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From Nanka, Nigeria to Eastport, Maine

Ben Okafor at pharmacy counter

Benjamin Okafor was born in Nanka, Nigeria to a family with eight children. As the youngest, he was expected get a good education and launch a professional career as his siblings had done before him. Obeying the command to succeed, he qualified as a pharmacist in Nigeria, then moved to London in 1999 to convert his licensing into the British system. His sweetheart, Angela, stayed behind in Nigeria to complete law school. “In our culture, both of us realized separation was a sacrifice we’d have to make in order to get ahead, so off I went to London, a move she and my family understood and supported.” In 2001 Ben was hired at London’s Guys & St. Thomas Hospital as one of 90 pharmacists.

During this time, Angela visited or he returned to Nigeria on vacations. In 2006 opportunity came knocking and Ben answered. He was recruited in London by Rite Aid Pharmacy in 2006, as part of an initative to find qualified pharmacists to work in rural areas. Issued a HIB Visa work permit, he and Angela married in Nigeria, and moved to Bangor in January 2007, where Ben became a pharmacy manager. At times he was asked to cover both Calais and Machias so he got to know the Downeast area too. Angela passed the New York State bar and was licensed to practice there. In 2013, the couple received their green cards, allowing them to stay in the U. S. for five more years; today they are proud parents of three children, ages 6, 4, and 2. In 2018 they will be eligible to become U. S. citizens, fulfilling a long-held dream.

With a growing family to support, Ben studied the Downeast demographics and identified a gap in services, particularly in Eastport. As he pondered the uncertainty in leaving the security of his Rite Aid career behind--particularly in a location that would take him 240 miles from home roundtrip--he and his wife weighed the sacrifice against the potential. Once again, distance did not deter them regarding Ben’s professional pursuit. Located 5,142 miles from his birthplace, Ben opened Eastport Family Pharmacy in a 600 sq. ft. rental on Water Street. The community was delighted to once again have a pharmacy, since the previous one closed long ago. “I was made to feel like part of the community and I’ve met some very nice people here,” Ben said. “Plus I am very happy to be a part of the regeneration of Eastport.” Naturally ambitious and driven to succeed, Ben amped up marketing and began free home deliveries within a 50 mile radius.

In March 2015 he began working with CEI’s Women’s Business Center advisor, Ruth Cash-Smith on his business plan and obtained a $100,000 business loan, used for purchasing more drug inventory to keep up with demand. With a growing customer base from surrounding communities, the pharmacy quickly outgrew its tiny space so six short months later Ben again reached out to Ruth for assistance in obtaining a second loan for $150,000 to purchase and renovate a former laundromat, which had been closed for several years. In June, coinciding with the second anniversary of starting his business, the pharmacy moved in, doubling its square footage. Plus the new location is right next door to the Eastport Health Center. “Having grown up in a tropical climate, I’m still not fond of snow,” Ben observed, “but when the winter sets in, I can now offer my customers the convenience of leaving the doctor’s and driving through to pick up their prescriptions. That’s an especially important benefit in winters.” Given that Nigerian custom is to throw a big party to celebrate good fortunes, Ben and his employees did just that at a Grand Re-Opening on Friday, October 14. Over 100 customers and townspeople turned out to celebrate, complete with red hot dogs, cake, and free bottles of vitamins to all attendees. What’s next? “I plan to continue to expand my customer base in Downeast Maine. Then in the next few years I’m really looking forward to taking my Bangor family to meet our Nigerian families. Ten years is a long, long time not to have seen our loved ones.”

Company Name: 
Eastport Family Pharmacy
Eastport, Maine