A London delivery firm that had Chelsea striker Raheem Sterling as an investor has fallen into administration after staff and suppliers were left unpaid.
The firm released a statement late last night stating that it had “regrettably” suspended operations “due to funding constraints” with the last deliveries made on 30 July.
The Canning town based business, which specialised in African and Caribbean groceries, appears to have been struggling for some time.
Court records obtained by the Standard show that since March, Oja has faced eight different legal claims for unpaid money totalling over £50,000.
The Standard has spoken to five different sources, including suppliers and ex-employees, who said they cut ties with the business after waiting months for wages and fees to come in, with some resorting to legal action in a desperate bid to get their money. They have raised concerns about the management of the business by CEO and founder, Mariam Jimoh.
“There was a time when I cried on my shift because I felt like an unemployed person with a job,” one employee told the Standard.
“It had come to a point where colleagues were sending money to other colleagues who hadn’t received their pay so that they had enough money to come into work.
“Some of us had to tell [Jimoh] why we needed the money that we worked for to try to make her sympathise with us. But this wouldn’t work.”
Oja, which delivered specialist ingredients such as jerk seasoning and frozen catfish steak, first rose to prominence in March this year after attracting investment from backers including the Chelsea and England star in a seven-figure funding round. The business had also received an investment from Deliveroo co-founder, Greg Orlowski.
A spokesperson for Raheem Sterling, who is a minority shareholder, said he had not been made aware of any legal complaints. There is no suggestion that he knew about the financial problems at the business.
The Standard can reveal that two weeks prior to the funding announcement, the firm had already received its first legal claim for more than £7,000 in unpaid fees to a small business who supplied produce for the company, while internally, staff were in a dispute with Jimoh about not getting their wages paid on time.
On May 11, Oja CEO Jimoh appeared in an interview with The Sun newspaper, entitled: “I quit my banking job to start my own business – it’s so successful even Premier League legend Raheem Sterling loved it.”
But one day before the interview was published, on May 10 Oja had its second legal claim filed against it, for fees totalling over £5,000, the Standard can reveal.
Since then the firm has had six further legal claims for thousands of pounds each, up to and including a claim filed by last week by a former employee who had not received his wages, it is understood.
In internal Slack conversations seen by the Standard, when Oja workers sought to reckon with Mariam Jimoh about why they were not getting paid, she replied: “There is nothing to pay you with. Stop talking to me about this.” Staff who continued to protest about their lack of pay were removed from team communications channels, before being told to “go to HR” to complain. Oja’s HR function was run by Jimoh’s mother.
“I knew the company was going through financial difficulties [but] I had to chase my own money for weeks and there was always an excuse,” another employee told the Standard.
“When I asked for my own money I felt like I had committed a crime… in the end I had to borrow cash off my mum and dad.”
Turmoil inside the company also appeared to affect its customers, with a string of recent reports online complaining of deliveries missed and requests for refunds ignored.
The cash crisis facing Oja underscores the challenges facing delivery app startups amid fierce competition, paper-thin margins and dwindling investor appetite. As recently as today, food delivery app Getir said it was cutting more than two thousand jobs globally in a bid to slash costs.
One supplier a local small business owner, who cut ties with Oja after waiting months for thousands of pounds in unpaid fees, said he felt he had no option but to take the company to court.
“It may not sound like a lot but it was serious for our business,” he said. “I would look on the [Oja] website and see that the food I was supplying was being sold at less than cost. I wondered how much longer this could go on for.”
Russ Mould, investment director at AJ Bell, said: “The challenges that face – and can take down - any firm also confront food delivery businesses: competition, customer dissatisfaction and regulation.
“The regulator is also always watching, especially when it comes to the issue of workers’ rights, their pay, benefits, conditions and hours. Food delivery is thin margin at best – Ocado has been at it for twenty-odd years and never consistently made a profit, either as a stand-alone business or in the joint venture with M&S – and increased costs are an unwelcome burden.
“The butcher’s boy and baker’s boy on their bike died out for a reason – it was cheaper and easier to get customers to come to your shop – and it is possible that an era of ultra-cheap money has helped to conceal the cost of distance, which is also rising owing to oil and fuel prices.”
In a statement Jimoh told the Standard: “2023 was a tough year for most grocery delivery companies which often aren’t profitable in their early years and require constant funding to survive. On top of the macroeconomic challenges, Oja also faced its own operational difficulties that we worked relentlessly to resolve.
“Despite exploring all potential funding sources tirelessly, and navigating an unexpected dip in Q1 revenues, Oja made its final deliveries on 30 July 2023 and is currently in the hands of administrators.”