Newly established African Chamber of Commerce to provide financial services to African businesses in Minnesota.
In a chat with the African News Journal, Martin Mohamed, President and CEO of the African Chamber of Commerce talked about the contribution of African businesses to the economic advancement of Minnesota, and the difficulties faced by many African immigrant business community in starting up businesses. He also talked of the initiatives the African Chamber of Commerce is implementing to facilitate African business ownership in the state, and how it is helping existing businesses expand their ventures.
Martin, tell us about the African Community in Minnesota?
The African community in Minnesota is growing tremendously both in numbers and in opportunities. If you look back our community when we come here in Minnesota in early 1990s, you can see huge changes.
Can you share how far Africans immigrants have come?
First we have come a long way to America and we have grown both economically and in numbers. I remember the first time I came to America ; I stayed in a shelter situation for 11 days because I did not know where to go. Today I am a homeowner, which is quite a long way for my family and me. But I also know this is for our community at large.
As a community, what significant developments have you seen?
Well, there was a time in Minneapolis I remember in the early years of arriving Minnesota that owning a car was something especial & now you see today everywhere in south Minneapolis, Brooklyn Center, Brooklyn Park, Eden Prairie, St. Paul, African immigrant owned businesses such as grocery stores, restaurants, taxi drivers, car rentals, home health centers, travel agencies, law firms and other retail establishments, abound. But you also see everywhere, African immigrants are working in every sector of businesses and are forging ahead the economy of the state.
In the education sector, are more Africans getting higher education?
Yes indeed, compared to the national average, Africans are getting more higher education and making decent livings and wages and those of us here are very fortunate to live in the great State of Minnesota.
You have been an active community leader advocating for Immigrant families and on such issues as financial literacy and economic opportunities; what has been the progress of the African community on these issues?
That is a good question. In the beginning the issue was new and since 2000 I have seen the financial mistake our Immigrant families are making and also the misunderstanding of the financial system in this country is prevalent in our immigrant community. The issues they face are complicated because large numbers of Immigrant families are from Muslim countries where loans charging interest rates is unacceptable in their beliefs. But we have come a long way today; we are using banks as we buy homes, cars, and other properties.
What is the African Chamber of Commerce all about?
The African Chamber of Commerce (ACC) is a non-profit organization that will deal with issues related to African business owners who will need some assistance and services. I have been in discussion with the business leaders of the African community about the concept of ACC for the last two years. This vision is finally becoming a reality for our community and we are happy to be moving forward with the formal establishment of the ACC.
Is it true that the African business sector is growing?
Yes, and at a great pace. While the rate of African businesses in the state is going up because the majority of the Immigrants are entrepreneurs by nature, there are some challenges that they are facing. By collaborating with the ACC, they can move forward effectively utilizing the right resources to assist them. The start-up businesses particularly need the ACC during their formative years; otherwise they become another statistical failure of start-up businesses dying during the first two years of operation. The initial two years of start-up and operation are crucial and the ACC is there to help them survive and grow progressively.
How are African businesses surviving?
This is a tough time for family-owned businesses especially because they have very limited markets, including family members, relatives and friends, and members of the tribal regions they originally came from. Another problem is competition or duplication where similar retail businesses carry similar inventories and compete for the same clients. At the south Minneapolis Karmel Mall, for instance, there are about 250 business establishments and many of them are in competition for clients. One of the critical lessons to teach these businesses is to not rely on giving credit to clients, as they do in the old country of doing business; they need to teach clients to pay when goods and services are purchased. Since we are operating now in America, we need to teach our business owners, and clients as well, on using the American system of conducting business and banking, marketing, developing and implementing business plans, etc.
What are the challenges for African Businesses?
The most difficult issue is access to credit to get a loan. The second most important issue is to have the business owners fully understand the American system of operating a business, such as Marketing, Book keeping, taxes and others.
Where will the ACC be located?
The chamber will be at he heart of the Somali Business — in Karmel Mall; at 2910 Pillsbury Avenue in South Minneapolis. Please come and see us, we have chosen this strategic location because the building we’ve had for the past 9 years went up for sale. Also our new location is ideal for the community – centrally and conveniently located – where they can do their shopping, visit retail establishments and seek other services in the building, in addition to visiting with us for assistance with credit issues, taxes, and other human service or financial matters.
Martin, you are well known in this community. What is your background and what makes you happy about providing this service to our community?
You know there are some difficulties conducting a businesses in an environment that is completely new to you. .We have to teach our community right from wrong because when I see a family I have helped 7 years ago and it is now doing well, that makes me very happy. Also we are building the future of America; when I know that India and China who have over 2.5 Billion people are willing to merge together as a global power — and they have more multi-cultural, multi-lingual, and multi-religious peoples — I know we need to act proactively to compete. This is what America is all about. America will help its communities of various ethnic origins to succeed in the global market and economy. This is the reason why I decided to go back to school and obtain my MBA. I have also taken a number of financial management courses and workshops and attended conferences in this and other areas. I have a strong desire to empower our community. One recent case is the leadership I have shown in our community when several thousand victims were taken advantaged of by unscrupulous tax prepares, promising them substantial refunds, only to be discovered and investigated by the IRS as fraudulent; and I took the leadership to work something out with the IRS and the Minnesota Department of Revenue to help the community with thousands of victimized taxpayers. I have advocated for affordable housing, have expanded our Twin Cities-based services to greater Minnesota and the suburban areas where secondary migration is at an all-time rise. Leadership gains the trust of the community one serves. According to an African proverb, “all goats can lead but herds will follow one”.