Willmar entrepreneur is part of growing Somali population

Bihi's first store opened in 2003
Mohamed Bihi opened the first store in 2003 that caters to Willmar's Somali population.
MPR Photo/Ambar Espinoza

The small city of 19,000 people has more than 30 ethnic businesses, and about eight of them that serve the Somali population also dot the downtown area.

When Mohamed Bihi moved to Willmar eight years ago, he noticed many of his friends would often commute to the Twin Cities to buy traditional Somali food and products. Bihi is a native of Somalia and ended up in Willmar to work at the local Jenni-O processing plant. On his weekend trips to Minneapolis to run errands, he'd also pick up things for his friends.

Mohamed Bihi
Mohamed Bihi holds up green cardamom, a key ingredient in Somali tea, along with cookies to go with the warm beverage.
MPR Photo/Ambar Espinoza

"First time, I saw that my people like to get Hallal meat," Bihi said. "Hallal meat is special kosher [meat] from our religion so I would pick it up to help my community to get hallal meat and what they need."

Then, Bihi's entrepreneurial spirit kicked in. He opened Bihi's Shop, the first convenience store to sell Hallal meat, herbs and spices for traditional Somali dishes and tea. He also sold baked goods from Somali bakeries in the Twin Cities, among other popular products.

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According to the 2000 Census, Willmar had the 10th largest Somali population in Minnesota, 109 residents at the time. The federal government estimates that Willmar is now home to at least 1,000 Somalis. And the population is thriving.

Since Bihi opened his store five years ago, about six more businesses catering to the Somali and East African populations sprang up. But that didn't stop him from opening up a restaurant a little more than a year ago.

Mowlid Aden, a Bihi's customer
Mowlid Aden recently moved to Willmar from Missouri, where his mother still lives. He often comes to Bihi's restaurant because he doesn't know how to cook and misses traditional Somali dishes.
MPR Photo/Ambar Espinoza

Traditional Somali dishes at Bihi's restaurant attract customers like Mowlid Aden, who moved here from Missouri four months ago. Aden said he doesn't know how to cook, so discovering Bihi's restaurant was a treat for him. Now he's become a regular.

Bihi used his entire life savings to open up his two businesses. This was challenging because he needed to launch both of them without taking out cash loans with interest.

Bihi is Muslim, and The Quran explicitly forbids Muslims from conducting any cash transactions involving interest. Bihi received a micro-loan to supplement his savings through a small business administration program from the Southwest Initiative Foundation, which offers Islamic financing. One expert on Islamic financing is Hussein Farah, the director of business programs at the non-profit African Development Center, or ADC.

"The underlying wisdom behind the religion telling people not to be part of interest or usury was just the equality, the fact that those that have take advantage of those who don't have and you take advantage by charging usury, charging interest on the money that you have," Farah said.

Farah said in ancient times, cash loans would take place privately between people. Now, they're part of the mainstream marketplace.

Mohamid Bihi's two businesses
Mohamed Bihi's convenience store and restaurant sit next to each other in Downtown Willmar.
MPR Photo/Ambar Espinoza

Farah said the Quran encourages Muslims to participate in an open, free market by buying and selling goods and services. His organization offers Islamic financing, so that those who strictly practice the religion can follow those rules while still participating in the economy.

"The client will come to us and say I need this piece of equipment or this piece of machine or this inventory to add to my business," Farah said. "They will provide us the invoice, we will go out and buy whatever they want, then charge a mark-up profit on it, that way we can say, 'here this is what we give you guys, pay us back in 36 months, or 48 months, or 60 months.'"

Farah said mark-ups don't conflict with the Quran, because they're a basic part of market transactions. Islamic financing does try to protect against predatory lending. The mark-up rates at the ADC are the same for all its clients.

"What we say is the profit that we charge this individual will be exactly the same as the profit we will charge this other individual because the underlying principle is the same," Farah said. "We're not differentiating between good credit, bad credit or how long they've been in this country."

In Willmar, Mohamed Bihi had plans to further expand his businesses, but he's re-assessing now that the economy is struggling. He's holding on to that ambition and when he's finally ready to expand, he's considering the ADC's Islamic financing program.