From retail to real estate; from architecture to acting, Nigerians seem to have a knack for turning their talents into money-earning ventures.
“For small businesses, entrepreneurship – it’s an opportunity to grow just like Lagos,” said John Sholaya Pekun, a Brooklyn resident and native of Nigeria. “You can go to Canal Street and buy some items to come and make some little profit on Fulton, then to Utica, or Nostrand or Flatbush, you see?”
Personally, I couldn’t relate more: My own mom, a native of Nigeria and a single mother raising four kids, became a nurse when she encountered a financial burden. Feeding four children, putting a roof over our heads – she saw that being in the health field would help to pay the bills.
However, she never let go of her actual passion, which was sewing. She created beautiful designs out of Ankara, a traditional Nigerian fabric, in a small shop with apprentices whom she taught. So while working as a registered nurse, she earned extra income as a seamstress and hair stylist.
As a Nigerian, “You’re either a doctor or you’re doing 80,000 different things,” said Oluwarotimi (Rotimi) Akinnuoye, co-owner of the Bed-Vyne Corporation based in Bedford-Stuyvesant. Akinnuoye, a Nigerian-native and Brooklyn resident, refers to himself as a “jack of all trades.”
His mother, who “wasn’t understanding, but supportive” of his business, bore him in Ondo State in Nigeria, in 1969. He first landed in Parkhill, Staten Island, New York, before moving to Bed-Stuyvesant in 2000. But while in Parkhill, at the young age of 13, he already knew he wanted to own his own business.
“My parents wanted all of us to be doctors. The next was lawyer, then engineer. And none of us are any of those,” he said, laughing.
“My parents were like, ‘You get a job. You stay there for 20, 30 years. And then you retire.'”
But as someone who came of age in the U.S., Akinnuoye’s ideas for earning were broader than just doctor, lawyer or engineer: “We’re a little different. We’re more entrepreneurial, so we believe in trying to figure it out your own.”
After moving to Brooklyn, Akinnuoye met his current business partner, Ayoola, who convinced him to buy a corner brownstone in a fast developing area of Bedford-Stuyvesant. The idea of it eventually led to a business.
“I didn’t want to do it because of the reputation Bed-Stuy had at the time,” Akinnuoye said. “You know, ‘Bed-Stuy do or die.’ But Brooklyn is dynamic, there’s a lot going on in Brooklyn.”
Ayoola saw the vision of possible business, as gentrification began to accelerate.
“We just started seeing the change in the demographics, and we thought we should just own a business here, because people were coming here,” Akinnuoye said.
Although, Akinnuoye and Ayoola, along with two more partners Michael Brooks and Peter Medford, were interested in the wine business. In 2011, they came up with the brand name “Bed-Vyne” to create three businesses: Bed-Vyne Wine, Bed-Vyne Brew and Bed-Vyne Cocktail, at three separate locations in Bed-Stuyvesant.
(By the way Rotimi also does pharmaceutical sales and event-hosting)
And if you live in the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn, then certainly the name Moshood Creations will ring a bell. The 25-year-old store– which recently moved from its Fort Greene location to Restoration Plaza in Bed-Stuy– is a staple of Brooklyn. Even residents of other boroughs know the Brooklyn-Naija clothing giant.
In late July, the new location at 1368 Fulton Street, was busy with people milling in and out of the store donning Moshood’s signature designs, while the owner Moshood Afariogun was taking his lunch break. They refer to him as “baba” or “father” and he would reply with “one love” at the end of each conversation.
The cheerful and hospitable Afariogun also is from Ogun State in Nigeria but moved to Brooklyn in 1994.
“I came from Nigeria and immediately went to Brooklyn,” he said. Moshood also attributes his “hustle” to his Nigerian background. But, he added, a habit of always sharing hugs and handshakes with all of his customers created an instant community for him– one that enthusiastically helped spread the word of his wares.
“His work is amazing,” said one customer who was wearing Moshood. She was with a group of friends on their way to a show. “We may not be African, but just to share and help grow the black community is nice.”
He spoke to all of his customers but said he doesn’t share many words with writers and reporters: “I honestly don’t do interviews,” he said laughing. “I just let people see the work and the work speaks for itself.”
In contrast, Lookman Oluwafemi Afolayan, owner of Buka Restaurant in Bed-Stuyvesant, was eager to talk about his own business. He wasted no time meeting up at his restaurant, after hearing a journalist wanted his interview.
“There’s a lot about Brooklyn,” said Afolayan, who moved from Nigeria to Dubai, to finally land in Brooklyn. “Brooklyn is the best city in the world. Everyone can be who they want to be. You can wear your shirt on your head and no one will judge you.”
The first few jobs that the entrepreneur had when he arrived were dishwashing and helping a local marketplace sell pepper soup, a Nigerian dish. He also joined the union as a carpenter (going back to Nigerians doing 80,000 things). These all led to his idea of opening a restaurant, Buka, which has now been open for 11 years.
“I thought, the food is good enough! We have to bring it out and make it come to life! So, when an opportunity presents itself,” he said, “well, this is where we are.”
The restaurant is all-Nigerian – the food, drinks and employees. Elizabeth, a Nigerian waitress at the restaurant says she likes the work because “it’s fun,” even when it’s busy.
“It’s a melting pot here,” she said. “Very mixed, so every country comes here. Some nights, it can be very crowded, like the night before.”
There are many other businesses in Brooklyn that Nigerians own. Restaurants like Brooklyn Suya in East New York, Amarachi in DUMBO and others. Many other Nigerians also made a name for themselves in entertainment, including the actor and writer Gbenga Akinnagbe, best known for his roles as Chris Partlow on the HBO series The Wire and as Larry Brown on the HBO series The Deuce. And there’s up-and-coming Afrobeats dancer and choreographer Iziegbe Odigie, recently named OkayAfrica’s 100 Women of 2019.
“The advantage is that it’s in the city,” said Afolayan, regarding the ability to grow a business in Brooklyn. “Everyone knows you and everyone will tell others about you. But the disadvantage is that it’s also in the city. Law enforcement is here, tenants and so forth. So, every kind of crazy issue you can think of can happen.”
Regardless of the problems, that doesn’t stop Nigerians from being successful in what stokes their passionate.
“You know, we Nigerians do a lot of things,” said Akinnuoye, who is also partnering with Made in Brooklyn, a summit taking place September 4 that will help growing businesses pitch their ideas and collaborate with others.
“The energy in the streets of Nigeria, people just hustle. People sell bread, phone cords, candy, medicine – everybody is selling something. We’re born hustlers.”
This is the third in a three-part series entitled, “Brooklyn Naija,” exploring the growing Nigerian community in Brooklyn. To read part-one, which explores immigration to Brooklyn, click here. To read part-two, which explores family life and culture, click here.
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