From West Africa to the Bronx, a Retail Maven Dreams Big

Bronx-Based Entrepreneur Alawe Fouleratou

Alawe Fouleratou, a budding entrepreneur in the Central Bronx, took over an African food market and molded it to meet demand for a boutique. “If I don’t have it, I will bring it,” Fouleratou said, repeating the mantra she recites for customers.

Inside the foggy two-window storefront of Assaha African Center and Market in Bathgate, Bronx, Alawe Fouleratou rolled up the sleeves of her denim jacket and clacked on her keyboard at the cashier’s counter.  She squinted at her dusty black Dell for a few minutes until the phone rang. Over the landline receiver, she spit out terse sentences in French, her native language from Guinea, West Africa. Then she noticed a customer coming through the door and hung up the phone.

“Hello, my brother!” she said in a warm, booming voice.

The customer replied with the traditional West African greeting— “Hello, sister!”—before heading to the grocery aisle.

Fouleratou returned to her hustle behind the counter, where imitation Micheal Kors watches, golden necklaces and cuffs, and fake Fendi bags sat, haphazardly, on display next to her computer. Fouleratou, who owns the food market-meets-beauty bazaar, commands her post like a general headed off to war. She barks orders at her employee, making sure he guards the table of discounted designer makeup she’d set up just outside the door.

“I gotta move a lot,” Fouleratou said, motioning to the bottles of body and hair lotion on the shelf behind her, and the rows of exotic groceries before her: African FuFu Flour, Pabs Pepper Sauce, brown yams and a few garlic cloves blackening at their bases. “I do like it. You know, I take stuff down, go here. I go here.”

Since December of last year, Fouleratou said she had wanted to open her own store. For nearly a decade, Fouleratou worked in home care, cooking, cleaning, and nursing an elderly South Bronx woman, until she passed away in August: “She died and I said, ‘well I can’t go to a different place, because I loved the Mami I worked for’,” said Fouleratou. “So I open a store.”

Fouleratou said as a caregiver, she worked 12 hour days and “ saved, saved, saved, saved.” But she said she also did some business on the side. Fouleratou would dress up for the commute to work, she said, and wear her imported African jewelry. When people stopped to compliment her necklaces or earrings, she recalled they’d ask where she got the handcrafted pieces. So Fouleratou started carrying extra sets of jewelry in her bag, and offered to sell them to women who approached her.

Eventually, Fouleratou saved enough that she and her friend—whom she calls ‘sister’—bought the African Market near Fordham University four months ago. Fouleratou thought she’d maintain the store as a food emporium. But business didn’t keep up, Fouleratou said, so she brought in beauty supplies, accessories, and any products customers would ask for. People still don’t come in, she said.

Over the course of 30 minutes on a recent Tuesday evening, only two customers dropped by. One bought a box of salt. The other looked around and waited to chat with Fouleratou.

Despite the challenges, Fouleratou said she likes her job. “I’m happy to be my own boss. But, it’s not easy because everything is on you. You have to think about lights. Bills, bills, bills,” she said, “I just keep praying to be more. To be big.”

But what Fouleratou really wants to do, she said, is to open a restaurant with her friend. Fouleratou wants to manage the kitchen and cook healthy fish dishes to please the diverse palates in the Bronx. “I love to cook, and I like to eat, so I love to cook. And I will be happy if I have that,” said Fouleratou.  She pulled out her Smartphone and scrolled through pictures of her home-cooked meals, then landed on a photo of baked fish with its scales and eyes still in tact, peering from atop a bed of orange-colored rice, potatoes, and greens.  Fouleratou said her 6-year-old daughter, Nazira, can’t wait for the restaurant to open and always asks: “Mommy, will you make fish?”

Running a store gives Fouleratou more time to pick up her daughter from school, she said, because she has two employees to look after the store, and a babysitter to look after her girl in the evenings. But while she plans her next business move, she makes sacrifices.

“Look at my shoes,” said Fouleratou, pulling her long blue sundress up to the ankle to reveal scuffed pink pleather flats. “I don’t want to spend money to buy nothing right now because I want my business to be double. Yes, I do save. I sacrifice a lot of things, you know. I have to.”

Despite the bumps, Fouleratou said she has managed to reach some of her biggest goals. “I came to America because it was my dream just since I was little. People talking about it. They say, ‘New York! New York City! America! America!’” she said.  After growing up dreaming of living in the United States, and vowing ‘it will be the place I finish my life one day,’ she explained that her husband entered the lottery to win visas to America without telling her. And he won. Within six months, she said, the couple got the papers, came to the United States and settled. But shortly after they immigrated to the South Bronx in 2004, Fouleratou said her first husband left her.  She was not deterred, however. “By the time he moved, I found another boyfriend!” she said.

Fouleratou’s advice to others who want to take charge of their lives?

“To be the boss, you don’t have to spend. You have to think,” she said, squinting her left eye shut. “You want it, you close your eye, and think how the business will be big.”

Assaha African Center and Market is located at 2388 Washington Ave. in Bathgate, Bronx.