With East African ethnic markets flourishing in the Twin Cities metro area, the Oromo community has come together to create a group aimed at helping reduce barriers for local entrepreneurs: the Oromo Chamber of Commerce.
OCC was established last year to support, connect and expand the community’s diverse businesses throughout Minnesota, home to an estimated 35,000 Oromo people, who make up the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia.
Earlier this month, the chamber brought together nearly 100 community members and state officials in celebration of its first anniversary at the Minneapolis Marriott Northwest.
“I know this is something new to our community,” said OCC chairman Teshite Wako of the chamber. “But the voice of Oromo businesses is important. We need to come together and amplify our voices and get recognized.”
In recent years, the Oromo community has been spreading its entrepreneurial wings in the Twin Cities, opening grocery stores, barbershops, restaurants and other businesses that serve their own people.
Members of the Oromo community started streaming into Minnesota more than two decades ago, after then-Ethiopian President Mengistu Haile Mariam was ousted from power and his government collapsed.
The community is making a positive mark in Minnesota, said Minneapolis-based Oromo activist Nasser Mussa. But the the successes of the community often go ignored, he added. “The Oromo community is not very visible,” Mussa noted. “The mainstream community thinks that we’re Somalis. We’re put into one category, even though we have different cultures, different languages and different lifestyle here. That’s kind of challenging for us in terms of visibility.”
Community-run groups like OCC, however, are working to reclaim that visibility and creating a platform where members can make their voices heard.
Since its establishment, Wako said, OCC has been engaged in bringing the various Oromo-operated businesses under one umbrella — to inspire and advocate for other entrepreneurs in the community. “We have made tremendous efforts in terms of organizing ourselves,” he said.
He continued: “We would like to unite, unify and amplify our voices. We would like to provide different kinds of trainings that are needed to really strengthen our businesses.”
Speaking at the Saturday event, Concordia University economics professor Bruce Corrie applauded OCC leadership for creating the chamber.
Said Corrie, who has long studied local immigrant communities: “What you’re doing as a chamber is that you’re collecting the business voices and economic development voices and you want those voices to be heard.”
He added: “Mainstream organizations are not reaching the communities. So a chamber like this could collect the voices and make the case.”