“Culture is very important to me and one of the ways I preserve that is in my kitchen," says Bolatito Alawode.
But for Alawode, stocking her kitchen with familiar foods wasn’t always easy. She and her husband Bisi moved to Sarnia from Lagos, Nigeria in 2013 as international students at Lambton College.
“As somebody that's not so adventurous with food, it was important for me to get the food that I'm comfortable with,” she said. “I had to find an African grocery store in Sarnia, [but] there was none.”
In fact, the closest store was in London - an hour’s drive away. It was also very expensive. There were a few stores in Toronto but driving so far to buy groceries was unrealistic and she wasn’t aware of any online retailers or delivery services at the time.
In 2013, the couple moved to Guelph where Alawode was working with the Royal Bank of Canada. She was disappointed to find out that Guelph also had very limited options for African food products. Realizing this need within their family as well as the local diaspora, the Alawodes founded an online African grocer called My Chop Chop in 2017.
They sell everything from fresh produce and frozen meats, to spices and seasonings, instant meals and personal hygiene products to customers across Canada and the United States. Many of their products cannot be found in chain supermarkets and though the focus is on Nigerian cuisine, My Chop Chop also sells ingredients for a wide variety of African cooking.
In Nigeria, ‘chop chop’ means ‘fast fast’ and the word is also slang for food or eating, as in ‘to chop’. Alawode said the iteration was a perfect name for the business: “My Chop Chop gets you food faster, and more conveniently.”
In 2018, Alawode was named an honouree for the YMCA-YWCA Women of Distinction for her leadership work in the Guelph community. She is currently pursuing an MBA at Wilfrid Laurier University and is expecting her second child later this month.
Alawode says the nature of their online business means operations have largely remained the same during the COVID-19 pandemic, but they have made a few adjustments. Orders can be picked up outside their home to maintain physical distancing guidelines, and they also offer shipment and delivery services. My Chop Chop’s suppliers come from a network in Toronto and Hamilton as well as from a few companies that import directly from Africa. But amid the pandemic, some shipments have been halted and Alawode says it’s challenging to keep certain items in stock.
“There has been a surge in demand [during COVID-19],” she says. “One product that has been very difficult to keep in stock is the Indomie noodles. We have to search for this product almost every day because it's always running out.”
The hugely popular instant noodles are quick and easy to prepare, but Alawode encourages her customers to try more ingredients and cook authentic African cuisine at home. She publishes a blog through her website that includes recipe ideas and cooking tips including things like nutritious homemade cereals for kids, African comfort foods and low-carb Nigerian swallows, which are starchy foods like cassava and plantain, often served with soups and stews.
“We noticed that we had non-Africans that shop on My Chop Chop and even African customers that ask questions [about our products]. We decided to start up the blog as a way to add value and provide more information,” she said.
Alawode has also taken on new initiatives to support the local community during the pandemic. In March, she donated 1000 pounds of food to a food bank in Kitchener. She also donates food to a Toronto-based not-for-profit called Black Coalition for AIDS Prevention (Black CAP) and has partnered with an African seamstress in Brantford called Faari Joke.
“We give her African fabrics and she sews face masks that we are donating to all sorts of people through Black CAP,” she said, adding that more updates will be posted on their website and social media in the coming days.
To learn more about My Chop Chop and to shop online, visit their website.