SAVANNAH, Ga. (WSAV) – Nigeria is known for its size, arts, educational and cultural centers. It’s also known for being the birthplace of talented people that made an impact beyond West Africa, like former NBA Center Hakeem Olajuwon, Grammy Award winner Sade and local Savannah business owner Helen Emeh. 

Emeh is the owner of Okey Tropical Market, a cultural food retailer in Savannah that specializes in a variety of household grocery items from various locations in Africa and the Caribbean Islands. 

Growing up in the tropical city of Lagos, Emeh developed leadership skills that she would eventually use in serving the city of Savannah.

“Being the first of the four, I had a lot more responsibility than the others. I basically helped take care of my siblings and I was also a mommy helper,” Emeh explained. “I learned to cook because my mother taught me how to cook at a very early age. Our main principle dishes are like fufu or rice, so I learned to cook them.”

Emeh’s parents were both professionals.  Her dad had contracts with various companies, at times in electrical settings.  Her mom occasionally assisted him and also worked as a secretary.  Eventually, her dad decided to open a retail store when Emeh was around 10 years old.

“I think it was something he wanted to do for the family to bring in stable income. In his various works, it led him to open that retail store and it was very profitable and beneficial for the family,” she said.

Her dad’s desire to help his family provided an opportunity for Emeh to learn the art of customer service at a young age.

“As a child, I used to have joy going there waiting on customers. It was something in the working, perhaps in me that I really didn’t know that I would end up with my own business,” Emeh recalled.

Even though she enjoyed helping out at the retail store, her plans were not to someday own her own store, or even manage one, she instead planned to become a doctor.

“In part of my life, I ended up with my aunt. She had lived in Germany for quite a while. She was a practical nurse. So when she came back into the country, she opened several hospitals. I actually lived with her and went with her when those facilities were being built. She usually brought in foreign doctors and nurses to work at the hospital. I had the opportunity to shadow them, you know, see what they were doing,” Emeh said as she reflected.

That aunt, whose name was May, encouraged her to not only study and observe what the doctors and nurses were doing but to also go to college and become a doctor. Afterward, the plan was for Emeh to take over one of the hospitals.

“That kind of piqued my interest and so when I finished my elementary years of school and decided to proceed to college, I came here and that was the purpose of me coming here. So that I could do what she wanted me to do,” she said.

Originally planning to study in Washington D.C. at Howard University, Emeh and her sister decided to instead study at Savannah State University.

Little did she know that soon she would meet her future husband, a Savannah State University professor, also from Nigeria.

Retired Savannah State Professor Dr. Chukwudi Obi Emeh and his wife Helen.

“When my husband and I formally met, my sister and I, we were going to the post office on campus to check our mail.”

As Emeh’s sister decided to say hello to him, something unusual happened.

“I was behind her, and before we got to him she turned to me and said, ‘You know, that’s your husband’.  I said no. I didn’t see him as my husband.” said Emeh.

That same day while sitting in her research class, Emeh was in for quite a surprise.

“I had a research class. So I’m sitting there waiting for the instructor to come in and lo and behold, he was the instructor. When I saw him, I was sitting all the way in the back. I felt like the floor could have split and I slid in,” she continued.

Interestingly, when she was younger she told her sister the kind of husband she was going to marry.

“It was going to be a mature person and because I had been around mature men in my family, I saw the way they took care of their wives, they were patient, they were good, a good model.  So I was like ‘Hmm, this would be a good model for a husband’ so I shared this with my sister and we would play a lot,” said Emeh.

Dr. Chukwudi Obi Emeh ended up becoming Helen’s research class professor and her husband.  

After college, she decided to go into business for herself and eventually became the owner of Okey Tropical Market, serving one of the largest cities in Georgia with an estimated population of over 400,000, according to World Population Review.

Okey Tropical Market manager Mariali Resto said, “People know us mainly through word of mouth.  We have a lot of military who buy their food, health and beauty products.”  

“Many people travel an hour or more to buy their favorite food.  This place is special to them because it reminds them of home.  This is part of our success,” she continued.

With Savannah being a city that has thousands of internationally born citizens, the market offers a home away from home.

Henrical Simon, who also works at Okey Tropical Markets said, “There’s a lot of Africans here and there’s a lot of stuff here they can’t get anywhere else.  It would be like Walmart to regular people. I see a lot of people returning constantly, so this is like a comfort shopping zone for them.”

Tik Tok followers and professional chefs are also among their many customers.

“Young people who follow Tik Tok have come in here asking for fufu for the first time in their lives. They don’t know what it is but because of Tik Tok, they want to try it,” said Resto.

They also serve Pacific Islanders, Asians, Jamaicans, and Hispanics.

“African products, especially in the food area, are very international, that you’d be surprised that somebody might come and find something here that they can use, even if it’s used differently,” said Emeh.

For more information about Okey Tropical Market visit okeytropicalmarket.com.