For immigrant business owners in Harlem, N.Y., the one-time niche services they’ve provided for years are becoming increasingly common. A report from the Immigration Policy Center indicates that from 2000 to 2010, the African-born population in the U.S. has almost doubled. With this growth comes a new influx in small-business competition. When it comes to Central Harlem’s West African neighborhood, business owners are still navigating the new terrain.
Mauritania native El Hadj Ly is the part-owner and manager of Harlem’s top-rated African eatery on Yelp.com, Keur Sokhna Restaurant & Plus. He moved to New York City in 2006 to help his cousin run the restaurant after receiving an associate’s degree in Business Management and working in a car factory in Columbus, Ohio. “It sounded more interesting to be in the business environment than to work in the factories,” said Ly. Things had been going well for the restaurant, he explained. Its Senegalese and West African dishes include the top-seller Ceebu Jen, Wolof for “rice and fish.” However, profits have decreased by about 20 to 25 percent over the past 18 months. “There are many African restaurants that have opened,” Ly said. “Once you have many, many people doing the same thing, the customers become spread out and the profits go down.”
According to a report from the Fiscal Policy Institute, by 2010, immigrants comprised 18 percent of small business owners nationwide, a percentage larger than their share of the population. From 1990 to 2010, foreign-born accounted for 30 percent of the growth in the total number of small-business owners in the U.S. In New York City, growth in the number of self-employed came entirely from foreign-born residents between 1990 and 2000, according to Center for an Urban Future research. The number of immigrant self-employed in the city more than doubled, while the number of U.S.-born self-employed declined.
A little after 1 p.m. on a Saturday afternoon, a basketball game is on the restaurant’s television, turned to the Senegalese channel RTS1. Soccer, or football as it’s called on his home continent, is much more popular among the majority West African patrons, Ly explained. “When Senegal plays, we have a full house.” For now, just two tables of the 11 are occupied.
Being a foreign-born business owner comes with its own hurdles, Ly said, explaining that native New Yorkers are more familiar with the American financial and business landscape. “They know better,” he said. “We only focus on making profits. We don’t go out and explore other ways of growing our business.” If the African businesses in his neighborhood came together in a coalition of sorts, they may have better luck discovering business development opportunities than they would as individuals, Ly said.
A sense of community among African business owners is also something that’s missing among the hair shops in the neighborhood, according to Mame Dior Mbengue, stylist at Hair Design by Oumou. The Senegalese, family-run hair braiding and styling shop is named for Mbengue’s mother, and has been in business for almost 13 years. “People are always going to get their hair done,” Mbengue said, “but I think the hair business is changing. Before, there used to be a couple of hair shops. There wasn’t much competition and people who did hair always stuck together. Everybody helped each other. It was like a hair community. But when people started migrating more to America, it became more competitive.”
At just 20 years old, Mbengue, who is set to receive her bachelor’s degree in Supply Chain Management this May, has already been doing hair for five years. Neighborhood competitors offer lower prices, Mbengue explained. Many of the nearby shops charge $80 and up for a set of box braids, depending on length and size, compared to Oumou’s $100 and up. “She’s not decreasing the quality of work that she’s doing,” Mbengue said of her mother, “so why should she decrease the price? Other people decrease the price and they decrease the quality.”
Mbengue was born in the U.S., but raised in her parents’ home country of Senegal from infancy until she was 8, and is already an entrepreneur in her own right. She sells hair extensions online and in the family shop through ABM Hair, which she started with two friends last May. She’s undecided about taking over the family business someday. “If I do take over here, I want to change it up,” Mbengue said. Her solution to the abundance of braiders? “I want to make it a weave bar.”