Grand Prize Winner — Ginjan Bros. Published August 2016
Organically produced, non-GMO version of a traditional West African ginger drink
2016 FedEx Small Business Grant Contest Grand Prize Winner
New York, NY
Talk to brothers Mohammed and Ibrahima (Rahim) Diallo, and they’ll tell you that they’re “living the American dream.” As young teens, they came to the United States from Conakry, Guinea to seek better opportunities. Two decades later, they’re the owners of Ginjan Bros., a Harlem-based small business that produces and bottles organically produced, non-GMO African beverages, the first of which is a version of a West African ginger drink. They’re also the winners of the 2016 FedEx Small Business Grant Contest’s $25,000 grand prize. But, don’t think for a minute that any of this came easy.
When Mohammed, the eldest son in the Diallo family, was just 13, his father sent him to the United States for what was supposed to be a two-month stay. “As the political climate got worse in Guinea, he decided it was best if I stayed here, with a friend’s sister in Atlanta,” explained Mohammed Diallo, CEO of Ginjan Bros., LLC. “The friend was great and meant well, but the situation was not ideal with the sister. Without going into details, I was kicked out of the house at the age of 16, with $100 in my pocket and nowhere to go.”
Mohammed found his way to New York, on his own, eventually telling his parents what happened much later. They felt bad, but there was little they could do so far away. Yet, Mohammed not only completed his high school diploma, but worked multiple jobs to put himself through college. He’d work a year to pay for a semester, eventually earning his degree seven years later, then landing a job as a financial advisor for a large financial services firm.
Younger brother Rahim came to the U.S. at the age of 15, four years after Mohammed, with the goal of immigrating and becoming a citizen. What he found was a country still reeling from 9/11, and an immigration system at a standstill. When Rahim attempted to buy a bus ticket to immigrate to Canada, he was reported, picked up by state troopers and put in a juvenile detention facility for immigrants in Pennsylvania, until a pro bono attorney secured his release one year later. He lived with an amazing family in Michigan, finished high school, and earned a degree in biomaterials engineering from Michigan State University. He was later accepted at one of the most prestigious engineering schools in the world and completed his graduate studies in France and Germany.
Then, reality struck.“I came back to New York and couldn’t find a job,” said Rahim Diallo, COO of Ginjan Bros., LLC. “So, I started working in the service industry — tending and managing bars, while helping a friend build a media startup.”
Two Entrepreneurs in Search of a Business
As long as they could remember, Mohammed and Rahim had talked about starting a business. While working their full-time jobs, they started writing ideas down. “We probably looked at 40 different business ideas and tried to figure out how to monetize them,” Mohammed said. “Although many of them were solid ideas we plan on going back to one day, they all required too much money to start or would take too long to monetize.”
Then, one day, while having lunch at an African restaurant in Harlem, it hit them. “We ordered a traditional ginger drink, called ginjan, that’s very popular in Africa,” Mohammed said. “The previous time we ordered it, it was great. But, on that day, it was awful. It had too much sugar and the balance of the flavors was off. It wasn’t like anything we previously had, or grew up enjoying. We looked at each other and said, ‘Dude, this is what we should do.’”
They researched the market and discovered that traditional soft drinks were losing market share. Consumers were turning to organic, cold-pressed, healthier alternatives. Ginjan fit right in to this category. “We thought we could sell it to restaurants, food markets and eventually, export it to West Africa, where there were 340 million potential buyers and no one producing ginjan on a mass scale,” Mohammed said.
They incorporated, bootstrapped the company with their own money and some small investments from friends and family, then set out to create the perfect ginjan. “We started with our mother’s recipe and tweaked it, adding anise and creating our own process,” Rahim said. “When we tried a version with all organic ingredients, that did it. We decided to make a premiere product that cost a little more instead of a cheaper, inferior one.”
Having never worked in the production side of the food and beverage industry, the brothers learned as they went along — from the legal documents required to finding a commercial kitchen, to labeling and bottling. “Thank God for Google,” Mohammed said.
Discovering an Unexpected Market
The real eye-opener came when they went to market, targeting African restaurants in New York that made their own versions of the juice. “People loved the drink, but the restaurant owners weren’t as receptive as we thought they’d be, because our ginjan was better than what they were making and selling. They actually hid ours from their customers,” Mohammed said.
When Ginjan was accepted as a vendor at Smorgasburg, a popular weekly food festival in Brooklyn, the brothers found their market.“Smorgasburg attracts an average of 5,000 people of all ages, genders and walks of life every weekend, so it was like free market research to us,” Rahim said. “We learned that Americans, and tourists from all parts of the world, loved Ginjan. It wasn’t a niche product, like we originally thought. It was something we could sell to people throughout the United States.”
The Shipping Dilemma….Solved
Mohammed and Rahim set off to find a distributor, but needed more market share to attract one. So, they decided to sell Ginjan direct to consumers online. “We had no clue about shipping. So, we went to the post office, no luck. Then UPS. Even with the discount schedule, it was too expensive. We didn’t even try FedEx because we were sure we couldn’t afford it,” Rahim said. So, they gave up on e-commerce. “We actually turned everything off in Amazon except for New York City and we drove those orders to the customers so we could bypass shipping altogether,” Mohammed said.
A few months later, Rahim had to ship a case of Ginjan to a friend in Michigan and went to FedEx. “I said I had to ship overnight because it was a refrigerated product, and the person helping me explained that, because of where it was going, I could get it there in plenty of time with FedEx Ground,” Rahim said. “When I said I needed dry ice, he said that was for frozen products, that I needed to use ice bags instead. He also told me I could get an even better deal if I had an account online. It was more shipping help than we’d gotten from anyone — and the prices that worked with our margins. We could actually think about e-commerce again.”
Winning the FedEx Grant
When Mohammed and Rahim entered the 2016 FedEx Small Business Grant Contest, they were hopeful, but really didn’t expect to win. They were thrilled to make the Top 100. They looked at the other companies and thought, if Ginjan Bros could be one of the eight $7,500 winners, it would be a real achievement.
Then, the phone call came. Ginjan Bros won the $25,000 grand prize. “Being recognized like this means the world,” Mohammed said. “Something like this — winning a grant like this — could only happen in America. We are living the American dream right now.”
They’ll use part of the grant money to ramp up production, both to fill the orders they have and produce enough inventory to support expanded distribution. Another portion will go toward securing organic and GMO-free product certifications. “We’re also going to use the grant money to fund in-store demos,” Rahim said. “We learned from Smorgasburg that the best way to sell Ginjan is to have people taste it. By using the grant money to pay for sampling stations at the stores that carry our product, we’ll make sure it doesn’t sit on the shelf.”
The brothers also plan to expand their e-commerce business, now that they know about the resources FedEx offers to help small businesses with packaging and logistics.