When he talks about Arab and Somali Cuisine, you will be forgiven for thinking that he studied in the best culinary schools in the world. However, Omar Abdulrahman Kodah has never been to a cooking class and has learnt the art by working in his restaurants’ kitchens and observing chefs, first, in Malaysia and now Somalia.
Omar believes one cannot run a business properly if they do not know about the nitty-gritties. “Some people find it crazy that I know where to shop for the best ingredients. I know the best suppliers and that I sometimes clean tables,” he says smiling.
Omar owns Sultan Restaurant in Hargeysa. He opened it six months ago after two years of planning and preparing. It is one of the most talked about eateries in the region mainly for its Arab and Somali cuisines. It has also received positive reviews in TripAdvisor restaurant reviews, the world largest travel site.
“Some people may think I spend too much time on executing a business plan, but I take time to learn the environment including who the competition is,” he says adding that doing groundwork is important in setting up any business.
As part of his strategy, Omar has recruited chefs from as far as Malaysia and Egypt. Omar grew up in the United Arab Emirates after his parents fled Somalia when he was three months in 1977. In 2011, after being away for almost 20 years, a 20-day visit (in 2009) lit a fire in him to return. But it has not been a rosy journey all through. After his graduation from International Islamic University of Malaysia in 1999, Omar tried his hand in business; first starting with a tourism company based in his house. “I called it Tripple A, which was a link basically Afro-Asian-Arab link. My objective was to create a tourism and market link among the three regions,” he says.
However, things did not go as anticipated. For starters, marketing was not easy and he was competing with big corporates. Secondly, he had not taken time to study the business environment. He says one of the big lessons he learnt about self-employment is self-discipline and commitment. “As a young person, one feels since they are self-employed and nobody is watching them, then they can do whatever they want,” he says.
In six months, the graduate of economics was knocking on doors looking for employment and he was lucky to get one as a sales executive for Destination of the World, which was a franchise of a company based in United Arab Emirates. With his links in the UAE and Malaysia, Omar managed to create a formidable client list and with time he had become one of the most valued sales person of the company. Convinced that he had enough experience and a clientele base that trusted him, Omar revived his company. As part of the package, he added medical and educational tourism which helped his company to grow and become recognised outside Malaysia.
From a company run by a staff of three people, the number grew to nine. Unlike many entrepreneurs, Omar is not shy to say that business was good and he did well for himself. He believes that one of the reasons that his business flourished was because he always listened to the needs of his clients. “Customers’ feedback is key in growing a business especially in the service industry. You ignore that and you cannot go far,” he stresses.
I realised I had spent so much time chasing money and wealth. I had also spent my life being a foreigner and I was tired of it. I also needed to feel safe and nowhere I could do that but home’’
Unfortunately for Omar, the tourism bubble burst as more players and corporates ventured into the industry offering customers more than he could.
After three years, he was back in search for employment something he says his father chided him for. “He thought I was jumping around too much and was not patient enough,” he says. He calls it a learning curve, but says that every business has its season.
“Sometimes staying in a business doesn’t make sense. One has to count his losses and move on,” he says.
This time round, Omar got employment as an online trading agent, a venture he says was good until the global financial markets came tumbling down. “Things were good and I went back to UAE at the end of 2003 to start a branch of the trading company. After three years, hell broke loose and I lost a lot of clients and my money too,” notes the business man. When the financial markets recovered, Omar traded for some time and quit the business altogether and in 2006 headed back to Malaysia and with a business partner this time to try something different; setting up a restaurant that specialised in Arab cuisine. He called it Bread and Olive and like his other ventures brought in some good money before underhand tactics crashed it. “The business turned my life upside down and prompted my return to Somalia,” he says.
Omar says he experienced first-hand how corruption and intimidation kills business after influential people in Malaysia run him out of a lucrative spot atop one of the mountain peaks. “Everybody was shocked that I managed to secure a space there. Consequently, at the back of my mind, I had a feeling this would happen when richer people discovered the value of the spot,” he says. After a three-year long court battle in Malaysia, Omar decided to count his losses and leave. He says by the time he returned to UEA, he was already too exhausted and could not think of a better place to go and relax his mind than his place of birth.
“I realised I had spent so much time chasing money and wealth. I had also spent my life being a foreigner and I was tired of it. I also needed to feel safe and nowhere I could do that but home.”
Omar’s restaurant employs about 30 people and he hopes to open another chain soon. “Even though I bring in the capital, I know I need other people to make business work,” he says. Omar says that one of his biggest motivational saying is: One hand does not clap. “For business to work, you need to work in and as a team,” he says. Despite his success in business, Omar is still employed at Somtel telecommunications (a job he took in 2013 on his return) and counts the spread of the 4G network as one of his successes. He has several reasons for keeping his job. “You survive longer when you stand with people and money should not always be the motivation to do something,” he says. He says working in the telecom company helps keep him grounded.
As a businessman and employee, Omar has a word of advice for young people.
“Whatever you do, have a clear motive and just don’t do it for money.” Ongoing in uncharted waters he says: “Take advice, but choose wisely what you put into action.”