A 'little Kenya' in Southern Sudan

Monday January 17 2011

jane Mutwirandu, a Kenyan business woman in Juba. Photo/FILE

You are outside your comfort zone in another country yet you reside in a hotel owned by your compatriot, where you were actually dropped from the airport by another Kenyan as you conversed in Kiswahili.

Welcome to a little Kenya in southern Sudan where business is brisk in spite of the small matter of ceding 40 per cent of your investment to a local and customers who occasionally think bills are supposed to be unpaid.

At the hotel, the menu laid before you, reads like a cut and paste copy of a typical eating house in Nairobi. Nyama choma, kunde (cow peas), sukuma wiki, fish and chicken fry are all available, to go with Kenya’s staple ugali, although here they call it posho.

There is a variety of beer brands on sale, but a quick look around the neighbouring tables, reveals to you that the Kenya-brewed Tusker could easily pass for the favourite.

A peep at the bar shelf confirms Tusker’s popularity.

You make your orders in Kiswahili, Kenya’s national language, then sit back to enjoy your meals as you watch NTV, Citizen or KTN TV - which are all Kenyan television channels.


Kenyan-brewed tea, Ketepa, is readily available for breakfast or afternoon or evening refreshment.

You also realise that the clientele is predominantly Kiswahili-speaking, implying it is either Kenyan or has some sort of Kenyan connection. Talk of home away from home!

Hospitality cake

Kenyans are generally a force to reckon with in the Southern Sudanese capital Juba, but it is perhaps in the hospitality industry where you meet most of them

Juba Raha, Meta Meta Camp, Juba Safari and Pacho Resort are all Kenyan enterprises fighting for a share of the Juba hospitality cake.

Smart Camp, Woodlands Court, Intra Africa Hotel, Royal Garden and Juba Plains are the other Kenyan-owned spots in the Juba hospitality industry.

Others in the same ownership category are Nile Beach, La Clique, Heron Camp Site, Paradise Hotel and Royal Park.

“Last night I had githeri, my favourite dish, for dinner,’’ a journalist tells me on a visit to Juba Raha, when I inquire about the menu.

More downmarket joints with Kenyan connection are also available in plenty in Juba. Tin To Ler, Egesa and Kanini Kaseo are quite popular in this former garrison town and at such joints, you can dine and wine while enjoying Joseph Kamaru’s ageless lyrics, the Luo ohangla beats or Kamba and Ekugusii compositions.

"Tukutane kwa Mkamba" or "kwa Mjaluo" (let’s meet at the Kamba’s or Luo’s), is how they fix appointments here.

With the prospects of Southern Sudan seceding from the North being real, following a referendum vote that began on January 9, the prospects of more and more Kenyan entrepreneurs putting their money in Southern Sudan is obvious.

The region has already applied for an observer status in the regional East Africa Community bloc. An independent Southern Sudan will most likely opt for the upgrading of the status to a full membership.

In the decades of its struggle against the North, Southern Sudan has always looked south for help and inspiration. Kenya and Uganda, for instance, have been home to thousands of the Sudanese refugees uprooted from their country by the war.

According to a recent report by the Kenyan Consulate in Juba, “Kenyans are the driving force in most sectors of the economy in Southern Sudan.”

In addition to the hospitality industry, Kenyans are to be found in banking and information technology, construction, as well as the transport sectors.

Their dominance in the hospitality industry is further reinforced by the fact that Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport is an almost unrivalled transport hub for flights to and from Southern Sudan.

The Kenyan aviation firms with regular flights to Southern Sudan include the national carrier, Kenya Airways, Jetlink Express, East African Express and Delta Airlines. There are several Kenya-based feeder airlines serving within Southern Sudan states.

Marriage of convenience

But don’t be fooled--- Southern Sudan is no Eldorado. Much as a lot has changed for the better since the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the North and the South in 2005, it remains a challenging terrain requiring a great deal of ingenuity and business acumen to navigate.

One area that has often left the adventurous, diligent and go-getting East Africans with the shorter end of the stick is the Sudanese law that makes it mandatory for any foreign enterprise to enter into partnership with the locals at the ratio of 60 to 40 (local).

On paper, it is a good arrangement geared towards endearing such initiatives to the citizens and cultivating skills' transfer to a people disadvantaged by years of civil strife.

In reality, however, it amounts to a foreigner virtually ceding a huge chunk of an investment to a stranger.

One hotel owner, who did not want to be named for fear of offending the hosts, said the Sudanese partners almost invariably bring nothing with them on board, making such arrangements a mere marriage of convenience.

In many cases, he went on, the partnerships end in acrimony with the Sudanese eventually confiscating the business.

“The law is unfair and must in future make the contribution of the locals to the enterprise they are joining mandatory,’’ he said.

“How fair is it for one to cede a whole 40 per cent of his investment to someone else in the name of partnership?’’

The Kenyan hospitality investors also face the problem of dealing with a local clientele so accustomed to having their way by force.

‘’Here, it is common to have a client walk in, make an order, be served and when done, just walk away. You try to tell him to pay up, and he retorts that ‘this is our country for which we have struggled for decades,’’’ said a Kenyan investor.

He explained that such unruly clients are often armed with guns with which they threaten to shoot anyone engaging them in an argument.

A manager at a popular night spot narrated how the business was almost ruined by armed clients who routinely whipped out their guns for a fight at the slightest of differences, especially under the influence of alcohol.

Another one recounted a sad tale of a client who refused to pay for several days of accommodation and meals, despite claiming to have returned to South Sudan only recently from the US.

“One would have expected such a person to be well conversant with the way such businesses are run, and to appreciate foreigners more considering other countries’ gesture to him at his hour of need,” said the hotelier who also requested to remain anonymous.

Dependency syndrome

A talk with foreigners in South Sudan reveals how the locals predictably remind them that it is their country and that they have struggled for many years to liberate it from the domination of the North.

Many often wonder what would stop the Sudanese from copying South African blacks who, after being hosted by other African countries for years during the struggle against apartheid, paid back in 2008 by descending on the citizens of the same countries in ugly xenophobic attacks that left many dead and traumatised.

But Mr Herman Otieno, the proprietor of Pacho Resort Camp, remains optimistic. He appreciates the support the Government of South Sudan (GOSS) was according investors by offering them protection and trying to inculcate the culture of respect for the law among the locals.

He, however, decried the ever rising value of the US dollar against the Sudanese pound. This, he says, makes imports dear, yet businesspeople depend almost entirely on supplies from other countries, especially Kenya and Uganda. South Sudan, still reeling from the effects of a 20-year civil war, is a net importer of even farm produce like tomatoes, cabbages and onions.

In addition to uprooting thousands from their homes and deterring them from engaging in any meaningful productive work, many years of war created a culture of dependency on relief support, a culture that may take some time to change.

Scenes of groups of men whiling away their time at market places or by the roadside are not rare.