The business idea was hatched during the search for a washroom in Maryland. Today, Swahili Village is one of the finest African cuisine restaurants in the US.
Kevin Onyona founded the chain in 2016, and today it boasts of three restaurants.
“I took my family out for dinner but the restaurant didn't have a decent washroom. We left for another restaurant where we could use a clean restroom,” he told The EastAfrican last week in Washington DC.
“I wondered why the restaurant didn't have decent restroom.''
At that time Onyona, who is a self-taught chef, was a sales executive at the Home Depot, an American multinational home improvement retail firm.
“I quit the job to open a restaurant with a decent restroom. The few African restaurants in Maryland don't fit in the fine dining space.''
Six years later, he has utilised his restaurants to build an authentic connection between the African culture and the rest of the world.
As a child, he regularly watched his grandmother cook fish, the dish inspired him to become a chef.
"Cooking is in my soul. I believe everyone should know how to cook something. Even children benefit learning, communication and life skills from learning how to cook," he says.
In August 1999, Onyona packed his bags to visit Lynn Senda at Howard University, Washington DC.
“I left Kenya in 1999. I came here to visit my girlfriend who is now my wife. When I got here she challenged me to explore opportunities in America,” says Onyona, who at a young age wanted to become a priest.
After abandoning his priesthood calling, Onyona opted to pursue a sales career at Associated Motors and General Motors in Kenya, then relocated to Maryland to join Home Depot.
“I was a car dealer in Kenya. But after relocating to the US, my passion for joining the hospitality industry kicked in after the dinner experience” he said.
Hired a consultant
Despite being a chef, Onyona had no skills of running a restaurant, so he hired a consultant to coach him.
And on July 13, 2016, Swahili Village opened its first eatery in the historic town of Beltsville, in Maryland, known for agricultural research and innovations.
"I believe that entrepreneurship is an important tool one can use to reveal the best capabilities of a people in our world," he says.
As the chief executive of the chain, he has steered the growth of the restaurants.
The premier restaurant is located on Rhode Island Ave, Beltsville. The other two eateries are in Washington DC and New Jersey.
Authentic African experiences
The eateries are dedicated to providing more than just food and drinks, but connecting the world to authentic African experiences.
“We serve African cuisine that is not common or available in African restaurants, in the US” said Nwaneri Ikechi, the chain's marketing director.
Nyama choma (marinated chunks of goat meat or beef, char-grilled and sautéed with onions), a Kenyan delicacy, is one of the dishes that has made the restaurants stand out.
Other delicacies include deep fried tilapia fillet chunks in a rich coconut curry, or sautéed with onions and cilantro; slow cooked goat soup with onions, carrots and greens; grilled chicken breast marinated and char-grilled.
Groups of five to seven people can savour grilled goat, beef, chicken served with collard greens, spinach, cabbage, ugali and chapati garnished with kachumbari.
Feel well fed
"Ingredients are simple building blocks to create the overall feeling one gets after eating that particular meal.
''You want people to feel well fed, satisfied with great flavour and know how much healthier that meal makes their body become," he says
"The African culture is misinterpreted globally and it is time we stood up and displayed the authenticity of our originality in culture, food, arts and music," Onyona says.
During my visit to the Swahili Village in Washington DC restaurant, Onyona was serving Kenyan dignitaries attending the US-Africa Leaders Summit, who included Chief Cabinet Secretary Musalia Mudavadi and Trade Cabinet Secretary Moses Kuria.
“It is a surprise to enjoy Kenyan delicacies away from home,” said Mudavadi who was served nyama choma.
“We recently hosted Namibian President Hage Geingob. Kenya's President William Ruto was here just before elections in August,” said Onyona.
Opened by Uhuru
The Washington DC eatery was opened by former president Uhuru Kenyatta and Azimio leader Raila Odinga in 2020 before the pandemic hit.
However, the restaurant had to close its doors due to Covid restrictions.
But the pandemic didn't dampen his entrepreneurial spirit. During the closure he renovated the restaurant which he reopened in June 2020.
Unfortunately, most of his target customers — staff at the nearby International Monetary Fund, State Department, World Bank and foreign embassies — were working remotely.
The Washington DC restaurant’s rich wooden finishing, lighting and interior décor reflects the bold authentic Kenyan cuisine that will be served.
“The dream has been successful. Our vision is to open more branches in America,” said Onyona.