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A financial lifeline for immigrants: Aurora lender funds newcomer entrepreneurship opportunities

Stephanie Daniel
Kenyan immigrants Josphat Ombacho and his wife Mable Matini stand in front of their food truck, Msosi Kenyan Cuisine, at a local artisan event in the metro Denver area.

Driving through Aurora, Colorado, it’s obvious the city is home to thousands of foreign-born residents. There are immigrant- and refugee-owned businesses everywhere, including beauty and nail salons, grocery, clothing shops, liquor stores and transportation companies. Some also own food trucks, like Kenyan immigrant Josphat Ombacho.

“I do catering with Msosi Kenyan cuisine in Aurora,” Ombacho said.

In late October 2022, his small, white Msosi Kenyan Cuisine food truck was parked at an outdoor mall southwest of Aurora. It’s just one of many vendors selling food, crafts, jewelry and other items there. Ombacho is wearing his work clothes: jeans, comfortable tennis shoes and a white shirt with the food truck's logo. Inside the truck, Ombacho and his wife, Mable Matini, are putting the finishing touches on the menu items. There are stainless steel containers filled with Kenyan staples like pilau rice, lentils and samosas.

“Here we have the beef stew,” he said. “Also we have cabbage here, which is steamed cabbage with some shredded carrots. And we have the chicken stew too.”

Living in Kenya, Ombacho never dreamed of owning a food truck. He was about 45 when he and Matini moved to Aurora with their three kids in 2007. Prior to moving, he and his family had waited a year before winning the U.S. visa lottery. When he first moved there, he worked in the medical field. Ombacho and his family would go to potlucks in their free time and bring Kenyan dishes to share.

“At one time somebody told me that my food was tasty and it might get some market out there,” he said. "That is why we decided to look around and see if we can get some kind of help to start off a catering business.”

Ombacho and Matini, started a catering business in 2016 and sold food at events like Aurora’s Global Fest and Taste of Colorado. Eventually, they decided to buy a food truck. When they looked at prices, however, they realized they couldn't afford one.

“We went to various banks to see if we can get a loan to buy a food truck because we didn't have enough money and we couldn't get (it) because our credit was low,” he said.

Stephanie Daniel
Msosi Kenyan Cuisine serves food at a local artisan event in the metro Denver area.

After getting turned down at traditional banks, Ombacho heard about CEDS Finance, a nonprofit, federally-funded small business lender in Aurora. CEDS focuses on providing small business loans to refugees, immigrants and other underserved people.

“Our mission is all about how do we help refugees create the American dream? And we define that as financial self-sufficiency,” CEDS Executive Director Alex Wise said.

CEDS was established in 2009 by an Ethiopian immigrant and the state coordinator for refugee resettlement. Initially, the organization focused on serving refugees but the nonprofit has since expanded to serve immigrants, people of color, and women. 90% of the people CEDS works with are considered low, very low or extremely low income. Additionally, 75% of CEDS clients are foreign-born, hailing from 35 different countries. They generally live here for about five years before they apply for a loan, Wise said.

“It takes refugees a fair amount of time to kind of get their feet under them, have a job, or to really master English and kind of understand how to navigate by the time they're ready to to start their own business,” she said.

Foreign-born residents have higher rates of entrepreneurship than those born in the U.S. Aurora supports these business owners through its immigrant integration plan. The goal is to increase entrepreneurship by providing information and training as well as other resources to help lower the barriers to entry. This is where lenders like CEDS come in.

CEDS loans up to $100,000 to clients and doesn’t require a minimum credit score. The nonprofit is also the only lender in the state that offers an Islamic-compliant loan, an alternative type of financing that adds an administrative fee rather than charging interest.

“How are you going to achieve financial self-sufficiency?” Wise said. “A lot of times, business ownership is that.”

CEDS has approved nearly 450 loans and will finance any business except for those in so-called “sin” sectors, like gambling, adult entertainment and cannabis. One of the biggest industries their clients work in is long haul trucking.

One such client is Ermias Gurmu, an Aurora resident originally from Ethiopia who owns a small trucking business called Line Trucking.

“I really like it. You know, I see the beauty of the country. I go everywhere and I see everything,” Gurmu said.

Gurmu hauls food across the country for big chain stores like Walmart and King Soopers. Last summer, his truck broke down in California and he couldn't work while it was being repaired. Gurmu, who financed the truck with a loan from CEDS, was suddenly unable to make the monthly payments. He went back to the lender for help.

Stephanie Daniel
Ethiopian Refugee Ermias Gurmu meets with CEDS Finance Senior Portfolio Officer Reid Anderson to modify his loan.

In September, Gurmu met with CEDS Senior Portfolio Officer Reid Anderson to modify the loan he had received. With the modifications, Gurmu would be able to skip payments for a couple months to get back on track and then resume paying the normal amount. The following year, his payments would increase so that the loan term of three years stays the same.

Modifications like this are what make CEDS unique. The nonprofit is committed to working with its clients, who might be first-time entrepreneurs or need assistance navigating the American banking system, to ensure their success. This includes helping borrowers with things like business plans, bookkeeping and marketing as well as providing ongoing support services.

“We have a really flexible modification policy which gives the portfolio team a lot of room to work with the borrower and really find a payment plan that works for them,” Reid said.

Gurmu has been a CEDS client since 2020 and is on his second loan.

“I'm planning to get more trucks and to have some more employees to expand my company,” he said.

A couple months after the loan modifications were put in place, Gurmu lost his truck and couldn’t keep up with the revised loan payments. Even so, CEDS would still work with him. The financial institution "has policies in place for when borrowers become delinquent," Anderson said.

CEDS has supported the dreams of more than 300 entrepreneurs to date, including Ombacho and Matini. Msosi Kenyan Cuisine has sold food at many events around the metro Denver area.

“We are so grateful for this truck,” Matini said. “(Especially) the last summer that has ended. It was wonderful.”

Stephanie Daniel
Kenyan immigrants Josphat Ombacho and his wife Mable Matini prepare to-go meals inside their food truck, Msosi Kenyan Cuisine.

The couple's food truck was so profitable the summer of 2022 that they were able to pay off their loan. Now the couple is looking forward to expanding their business in the near future.

"People have been demanding, they want us to have a restaurant or a place where they can come and sit and eat our food," Ombacho said. "CEDS have promised to give us another loan if we are ready to go look for a restaurant or a place to sell from."

This story is part of The Colorado Dream: Newcomers Welcome podcast from KUNC. 

The “American Dream” was coined in 1931 and since then the phrase has inspired people to work hard and dream big. But is it achievable today? Graduating from college is challenging, jobs are changing, and health care and basic rights can be a luxury. I report on the barriers people face and overcome to succeed and create a better life for themselves and their families.
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