Imagine coming to the United States from Burundi (E. Africa) as a refugee due to political violence in 2013. Your wife leaves to explore potential opportunities in a new country and hopefully, a new start. Shortly after her arrival, she finds refuge at the Freedom House in Detroit–a temporary home for those seeking relief from the strife and violence in your homeland. Your wife then discovers she’s pregnant with twins.
And after joining her in 2015, you find a job and decide it’s not consistent with your expectations. After much deliberation, reflection and thought, you both decide it’s time to focus on chasing your dream by creating a restaurant concept based on your native country.
This is the story of Nadia Nijimbere and Hamissi Mamba–this year’s winners of the 7th Comerica Hatch Detroit contest.
Their business concept, Baobab (pronounced Bow-Bob) Fare, was selected from over 160 entrants this year. The married couple won $50k and $200k in cash and pro bono services, respectively, to launch their unique restaurant concept. Baobab Fare will feature dishes and products reflecting their East Africa roots while deeply embracing the culture of their homeland.
I was fortunate to emcee this year’s event and was able to talk to Mamba about sharing their experiences coming to Detroit, their winning concept and the consumer experience after Baobab Fare opens next year.
Lee: How did you end up in the States, specifically, Detroit?
Mamba: We wanted to explore our options outside of Burundi, so Nadia made the voyage across the ocean in 2013. Once she discovered that twins were coming into our lives, we decided to stay in Detroit. I remember coming to the states in September or October for the first time and experienced the dramatically different temperatures here. For some time, we considered moving to Texas, as the climate patterns in Texas are a lot closer to East Africa than Detroit’s patterns. Once the kids were born in Detroit, we wanted to stay here and let them experience the new city in which they were born. We wanted to give back to the city for all that they had given us so far, so we stayed.
Lee: Has Detroit been a welcoming city?
Mamba: Detroit has given us a second home. It’s given us two daughters, the opportunity to start our business, and given us a new life in a new country that we’re very grateful for. We want to raise our children in Detroit so that they can grow up and give back to the community just like those that helped us in making our transition here. We’ve been embraced by tons of folks since our involvement began with the Comerica Hatch Detroit Contest, and we’re extremely thankful for all of the support we’ve received from the entire city of Detroit.
We look forward to giving back to the city by not only providing exceptional East African dishes, but by hiring other refugees and Detroiters that wish to experience the Baobab culture and build lives that embrace and support the community.
Lee: Please describe the moment when your name was announced as the winner.
Mamba: We were very ecstatic when we discovered that we had won the contest. It was a dream come true. We also thought about all of our friends and relatives, both back in East Africa and in Detroit. Several of them thought we were crazy for focusing our time and efforts on opening a restaurant. Friends kept saying that we needed to put our time into the factories and earn money to start the business, claiming the odds were not in our favor, especially because we are new to the English language. At some points, we were discouraged by these opinions, but felt very accomplished and happy when we learned we had won the contest.
Lee: You have very strong family values. Share your thoughts about the family support from your wife and others.
Mamba: Since day one, we’ve believed that our business concept and offerings would be successful because our dishes are so original. There aren’t many places in the United States, let alone Detroit, that serve East African dishes. If we want Detroit to be a cultural champion, restaurants, markets and stores like Baobab are essential in capturing a wider variety of cultural food in Detroit’s dining scene. My family and friends around the world are proud â€“ the restaurant, its food and culture are surely from Africa – but the business has been made in Detroit. Therefore, we feel that Baobab is a Detroit-built business, and we look forward to becoming a part of the rich dining scene in the city.
Family is very important in Africa, and it’s very important to me. My wife and I work well together and extended our family a few months within being in the United States. Family has many definitions though. Our time in Detroit has introduced us to other families that include local farmers, business people and organizational networks like Comerica Bank and Hatch Detroit. We’ve enjoyed the opportunity to meet professionals from each of these fields, and look forward to further developing relationships with them as we prepare to open shop here in Detroit.
Lee: Where does the name, Baobab Fare come from?
Mamba: Baobab is a type of tree in Africa going extinct. My mother owned a restaurant that was called BaoBab Restaurant. When we decided to pursue the idea of opening a restaurant and market here, we knew that Baobab would be incorporated.
Lee: You won $50k from Comerica Bank and pro bono services to support your business. How will the money be used?
Mamba: Before the contest started, we were in contact with advisors and financial planning professionals that provided some figures and efforts that are needed to make the restaurant come to life. After our involvement with the Comerica Hatch Detroit Contest, we’re in a much more fortunate position than before and have some funds to further the process. We’re hoping to specifically use the $50,000 from the Comerica Hatch Detroit Contest to create a beautiful kitchen.
The pro bono services will be very helpful in eliminating many other expenses we otherwise have to pay out of pocket.
Lee: Any idea for the location and timing?
Mamba: We’re hoping to be open in 2018 in the West Village neighborhood of Detroit. Hopefully by next summer we’ll be open, as there is still much planning to be done. In the meantime, we will be continuing to host pop-up shops that feature specific dishes that will be available when the cafe comes to life next year. We want to use these next few pop-up events to personally thank the community that has supported us from day one and those who supported us in the Comerica Hatch Detroit Contest.
Lee: You’re bringing an East African fare to the Motor City. What makes your concept unique and why will it work in Detroit and what can customers expect?
Mamba: We’re confident that our dishes will be a hit in Detroit because this is a new cuisine type that isn’t available in Detroit. Many people at our pop-ups this year have expressed interest and have agreed that there is a lack of this type of cuisine in the area. We look forward to incorporating tons of foods, spices and vegetables into dishes that will suit differing dietary restrictions and preferences.
A positive, family-focused ambiance that reflects East African culture.
Lee: In preparing for this contest, what’s been the biggest challenge and how did you address it?
Mamba: Our biggest challenge throughout the contest was proving to Hatch Detroit that we deserved to win the contest. The language barrier and inexperience of showcasing and running a business was a great difficulty, but we received help along the way and look forward to opening a shop here in Detroit.
We look forward to overcoming our next challenge, which will be timing. We’re hoping to have the business opened by next summer and hope to invite finalists from the 2018 Comerica Hatch Detroit Contest to enjoy our dishes during next year’s event!
We’re extremely grateful for receiving the opportunity to pursue our dreams and look forward to providing high quality East African food to the people of Detroit very soon.