African entrepreneurs work the margins in central San Diego

I started from empty

Said Dubed - at the City Heights store 8:00 a.m.–9:00 p.m. seven days a week.

Said Dubed - at the City Heights store 8:00 a.m.–9:00 p.m. seven days a week.

In a recent Vanity Fair article, Groupon founder Andrew Mason is described as “the type of guy who comes up with wild ideas that often have no beginning or end, and then lets them rip.” Recent billionaire stories like Mason’s have built a specific image associated with the word “entrepreneur.” Often, it calls to mind educated, smart-alecky white guys with highly developed tech skills.

Two weeks ago, someone broke into Osman’s van and took…nothing. 
It wasn’t the first time.

Two weeks ago, someone broke into Osman’s van and took…nothing. It wasn’t the first time.

Somalia-born business owner Said Dubed may represent a different demographic of entrepreneurs than 30-year-old Mason, but it wouldn’t be a stretch to describe him, too, as “a guy who comes up with wild ideas…and then lets them rip.”

Dubed’s Far Janna market sits near the northeastern corner of University and 54th Street. The shelves are sparsely stocked with Jif peanut butter, Comet cleaning products, and a range of jars, cans, and bottles bearing Arabic writing. Beneath the foreign (to me) script, one glass jar reads “Labneh in oil.” Inside, white balls float in a clear, yellow liquid.

Uganda native Luchia Lokonyen sells spinach and collard greens each Saturday at the City Heights Farmers’ Market

Uganda native Luchia Lokonyen sells spinach and collard greens each Saturday at the City Heights Farmers’ Market

The approximately 1000-square-foot space looks sparse now, but Dubed assures me, I would have been shocked to see it six months ago.

“I started from empty,” he says. “For the first four months, I only sold drinks. Like Arizona [Iced Tea], Coke, stuff like that.”

A year ago, Dubed bought this market over the phone. From Atlanta, Georgia. The move was bold not only because of the distance, but also because he’d never seen the store, didn’t know the man he’d bought it from, and knew little about San Diego except that it had a large Somali community.

In Atlanta, where he’d lived since his family arrived in the U.S., Dubed had worked as a taxi driver and a produce seller (at a farmers’ market). He’d received a certificate in electronics assembly and taken some classes at Atlanta Metropolitan College, but when the distance from work to school proved too great and the schedules too competitive, he chose work over school. In addition to his weekday jobs, Dubed bought clothes at clearance prices and sold them on the street for a small profit on weekends.

During those Atlanta years, Dubed visited relatives in San Diego three times. In early 2010, when he decided he “was tired of living in Atlanta,” he began to think seriously about moving to San Diego.

“I thought it would be a better life here,” he says, his voice soft and gravelly. “I wanted to do business. It’s hard [in Atlanta]. Here, it’s still hard, but over there, they don’t have a lot of Somali people.”

Dubed says he would have been happy owning one of three businesses: a Mediterranean restaurant, an electronics shop of the AT&T or T-Mobile sort, or a grocery store. In February 2010, a friend called from San Diego and told him about a building at the edge of City Heights, in the thick of the Somali community. It had once been a taco shop and still bore a sign that read “POLLO AL CARBON Mexican Food.” After the taco shop closed, someone else had rented the space and tried their luck at turning it into a grocery store, but that had failed, and now the business was for sale.

“I talked to the business owner by phone, and then I bought it from him.” Dubed shrugs slightly, as if unsure why these details matter.

We’re seated at the red, green, and yellow picnic table in front of the market. It’s not yet 5:00 p.m., and so far, the before-dinner rush hasn’t begun. Dubed’s friend and coworker Mohammed (short and light to Dubed’s tall, thin, and dark) has joined us, in case we need help communicating.

Two weeks after his initial phone call with the business owner, Dubed landed in San Diego, gave the guy $10,000, and promised him another $15,000 later. The deal was that, for as long as he still owed the $15,000, he’d pay $1500 each month. This bought him the key. And with the key came everything left behind by the previously failed market business.

While he’s explaining all this, a man approaches from the sidewalk. He shouts something to Dubed, who flashes him a smile, jumps up, and leads the man inside. Mohammed picks up where Dubed left off.

“So he gets the key, which means everything is ready,” Mohammed says, smiling. “He owns everything inside, the fridges, and everything that’s been done. He didn’t have to do any of the work.”

Mohammed never stops smiling as he tells me how he started out as one of Dubed’s customers, how they began to chat as friends, and how he began to help out every now and again until Dubed hired him. Today, Mohammed’s pretty sure the store wouldn’t run without him.

“I do everything he can’t do.” Mohammed brings me inside, where, after the bright sunlight, our eyes must adjust to the dimness. “I go shopping to get stuff in here. Right now, I’m trying to see what’s missing, so tomorrow morning I can go shopping.” He gestures toward a wooden fruit stand against the wall to the right of the register. “See, like, we’re out of tomatoes and bananas.”

Two more customers come and go, both men. One shows me his two gallon-jugs of milk and explains that he comes to the store “not only because it’s Somali,” but because it’s close enough to his home that he can walk. “I don’t need to drive, and they have everything. Except clothes. At Kmart [across the street] I buy the clothes. Here they have food, drink, milk, meat, chicken.”

Dubed comes back and reminds me that this wasn’t always the case. He didn’t have the money to offer more than drinks until May, when he began to accept Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards and Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) checks from those on public assistance.

“When I got EBT, people started coming,” he says. “Most of my customers use EBT. After two more months, I got WIC, and I got more customers. Then I started selling Mexican food. Pollo.

The Mexican food didn’t last long. After four months, the guys he’d hired to make the pollo “got locked up,” and he lost the customers he’d originally gained from their food.

In December, Dubed went to the International Rescue Committee looking for a loan to stock his shelves with the things he’d need to draw in more customers. But the organization needed to see him settle some other matters first.

Turns out, $1000 of the $1500 Dubed paid to the business owner each month went to the landlord for rent. But the other $500 had not gone toward the $15,000 he owed the business owner.

“The bottom line of the situation,” Joel Chrisco of the organization’s microenterprise program later tells me, “is that when [Dubed] started the business, he was in there informally without a lease agreement. He was unfamiliar with how business lease agreements worked or the importance of having a signed lease. He followed his dream of opening a market without really knowing all the legal and regulatory requirements that come along with being a business owner.”

After Chrisco and Dubed met with the business owner and the landlord and wrote up agreements with both, Dubed received a $10,000 loan from the program. He spent about $6000 on goods from a company in Minnesota that carries products, such as dates and date-filled cookies from Saudia Arabia that Somali people buy. As per his agreements, every month Dubed now pays $1000 directly to the landlord and $500 toward the remaining $10,000 that he owes the business owner. He also pays $271.77 monthly toward his loan from the International Rescue Committee.

Dubed walks me toward a shelf in the back. It’s stacked with spices he’s purchased in bulk and divided into two-ounce see-through plastic containers. He lifts one filled with tiny black seeds. From another shelf, he pulls a small bottle that reads “Black Seed Oil.” When I ask what it’s for, he calls Mohammed over.

“Medical purposes,” Mohammed says. “If you’re feeling abnormal, like if you have diarrhea or gas. It’s for cleaning out your system.”

“For building your immune system,” Dubed adds.

But the biggest seller at Far Janna is the meat.

“Goat meat and beef,” Dubed says. “It’s halal. That means when you kill the animal you say the name of God. And all the blood is drained out.”

“Basically, you have to cut off the head.” Mohammed laughs nervously, as though this is not a conversation one should have with a lady. “You can’t shoot it or torture it. It has to be a straight, clean slaughter.”

The beef and goat come from Australia. In two regularly scheduled deliveries, they receive over 1600 pounds of meat every week.

Mohammed lifts the lid on a standing freezer in the middle of the store and heaves out a thick plastic bag filled with 50 pounds of frozen cubed meat. “This is my job,” he says. Then he pulls out another plastic bag, this one containing a 50-pound hunk of uncut meat. “This is round top. It’s the back of the leg.”

He opens the door of a large walk-in freezer to point out the frozen-meat saw machine he uses to cube the meat. When I ask if anyone ever takes the leg whole, he smiles. “I wish.” Then he launches into a brief lecture about the importance of fully cooking meat before eating it, because dead bacteria become viruses.

Most of the Far Janna customers are Somali. The Mexican customers they do have stick to drinks and phone cards. Dubed believes that when he brings in someone to cook Middle Eastern food, it will draw in more people of every background. The pollo did. But that will have to wait until after Ramadan.

A woman in a hijab comes in, followed by a little boy. Mohammed tends to them while Dubed grabs a catalog from behind the cashier counter. His plans, he says, are to add the Middle Eastern food and more 99-cent items.

“Like, this stuff is 69 cents and 72 cents, and we’ll sell it for 99 cents,” he says, flipping open the catalog. The page reveals toothbrushes for 39 cents, air-freshener and wrenches for 72 cents.

The work it takes to build this kind of a business is hard, Dubed admits. He’s at the store 8:00 a.m.–9:00 p.m. seven days a week and has been since his first day in town.

“I don’t know anything about San Diego. I only know from here to Chase Bank. And the only people I know in San Diego are my customers. If I don’t see them, I miss them.”

To keep his customers coming back, he employs generosity. “I give away a lot. When they’re happy, I’m happy.”

So far, after a year and a half, things seem to be going well.

“Since I opened the store, my goal is to make it bigger, but I never look at how much money I make and how much I lose. Most of my customers come at the beginning of the month. At the end of the month, if I see there’s more money in my account than there was last month, and if the store has more stuff than last month, it’s good.”

”I Need That”

Two blocks south of Far Janna Market, Luchia Lokonyen stands in the center of her 600-square-foot garden plot on a Friday evening in early July. While she waters her crops with a garden hose, she points beyond her plot and the next one over, to a long strip of land overgrown with man-sized weeds. There are 84 other garden plots on this 2.3-acre community farm. The weedy strip is the only section that has not been cultivated.

“I need that,” she says.

She winks, but isn’t joking. Luchia wants to build a business that her 600 square feet can’t support. She punches me in the shoulder. “You ask the people.”

By “the people” she means the International Rescue Committee, and more specifically, Amy Lint, the organization’s former senior farming specialist — her go-to for most questions and issues regarding this vacant-lot-turned-community-garden at the edge of City Heights.

According to data gathered by the Kauffman Foundation, between 2009 and 2010, entrepreneurial activity rates increased both among those with less than a high school degree and among immigrants. A 2008 summary of research published by the Small Business Association asserts: “In California, immigrants are 34.2 percent of the new business owners each month.” In San Diego, the International Rescue Committee helped open 40 new immigrant businesses during 2009 and 2010.

Luchia’s skin glistens in the late-afternoon sun, but she seems unbothered by the heat. She waters the spinach while explaining how she found this little square of land and why she needs more.

In 2008, the Ugandan native arrived in San Diego unable to read, write, or speak English. Soon after, she began to attend an English and literacy class at Marshall Elementary School. The class was part of the International Rescue Committee’s First Things First program, for newly arrived immigrants. One day, Lint came in to recruit families interested in farming for a community garden project.

Lint later tells me over the phone, “The idea behind the garden was to help newly arrived refugees return to their agrarian roots. We wanted them to get comfortable with working the land here, and we thought it would also impact their food budget. Luchia was a great candidate.”

This afternoon, Luchia points out the crops she uses most in her cooking.

“I make the spinach and sukuma,” she says, aiming her chin toward the western edge of the garden. “I cook it with onion and oil. Sometimes we eat it with ugale. Sometimes with rice.”

Ugale, she tells me, is cornmeal cooked in water. And when I ask which one of the plants is sukuma, she gestures again in the same direction. “Over there. The green one.”

Although I cannot distinguish between one green in her garden and another, Luchia doesn’t specify further. The 35-year-old mother of five grew up among the Karamojong, an agro-pastoral people of Uganda, and although she never learned to read or write, she’s been farming since age ten. She knows root vegetables and staple crops the way I know nouns and prepositions, and she laughs out loud when I cannot identify a small stalk of round buds whose name she wants me to translate into English.

Although a year and a half in the making, the New Roots Community Farm received its final permits the same month that Luchia met Lint. By then, however, only three plots remained unclaimed. Luchia laughs as she relays her early enthusiasm for this plot of land she now tends.

“Amy speaks Swahili. She said, ‘We’re the IRC, and we help people. We have a garden.’ She asked who speaks Swahili, and I said, ‘Me!’”

At the meeting, Lint asked those interested to meet her at the farm the following day. Several people said they’d be there, but the only one who showed up was Luchia.

“Luchia is so attached to farming,” Lint says. “This was like a dream come true for her, and she wasn’t going to pass it up.”

Luchia’s mouth turns down as she tells her version.

“Some people don’t like to grow things. Some people say, ‘I don’t like to do work like this. I need to sleep.’ For me, no.” She flicks her hose-free hand in the air as if to drive away such nonsense. “If I don’t work hard, I don’t feel good. If I come home after school and change my clothes and then come here to work, when I go, I feel good.”

For the past year, Luchia has attended English classes at San Diego Continuing Education’s Mid-City campus seven hours per day, Monday through Thursday, and six hours on Fridays. The classes include speaking, writing, spelling, and reading. Although she and I have had very few hiccups in our conversation today, she hesitates to count English among the languages she speaks. She marks them off on her fingers (Swahili, Arabic, and now Karamojong, are the only ones I’m familiar with), saying, “I speak ten languages. And with a little bit of English, eleven.”

The International Rescue Committee hopes the garden plots will provide a gateway for some families to run farming businesses and allow them to sell their crops at local farmers’ markets. For Luchia, a barely literate (she can spell her own name but is unsure how to spell her children’s names) woman with an agrarian background, this entrepreneurial venture may be the most likely means of survival, but turning the opportunity into a sustainable business presents a challenge.

In March, Luchia began to sell her produce at the City Heights Farmers’ Market. The week before last, with the sale of spinach and collard greens, she made a total of $37 in cash and another $37 in Fresh Fund vouchers (which can take weeks to turn into cash). Last week, the numbers were $50 and $30, respectively. This week, she’ll have to skip the market, because nothing is quite ready to go.

Although Luchia has been able to feed her family from this plot of land, her market earnings are still too small to help cover the gap between the $900 she receives in cash assistance each month and her monthly bills of $965 (rent, phone, and electricity). And while she does usually receive $800 in food stamps, this month her check was only $600, because the agency is reimbursing itself after mistakenly giving her $900 two months in a row.

Lint (who, since our conversation, has moved to Kenya to work on her own nonprofit organization) has Luchia in mind for another program that would allow her access to more land on a five-acre farm in Pauma Valley.

“Luchia is dying to get into that program,” Lint says, but because Luchia’s English and literacy classes are requirements for receiving public assistance, she may not be able to participate in the training component of the farm program.

“Some case managers have been flexible,” Lint explains, “and we’ve been able to exchange a few hours of job-training credits. Hopefully, Luchia will be able to make that transition.”

In the meantime, Lint cannot give Luchia the weedy strip of land to cultivate because those “weeds” are native plants, and their removal is prohibited by law.

But Luchia continues her campaign. If Lint would turn over that weedy strip of land, Luchia says, she’d not only plant more crops and make more money, but she’d also help rid the farm of snakes.

“There’s a big one in there,” she says, wide-eyed. “Like a cobra. With a big head.”

As if to further convince me, she flicks her hand at other nearby plots. “You see mine. I clean over here. No place for snakes to hide.”

Eye Out for “Something Better”

If either Luchia Lokonyen or Said Dubed needs advice on how to get in or stay in the City Heights do-it-yourself game, Osman Osman would be a great resource. His business, American Cleaning Experts, has grown quietly over the past five years, and he’s made it clear that not all the money is in techie start-ups.

This morning, Osman’s van smells like mildew. Spray bottles of cleaning solution litter the passenger seat and the floor beneath the dashboard. The back is a tumble of hoses and buckets. Nothing in here beckons to thieves, and yet two weeks ago, someone broke the van’s windows and took…nothing.

It wasn’t the first time. When parked in front of Osman’s City Heights apartment, his van, marked American Cleaning Experts, gets grafitti’d or broken into so often that it’s no longer a surprise. Osman has taken to hauling his two floor-cleaning and polishing machines (both of which require two people to carry) into his apartment every night and back out to the van in the morning.

“I don’t have to go to the gym anymore,” he says with a resigned chuckle as he opens the back of the van and unwinds a length of fat gray-and-yellow vacuum hose that’s patched together at the joints with duct tape.

The short Sudanese man works up a sweat in the 20 minutes it takes to set himself up for the task of steam-cleaning the carpets in the small, rectangular room of a house near 55th Street and College Grove. In the rising heat of a midmorning in June, he traipses back and forth from the house to the van, dragging first the vacuum hose into and through the house, then the yellow water hose, which he hooks up to a spigot on the side of the house, and finally, the blue generator plug, which connects to the steam cleaner and heats the water.

Every time Osman goes in the house, the van remains wide open and vulnerable to thieves. As small as today’s job is, if it were in City Heights, he’d pay a helper to keep an eye on the van. Recently, while he cleaned the floors of a City Heights home, someone stole the machine he uses to clean stairs. When a witness pointed out the thief to him, instead of contacting the police, Osman offered to buy his equipment back for $100. It worked. Now his policy is that every job in City Heights is a two-man job.

Before turning on the machine, Osman goes into the house with an empty bucket. When he returns to the van, the bucket is full of water. He dumps in liquid from a red bottle, powder from the bucket on top of the generator, and then a cup or two of liquid from a spray bottle. He then stirs the new solution with a long metal rod and dumps it into the steam cleaner’s water tank in the back of the van. When he turns on the machine, the loud sound sends the neighborhood dogs into a two-minute frenzy, and the vacuum hose begins to vibrate. Osman heads back into the house, his forehead dripping, and begins to clean the carpet.

While he’ll never turn down a job in any neighborhood, Osman is looking forward to the day when he doesn’t have to live in City Heights. Granted, the living is cheap (he pays only $550 a month in rent), but as soon as he can afford to live elsewhere, he plans to move. Although he believes personal safety is an issue (he has friends who have gotten beat up by neighborhood kids), Osman’s main concern with living in City Heights is that he has nowhere to park the van to keep it safe from the neighborhood punks who break in or deface it with annoying regularity.

“I live in City Heights because I have no choice,” he shouts over the sound of the steamer he pushes back and forth across caramel-colored carpet. “But if something better comes, maybe I’ll move to Lake Murray or someplace else in La Mesa.”

Osman arrived in San Diego from East Sudan (via Cairo and Los Angeles) in 2001. The Catholic Charities Diocese in Mission Gorge helped him get settled with a place to live, $300 in cash, and food stamps each month. They promised assistance for eight months, but by the end of his second month here, Osman had already found a security job for $6.75 an hour and no longer needed the help. From 6:00 a.m.–11:00 a.m. every morning, he patrolled a downtown McDonald’s, and nights from 11:00 p.m.–4:00 a.m., he patrolled Walgreen’s.

In 2002, he met a Bangladeshi man whose name he does not remember — “It was a hard name” — though the two became good friends. The man helped him land a security job at NBC, where he worked 3:00–11:00 p.m., starting at $8.50 per hour. By the time he left in 2007, his pay was up to $11 per hour. From 2005–2008, he also delivered newspapers from 3:00–4:45 a.m. This meant as much as $1400 per month. In 2008, he began working for CPS, the security firm for whom he still works, 4:00 p.m.–midnight.

One day in 2003, the Bangladeshi friend brought along Osman to help him with a cleaning job he was doing with a family member. Nothing came of that particular job, and he never worked again with that friend, but it gave Osman the idea to start his own cleaning company. A couple of years later, Osman’s roommate directed him to the International Rescue Committee, where he applied for a loan. In January 2006, he received a $10,000 check. With that loan, he bought small carpet-cleaning and floor-polishing machines, business cards, and other supplies. Everything he needed fit into the trunk and backseat of his car.

Osman’s first client was a woman named Sally, who at the time worked at the nonprofit that funded his new business. For $225, Osman cleaned her Lemon Grove home twice a month.

“I cleaned the kitchen, the restroom, vacuumed, all the cleaning. It only took maybe an hour [each time] because she didn’t have kids, you know?” He chuckles at this.

For $375 a month, he also cleaned the La Jolla home of an NBC lawyer twice a week. And he made $550 a month for a five-day-a-week office-cleaning job on Winona Avenue in City Heights.

Over the years, Osman’s cleaning customers came and went, but he kept his security job and paid back the full $10,000 to the International Rescue Committee within two years. He kept it moving even during economic downturns. When the cleaning business slowed in early 2010, he rented space in a mechanic’s garage.

“I was paying $400 [per month] and cleaning taxis for inspection.” He disconnects the suction hose from the steam cleaner and uses it to suck up what could be a few pieces of rice from deep in the carpet. “I did two or three cars every day, for $45 or $50 each car.”

One of Osman’s taxi customers told him he had a cleaning business that he had to give up due to old age and back pain. He had a van, he said, and bigger, better machines that he’d be willing to sell.

“I was negotiating from February. He said he needed $9000. I told him I needed to see the van and take it to a place where they could check it. He said, ‘No.’ I said, ‘I have to. I cannot put up $9000 without seeing the machine. Then, later [the man] said, ‘Give me $6000.’ I told him I have to fix this van and put money into it, and he told me, ‘Okay, give me $4500.’”

He smiles and slaps his thigh. “It was a good deal.”

The negotiations had lasted until June.

On June 23, 2010, immediately following the purchase of his van, Osman drove straight to the ceremony that granted him United States citizenship.

Aside from one-time jobs (which average $250 a month, except during May, during which they added up to $3000), American Cleaning Experts currently has only three regular clients — two businesses and a private residence. Altogether, they add up to approximately $1500 each month. It’s a good start, but it’s not quite enough to help him move out of City Heights and east to Lake Murray.

At the moment, the “something better” Osman is hoping for is a Walgreen’s contract on which he recently bid. At $1200–$1600 per month for each of 35 stores, the contract would be a huge boost for his little company.

“If I get the contract, it will be a good year for me,” he says.

Then he turns his back to me and begins steaming up the last corner of carpet.

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