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Building the Valley: Cameroonian immigrant lays roots for business in New Kensington

Magazine, Making Money

Odilon Wafo came to the United States from the African country of Cameroon in 2010 looking for better opportunities for himself and his children.

He would find himself owning a business in New Kensington, a city that itself was striving for better.

“When I got here, I saw the city was a little bit depressed,” said Wafo, 54. “There wasn’t too much hope over here.”

Wafo said he was all alone when he opened his secondhand shop, Odi’s Emporium, in rented space at 862 Fifth Ave. in January 2017. At that time, the city wasn’t safe.

“I wanted to bring some hope to people,” he said. “I wanted to make people believe that the city, this city, can wake up.”

Four years later, buildings in downtown New Kensington are being repaired and becoming home to new businesses. Those businesses and special events — such as the monthly Fridays on Fifth started this year and the recent New Ken Shop Small Crawl — are bringing people back to the city.

And, Wafo says, people can walk the streets at night with confidence. He’s no longer alone and recently moved his business across Fifth Avenue to a building he owns.

“It’s not a hope now. It’s a reality,” he said. “The city is in progress, big progress. Everyone can feel it.”

Odi’s Emporium is now at 881 Fifth Ave., in the building and space that previously housed Jolar Armory. John Ciesielski, who owned and operated the armory and adjacent Jolar Galleries Antique Store for more than 30 years, died in January 2016.

Wafo said he worked to fix up the building “little by little” since buying it around late 2018, early 2019. He wants to expand his store into the basement and use the upper floor for apartments. He’s considering an indoor flea market in the antique store space — now full of junk and in need of repair — but is open to ideas and taking on a partner.

“This building has a lot of potential,” he said.

Odi’s Emporium buys, sells and trades, dealing in electronics, appliances, tools and home goods.

Knowing he was in an area where people have low incomes, Wafo saw a problem he wanted to solve through his business: to buy good things from people who don’t need them and sell it to those who do need them at an affordable price.

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