The platform aiming to transform Afro-Caribbean businesses in London

by BECCA MEIER

When 23-year-old Khalia Ismain realised how little London knew about Afro-Caribbean businesses, she decided it was time to act.

Having worked in Kenya helping entrepreneurs start local businesses, the philosophy, politics and economics graduate had insight into how vital community support was for success.

And so Jamii was born.

Taken from the Swahili word for “community”, Jamii is a platform which aims to put a spotlight on businesses in underrepresented and underserved markets by eroding negative stereotypes associated with London Afro-Caribbean communities.

Customers sign up to the platform by paying £30 and receive a physical card giving them discount codes for over 30 businesses, which range from bakeries to hair salons, cosmetic companies and street food enterprises. All their owners are of Afro-Caribbean descent.

Ismain has recognised that while the Black Lives Matter movement has sparked more discussion about supporting Afro-Caribbean businesses, there are still limitations.

“This is great, but it often only translates to a couple of ad hoc purchases while a story is still fresh in people’s minds,” she said.

“I wanted to set up Jamii to create habits. With this platform, we can create social change every single day.

“There’s a huge amount of innovation and ambition among these Afro-Caribbean businesses, and we want to bring them to the forefront of people’s minds.”

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There are over 10,000 Afro-Caribbean businesses in the city, many of which are situated in southern boroughs such as Peckham, Lewisham and Croydon.

Peckham in particular has recently seen afro-Caribbean hair salons experience severe pressures due to gentrification, with development forcing more and more black businesses out of the area.

Southwark Council plans to move black boutiques from the main roads to a side street complex, a venture many believe will deter customers.

This has become a concern to the salons who rely on footfall for their business, rather than newer methods of marketing.

“There are loads of successful black businesses out there, just not enough ways to find them.”

Gentrification is also a concern for Ismain, who wants Jamii to contribute to the protection of independent businesses, or as she calls them, “the heart of Britain”.

“There are some particularly negative stereotypes associated with black people in the UK, and making their businesses easier to find and use will help to break these down,” she said.

“The most commonly-held negative stereotypes are that black-owned businesses are unprofessional and have poor customer service.”

The businesses range from those who specifically cater to Afro-Caribbean communities, selling products such as weaves and relaxer kits, to those selling items suitable for everyone.

Dorcas Creates is one business that has benefited from the platform. Artist Dorcas Magbadelo has been selling her illustrated print products for two years, describing her work as “happy, positive, and quirky”, and born out of the lack of representation of black girls in art. With a Jamii card, customers can get a 30 per cent discount on her products.

“When Khalia first approached me, I just thought it was a really good idea,” she said. “There are a lot of negative connotations about Afro-Caribbean communities, so people just assume that these kind of businesses aren’t taking off. 

“But there are loads of successful black businesses out there, just not enough ways to find them. Yeah, there are online directories but people don’t really look at them. Jamii is a way of helping customers to find us.

“I think another challenge for us is that a lot of our businesses are very niche, and some of our products aren’t suitable for everyone. This means there’s a smaller market.”

Dorcas has some doubts about how Jamii could help Afro-Caribbean businesses in the future, but remains broadly positive.

“Since I signed up, I’ve definitely noticed more interest in my artwork and that people are engaging more. But I think that it will definitely take time for more concrete changes to be made,” she said.

“I’m sure as Jamii keeps growing and engaging members that we’ll see big changes.”

“I wanted to set up Jamii to create habits. With this platform, we can create social change every single day.”

But there are other concerns about Jamii. Some prospective businesses chose not to partner with Ismain for fear of being branded a “black-owned business”, or thought that the platform would be divisive for communities.

So what can be done to combat the negative stereotypes surrounding black businesses?

Ismain thinks the answer is to encourage collaboration, make business education more accessible, and create networks of successful entrepreneurs prepared to work with local businesses. But she’s certain that Jamii’s a start.