Brothers Rahim and Mohammed Diallo set up their cafes to share their Ginjan Bros juice with Americans, and along the way, have shared their story of perseverance too.
When Mohammed and Rahim Diallo were first approached by Humans of New York creator Brandon Stanton, they thought he was just going to feature their business, Ginjan Bros, in a single Instagram post, in which they’d talk about the challenges the pandemic had brought to their company. Instead, over 12 posts, fans of the popular storytelling account came to learn of the tenacity and triumph the brothers faced in immigrating from their home in Guinea to New York City.
Fans read about how much the brothers adored their sister Fatou, who was battling sickle cell disease. They read about how ethnic tension flared up in Guinea, leading to a heated election where the Diallo’s father believed it would be better for them to be sent away to the US than to stay; about how Mohammed came over to the US first, as an undocumented teenager with nothing and no-one, who, after high school finished, was earning 2 dollars an hour while sharing a 1-bedroom house with 5 other men; about how Rahim followed after, and ended up in juvenile detention for being undocumented. And fans read about how the brothers tried to overcome every single obstacle that stood in the way of their hope to one day bring their sister over to the US for treatment.
Fatou died before the brothers were able to fulfill their wish for her. But they continued to fight on, eventually creating a company together that sold their favorite childhood beverage – the ginger drink known as Niamakou Leiidi. Through Ginjan Bros, Mohammed and Rahim, once again, faced their hurdles straight on, and began selling the drink in 2014, before opening their first cafe in Harlem in 2019.OkayAfrica spoke to Rahim about how their story has resonated with so many people.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Before Humans of New York featured you, Ginjan Bros was already an established name, available in stores like WholeFoods, and with its own cafe. What impact did the feature have on your lives and the business?
It gave us a lot of visibility. We've been chipping away at this for literally the last seven years. It's been a very long journey. We're not the only people that have a challenging immigrant life story, especially in the African diaspora, but not very many people get to tell their story, so we felt privileged, in that sense. Business wise, it’s been a boon. It gave us the independence that we'd been looking for for a long time. Initially, we were very hesitant to tell our story like that; it was supposed to be one post focused on the business and the pandemic, but the more Brandon learned about us, the more he thought the story should be much longer. With us being private people, and not wanting to do it, when we got to know Brandon a little better, we trusted that, ‘Okay, he’s coming from the right place.’ But after the story aired, the reaction has been unbelievable. We got so many messages: private messages and DMs, people sent us letters, telling us they read the story along with their kids, messages from all over the world, people telling us it gave them hope.
We didn’t realize how much the story touched them – everything from losing a close relative to dealing with a chronic illness, be it genetic or otherwise, to dealing with the challenges of raising capital and financing in the US as a minority. It touched on so much that every single person who reads it will see themselves in it. It’s not just an immigrant story; it’s a story of loss, of family, of sacrifice. And, after getting all that feedback, we felt much better about having shared the story. We were busy enough before this, but it’s been a little crazy!
You started Ginjan Bros to bring the juice not just to other Africans here in the US, but to the rest of the population as well?
What we're trying to do is to make African flavors an integral part of global culture; something that every African resonates with. When they come to our cafe, or they try our products and see the level of quality that has gone into it, they can see an authentic African brand. So you’re not going to come here and have a bowl of jollof rice and feel that it’s been made milder. No matter where you are from in Africa, you’ll try it and say, ‘Wow, this is the real deal.’ But we also make it so that it’s attractive and welcoming to everyone who would gravitate towards delicious food, right? The same way that you and I would eat Thai food or Chinese food or Italian food, without thinking twice about it. We want to bring people to our culture and not present it as some exotic thing we’re introducing to them, but an everyday thing that non-Africans can consume.
That's really the angle we come at it from; we want to represent where we're from. We’re proud of our culture and the stuff we make, and we know we have amazing products that can rival any brand or culture around the world. We’ve been supported by non-Africans probably even more than we have actual Africans, but that’s just because of the sheer numbers – there are more of them here than us Africans – but the reception has been unbelievably positive. Of course, there are a handful of people out there, especially when it comes to investment, that don't see Ginjan becoming a global brand, like Starbucks, but we can’t change them. We can only build with the folks that do believe.
Is that the aim – to make Ginjan a global brand like Starbucks?
Yes, we have cafes in Harlem and in Brooklyn and we’d like to open a cafe in every major metropolitan city – DC, Atlanta, London, Paris, you name it – and really use this as an immersive cultural experience. From the music to the decor. You can come in and pick up a croissant and cappuccino or you can come for lunch and grab a bowl of jollof rice and some hot ginger juice, and you’ll hear Burna Boy or Fela Kuti or Baba Maal or something else from the global African diaspora in the background. We want to build the kind of brand that makes the global African diaspora proud.
And the recipe for Ginjan Bros is based on one your mother used to make?
Yes, well, it was a product we’d consumed most of our lives, but when we decided to start a business, we realized that we’d never made it ourselves. When you’re in trouble, you call your mom. We did, and she gave us direction. We took it from there, tweaked it a little and made it our own. What we're trying to do is not be blindly traditional if there are certain things that we make back in Africa, simply because we don't have access to something better in terms of the ingredients or the process. So where we see an opportunity to improve that, we do, but when we do do it, someone who has had the original is gonna come and try this and say it’s the best version of the original stuff. Our mom tried it and she wasn’t disappointed.
What do you think it is that got you through everything you’ve been through up until this point, where you now have a successful business and life here in the US?
Honestly, our family, first and foremost. We've been very fortunate to have grown up in a very stable family with a lot of love. We weren't wealthy by any means, but we thought we were. Having that, and having left all of that behind, the challenges that you allude to are actually what motivate us. We left our friends and family, came to a place where we didn’t speak the language and didn’t know very many people, and to be here, have our siblings grow up without our guidance; our mom, when we left she was a young woman, and now she’s a senior citizen (she’s not going to like hearing that but she’s getting there), all those things. And wanting it not to be for nothing, not to be wasted.
Whether we succeed as measured by financial success is really beside the point. It’s just to know that if it doesn’t work out, no one will accuse us of not having given it our all. That’s what keeps us going. We're not really motivated by financial wealth. If that was the case, we would not have the company. I have master's in engineering, and Mo was working at a fast-growing startup before, so we could have been living a fairly comfortable life over the past seven years, instead of working 200 hours a week, five of those years without getting paid.
We care a lot about Africa. Knowing what Africa could be and what Africans could be is something that drives us a lot. We want to build factories, back home, not only for local production, but also for export. We want to make it so that some of the young kids that are growing up at home, they don't have to feel like they need to leave to live up to their potential. I don't think I'll live long enough to see it, but my dream is for the day where the average African kid will not want to come to the West because it brings them opportunity, but they'll come for the same reason people generally do -- for tourism or curiosity or just because they prefer living here. But it's not because they cannot get the same quality, healthcare, education, infrastructure, at home; all the things that make life worth living.