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How Eritrean immigrant Ahmed Saleh established Buffalo’s Mandela market

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Ahmed Saleh, is an African immigrant who escaped his native country, Eritrea in 1993 and landed in the US, without family, friends or resources.

Upon his arrival in the US, Saleh found shelter in Buffalo’s Viva La Casa – a center that helps refugees to transition into life in both the US and Canada and that was how he began his life in America.

According to the Buffalo State University of New York's publication, The Journey, Saleh secured employment, completed studies in a community college, transferred to Buffalo State, and graduated with a degree in computer science. 

He continued to work two jobs, plus served as an immigration interpreter in Buffalo and New York City. All along, he was saving as much money as possible.

While participating in a seven-week course in entrepreneurship, Ahmed was introduced to Cindi Thomason of the Buffalo State Small Business Development Center. Cindi recalls their first meeting and how enthusiastic Ahmed was about his dream of opening a convenience store within Buffalo’s inner city. 

For the next 18 months, Cindi worked closely with Ahmed assisting him in all aspects of developing his business plan – including market studies, financial analysis, and human resource and management strategies.
The planning went very smoothly, but major challenges were ahead. Cindi would guide and encourage Ahmed through some very rocky waters. Saleh managed to establish Mandela Market in 2007 on the East Side of Buffalo.
Today, Ahmed’s original store is thriving. The market's success led to an expansion in 2012 and a second location opened on Broadway Street in 2018. 

Serving downtown, the East Side and commuters using the Broadway corridor, Mandela Market on Broadway represents a huge investment in a community that has been neglected for too long. 

Saleh was focused on broadening the market's offerings to include healthier foods, such as fruits, vegetables and prepared food – an undertaking that required constructing an additional 1,500 square feet of new space and purchasing new equipment. 

Mandela Market received $130,000 from Empire State Development as part of the East Side Corridor Economic Development Fund.

On Wednesday, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the completion of the Mandela Market's expansion project on the East Side of Buffalo. 

The $145,000 expansion at 272 East Ferry Street, which was supported by funding from the state's East Side Corridor Economic Development Fund and Buffalo Billion II initiative, provides greater access to fresh fruit and vegetables for a neighborhood partially covered by a USDA-designated second standard food desert. 

Open 24 hours a day and accessible by bus routes, the market helps residents of the area lead a healthier lifestyle and improved quality of life.

"Access to fresh, quality food is critical to the health and prosperity of all communities during these challenging times," Governor Cuomo said. 

"New York State is proud to support projects like the expansion of the Mandela Market and the continuing revitalization of Buffalo's East Side. I congratulate Ahmed Saleh, who works hard every day to provide food to the neighborhood he lives in and loves."

Saleh said, "We are pleased the expansion of our market on East Ferry street is complete and ready to be enjoyed by residents of Buffalo's East Side. I thank New York State for supporting this opportunity to bring fresh produce, new food options and additional jobs to a neighborhood in need of convenient, affordable and nutritious meal options."

"Lack of access to fresh food is an injustice," said Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul. 

"We are proud to support the expansion of Mandela Market, which will put healthy food on the table for families in Buffalo's East Side. Thank you to Mandela Market founder Ahmed Saleh, who is helping lead the way to make our community even stronger."

In March 2019, Governor Cuomo announced the $50 million East Side Corridor Economic Development Fund, an initiative to spark revitalization of Buffalo's East Side through investments in the four main north-south commercial corridors: Michigan, Jefferson, Fillmore and Bailey avenues. 

Funding is helping revive traditional main streets and commercial corridors through the preservation of historic buildings, funding of capital improvements in neighborhood assets, expansion of commercial opportunities, improvements to infrastructure, as well as the promotion of mixed-use private investment in these neighborhoods. 

The funding is designed to empower community residents to improve their businesses and neighborhoods, making it a ground up revitalization effort led by and directly benefiting the community. 

Mandela Market was one of the nine projects listed as part of a total $7.4 million allocation in direct project assistance, a list compiled by Empire State Development in conjunction with the City of Buffalo through public stakeholder meetings and listening sessions with business owners and neighborhood residents. 

The fund complements previous investments on the East Side, including $10 million for the Neighborhood Stabilization Initiative and $5 million for the Buffalo Central Terminal, for a total of $65 million in investments since 2017.

Empire State Development Acting Commissioner and President and CEO-Designate Eric Gertler said, "Healthier food options are now easier to find on Buffalo's East Side, thanks to the expansion of Mandela Market, a family-owned business that has made a commitment to growing here. Congratulations on the completion of this project, which is just one example of Governor Cuomo's efforts to ensure that every Buffalo community shares in the city's economic recovery." 

Senator Tim Kennedy said, "All New Yorkers deserve access to fresh foods, regardless of zip code or socioeconomic status, yet food deserts persist in underserved communities statewide. With so many people struggling during the pandemic, the expansion of Mandela's Market could not come at a more critical time. 

It will serve as a new resource for accessible, nutritional food options, which will in turn help foster healthier families across our entire city."

Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes said, "Ahmed Saleh's Mandela Market is literally an oasis in the "food desert" on Buffalo's East Side. This $145,000 expansion, thanks to the state's East Side Corridor Economic Development Fund and Buffalo Billion II, will help Saleh grow his mission to provide fresh fruits, vegetables, and healthy food options to people who live and work on Buffalo's East Side."

Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz said, "Fresh fruits, vegetables and prepared foods are available twenty-four hours a day at Mandela Market, which is incredibly important in a federally-recognized 'food desert'. The Market's expansion will invigorate the surrounding community, promote better health, and is another sign of the renewal of Buffalo's historic East Side."

City of Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown said, "The completion of the Mandela Market's expansion project on East Ferry and Jefferson is great news for residents who live in this neighborhood as they now have access to healthier food options like fruits and vegetables.  

"I am grateful for this $145,000 targeted investment from Governor Andrew Cuomo and the State's East Side Corridor Economic Development Fund. Our residents can now enjoy even more nutritional, prepared food options and fresh produce, all year long. I also thank Mandela Market Owner Ahmed Saleh for his deep, commitment and excellent service to our community."

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