Success Against All Odds: A Businessman’s Journey

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here is no end to this story because it is still being written. It is a journey that I begun in 1966 here in Mogadishu, where I was born, and has seen me through nations and continents, and through danger.

Yet, here we stand, having built something for ourselves today and knowing that tomorrow will come, even if we can’t be sure whether it will be sunny or smoky.

So, where should we start? Perhaps, at the point of departure. At the age of 15, restless and young, I ran away from school in Mogadishu and soon
after, made my way into the neighboring country of Kenya. I was not the first person to leave Mogadishu for Kenya, neither was I going to be the last. Yet getting to Kenya did not calm me down. Soon after arriving there, I was on my way out to Uganda and then to Tanzania. I haboured dreams of getting to Europe. My young mind was set on building my future in Europe.

“Between 1997- 2000, I worked in other people’s hotels, but in 2001, I set up my first restaurant” -Amed Jama

And I was going for it, alone. How was I getting by? I was 15, doing things that 15 year olds do. Odd jobs like loading cars and getting some meager payment. I bought food with some of that money, and saved bits of it.

At 17, when I had about $50 in savings, I went to one truck driver (at that time I was in Dar-es-Salaam), and asked him if he needed an assistant, which is just a fancy name for a turnboy. The man looked at me and asked just one question: “Do you know how to change the tyres of a truck?” I said yes. To which he responded: “Fine, you can come with me.” Destination…Goma. Before we left, I asked him one favour; if he could allow me to buy whatever amount of oil that $50 could buy and transport it together with his drums.

He had no objections, so I purchased the oil and we set off. In Goma, I sold that oil for $100. That was my first proper business deal. The driver, pleased at my work ethic as a turnboy and at my business entrepreneurial ability, asked me to keep working with him.

Advice to investors eyeing the hotel and tourism industry:
Be a risk taker
Ensure that the land where you are developing your business is legitimate
Understand your clientele Amed Jama’s family
*His wife is a pharmacist *They are blessed with three children; one girl (in London) and two boys (currently with him in Mogadishu) His signature dish *A well prepared and presented camel meat, especially the ribs.

Four years of working as a turnboy saw me save enough money to buy a passport, an air ticket and still retain a little bit of pocket money. In 1987, I left Nairobi for the UK. My arrival at the UK was without any fanfare. No one was waiting for me at the airport and I had nowhere to go to. I ended up at a centre where they held people marked for deportation.

I stayed there for a week, during which one of the detainees told me that if I wanted to stay in the UK, I should claim I was an asylum seeker. Whatever asylum was, I told my detainers that I had come to the UK to seek it. That worked and they released me. I moved to a hostel where I stayed and joined a college in East Birmingham to study languages.

After two years at the East Birmingham College, I moved to Solhall College to study catering. One may want to know what led to my love for catering. Well, I liked to cook even when I was young. I was always helping my mum in the kitchen. I still like to be somewhere around the kitchen. The period in the catering college was spent between class and working in hotels. After college, I got jobs in hotels, but in 1997, I moved to London. Between 1997-2000, I worked in other people’s hotels.

Come 2001, there was this feeling; a realisation that there were no up to the standard Somali restaurants in the UK. For me, food places are not just eating places. They are cultural melting points. They are places where one can create new understandings and expose the other side of themselves that is not known to the public.

My first restaurant was set up with this vision in mind in 2001. Five years later, I had set up five restaurants through partnerships in different parts of London. I set up the first Village Restaurant, also in London. That was 2006. Less than a year later, I began having these thoughts about Somalia, Mogadishu and the people at home. So in 2007, I left London and headed to Kenya first, thinking of setting up a business in Nairobi. While there and in the process of acquiring a particular property, I decided to take a one month break to see Mogadishu.

That has since turned to seven years. My arrival back into Somalia was hot, if that makes sense. The war was on, Mogadishu was on fire, bullets and guns and fighters all over the streets. The roads were unlike any other in the world. The water and sewerage system was non-existent, and electricity probably lived in books. It was a disaster.

While with a group of other men at one of the functional hotels then, I told them that I wanted to go into food business. They laughed, imagining how I will do it in a war zone. This was like a personal challenge. I was prepared to do whatever it took. The first Village Hotel and Restaurant in Mogadishu was set up. The moment I started, I realised that the challenges were far greater than I had imagined.

There was no gas or electricity, so I decided to use charcoal. There were no machines that could be used to prepare coffee, so I modeled my own, which used charcoal. There were no vegetable like carrots or spinach or cabbage, so I set up a garden in my backyard and started growing my own vegetables. And the war was on. I had no solution to that though.

Odd as it may sound, despite the war, people started walking in for lunch. The reception was good. And my client base has continued to grow larger and larger. Right now, I run two resorts: Jazeera Beach resort and Hobyo City resort. The Village Hotels and Restaurants are now a chain of five. Along the way, I have had to endure some heart stopping challenges that I doubt many business people have endured. My business premises have been attacked four times and clients killed and hurt. I’m talking about suicide bombers. As an individual, I have been attacked three times; shot at, and I have bullet scars to show for the attacks.

There are a few gems that I have picked up along the way and one of them is trust, which I consider important above all else. It is the reason I have managed to keep on. I trusted the people I worked with and I still trust them. My mother was a single woman whose petty trade barely enabled her to feed her six children. My children may not go through such a childhood, but they will know what is important in life. My two boys are here with me. I want them to know their language. I want them to know their roots. In terms of business, I like to trade and I want to be part of every village, town and city in Somalia.