As the Covid-19 pandemic reached the United States in early 2020 and governments ordered businesses to close to curb the spread of the virus, Naftali Kokiro saw an opportunity.
Before the pandemic, Kokiro had been selling soccer balls branded “Komborrah”, which is an altered form of a Swahili word that means “missile.” The word is used in East Africa to refer to a shot on goal, especially of a fast-moving ball from a distance.
Kokiro began selling the balls after striking a partnership with a former professional soccer player named John “Baresi” Odhiambo, who played for Harambee Stars, Kenya’s national team. Odhiambo, who started the Komborrah brand, had reached out to Kokiro to see how he could help market the balls. They had only been selling a few balls, mostly within their community of soccer enthusiasts. But that changed when the pandemic began in early 2020.
“Covid is what gave us a big boost,” said Kokiro, a Kenyan who moved to the United States in 1998.
As indoor sports and fitness facilities were ordered to close, the popularity of outdoor activities like soccer began to rise. Sales of Komborrah soccer balls began to increase steadily and before long the inventory was exhausted. Kokiro’s success motivated him to further expand Komborrah beyond just selling individual soccer balls. He assembled a team of professionals with various skills to partner with him and Odhiambo. They include a patent lawyer, an information technology specialist, as well as experts in marketing and logistics.
“We have five core people I brought in because you have to cover your weaknesses,” Kokiro said. “You can’t do it all.”
The founding team decided to scale up their business and open a soccer center named Komborrah. Eight months ago, Kokiro began searching for a location for the business. On Saturday May 29, Komborrah will open its doors to the public at the Albertville Outlet Mall. The 8,000-square-foot space will have a soccer apparel and equipment store, an indoor training facility, and a small fitness gym. Komborrah will also offer skills training and development independent from club associations.
Komborrah joins a growing list of African immigrants who have defied the downward trend of brick-and-mortar stores seen during the pandemic to launch their dream businesses. In October, Miriam Mongare, who immigrated from Kenya 10 years ago, launched Miriam Fitness, a women-only gym, in Bloomington, Minn. And in April, Ghanaian immigrant Emmanuel Boateng and his Jamaican-born wife Tani opened United People Apparel at Mall of America.
The founders of Komborrah are betting the potential for growth soccer has in United States.
Although soccer is the most popular sport globally, it has much lower interest in the United States, where American football, basketball and baseball dominate. But Kokiro said the low popularity of soccer in the United States provides opportunities for creative entrepreneurs to grow the sport.
Still, soccer remains extremely popular among immigrant communities in the United States. For some immigrant parents, it is a lifelong hobby that they feel obligated to pass on to their children.
“I’m a diehard soccer fan,” said Richard Ooga. “I’m a lunatic in soccer.”
Ooga, a photographer who grew up playing soccer in Kenya before moving to the United States, introduced his children to the sport early. His youngest son plays in a competitive youth team that travels for tournaments around the state and the country.
Beyond tradition, Ooga and other parents see soccer as a safer alternative to traditional American football, which in recent years has been blamed for brain injuries sustained from concussions that occur when players are hit hard on their heads.
“Other sports like American football, it’s scary to watch people play,” Ooga said.
“Safety is one of the most important considerations you have to make [as a parent].”
For aspiring entrepreneurs who have ambitions to venture into business, Kokiro has some advice.
“Don’t be afraid to fail,” said Kokiro, who has also owned a window-cleaning business for many years. “Personally, I’ve tried so many businesses. It’s not really a fail. You sharpen yourself.”