." Global African Foods helps in "tailoring some very specific products to a growing ethnic population here in the Twin Cities," he said.
The products can be found in an internationally focused aisle in local Cub stores. "Demand varies a bit by store, but overall it's pretty consistent and the response has been positive," he said.
Bill Blazar, who serves on the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, said that more broadly this kind of trade represents "a huge opportunity for Minnesota."
"The African nations are developing, they're stabilizing," and much like China 25 years ago, it's "an enormous market."
Although some Minnesota companies are doing business in Africa, "nobody has much of a presence there," he said. A business like Global African Foods gives the state a competitive edge in this area.
"It's a gateway to doing business in Africa," he said. "Hopefully it'll be successful and more companies follow suit."
In this context, Global African Foods is "a very important business to watch," Blazar said.
Anna Pratt is a Twin Cities freelance writer.