In Dubai, Kiza, Africa’s biggest restaurant, is changing the story –Osawaye

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By Fred Itua

Mr. Joe Osawaye, a Nigerian, is the owner of Kiza Restaurant and Lounge, located at the centre of Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

Kiza Restaurant is Dubai’s only destination that offers a distinctive taste of pan-African cuisine.

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For those seeking a unique gourmet excursion, Kiza’s tantalising menu of seductive tastes, fragrant scents and soft ambient sounds resonates with the true spirit of Africa. In this interview during AfroZons Dubai Soundoff, Osawaye spoke on his long journey in establishing his business.

What pushed you to do business in Dubai and what has life offered?

I came here in 2005. And I noticed the opportunities that were available even then, not to talk of now. Setting up here, you get all the support. Everything works in Dubai. It depends on your vision, your courage to carry forth the vision. Your tenacity and all that. It is a very good place to have an international platform for you to reach the rest of the world.        .

You recalled how you came here and the success story, but you didn’t tell us about the journey to where you are now. How did that happen?

I tag myself as a serial entrepreneur. Kiza is just one of the things I do. I started business a long time ago in Nigeria after university at the University of Ibadan; I play in the power sector in Nigeria. I play in the oil and gas sector. I have played in the telecom sector in the past 18 years in Nigeria. So, this is my give-back to Africa. Kiza is my give-back. Africa is blessed with so much, Nigeria in particular. When I decided to give, I wanted to be able to tell the African story through sight, sound and taste and, today, we share the African culture with the rest of the world. Dubai, being the centre of the world now, with over 200 nationalities, I just thought it was the best place to put an international brand like this and tell the African story to the rest of the diaspora.       

You opened Kiza in Nairobi and it was successful. Maybe you can tell us other places that you have Kiza and what makes you choose your locations. 

It is telling the story. Our main vision is being able to tell the story of Africa, the cultures of Africa, through sight, sound and taste. So, the food, the music, the arts, the culture, our way of life, showing our people to the rest of the world. Kiza used to be in Kenya, but we have changed the name now to Contour. It was in Canada one time. It was in Nigeria one time, but at the moment it is only Kiza Dubai that is operating.    

What is your advice to African entrepreneurs looking to venture into the entertainment business in Dubai? 

Entertainment is like any other business. There is nothing special about entertainment. Any business you want to get into, you must find value to bring to the table. It is not just saying that I want to start a business. Dubai as a place has set very high standards. Even from the government’s perspective, if you want to come play here, you must be able to up your game. It is not how, sometimes, in certain places, you are playing on a certain level and you still shine. In Dubai, nobody is going to notice you. You got to do big things. You see, everything they do here is big. So, if you want to come clean in this space, you must be ready to play big and bring that value to the table, not just saying you want to do business. So, it is about value creation.        

Apart from telling the story of Africa away from Africa and giving Africans a home away from Africa, patronage is very key to the success of any business. How much of the out-stations do you have that have actually given life to what you have set up here today?

We tag ourselves as home away from home, so we are the melting point of all Africans. Not just Africans, but afrocentric people and lovers of Africa. We are not just talking about Africans, we are talking about afrocentric people, including caucacians that have lived in Africa and Africa now lives in them. So, we give them that place where they can all congregate and have a beautiful time. Patronage-wise, we have Africans that live here. They come to Kiza. We also have people passing through visiting Kiza. But our story is not only for Africans, it is for the rest of the world. A lot of people do not understand Africa. It is still a dark continent. If you talk about Chinese food, you have an idea. If you talk about Japanese food or French food, Italian, but if you talk about African food, its different. What is African food? Nobody knows. So, we have taken it upon ourselves as a serious responsibility to showcase that part of the world of Africa that is sophisticated, that is unique and all that. So, as per patronage, we get patronage not only from Africans but the rest of the world.   

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Does it mean African food, as part of tourism, hasn’t penetrated this part of the world?

Unfortunately, it has not and that is what we have been trying to do in the past nine years. To introduce people to this delicacy, which is African food. If you do not celebrate your own, nobody will celebrate you. You got to understand that. It is when you celebrate your own that people start to see, “Oh there is something in here.” For example, Afrobeat, years ago, we used to sing like Americans. When we went to the roots and started to sing the way we know and our culture, look at what has happened. It has penetrated the whole world. It is the same thing with the food. By the time you start to celebrate your own food, people want to find out what is so special about this food and, bit by bit, it starts to spread. That was how Chinese food started, that’s how French food and all that started. We need to be proud of what we have; when we are proud of what we have and are celebrating ourselves, as a people, then other people will start to appreciate and start to get to know your culture. 

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Are there barriers to indigenous African businesses here, and how are businesses regulated between indigenes and non-indigenes?

Yes, it is different. It is their country, they have certain privileges. The same way in your country you have certain privileges. So, it is natural, but the main thing, if you are bringing value to the table, our leader here says he wants this place to be the best place where people can live, work and play. In one of those areas, if you can add value they will welcome you. Things are done properly here. If you are someone that likes to follow certain regulations and follow certain patterns, it is a fantastic place to do business. Sometimes, it becomes a little bit difficult when there is a cultural shift. Coming from a place where things are not too organised and being forced to now follow a regimented system, it is a little bit difficult. But if you adjust, I think as they say, “ the sky is not the end but the beginning.”

What would you say is the reason the number of Africans coming here of late has been increasing over the last 10 years?

The reason it has been increasing is that the guys here are presenting diversity. So, if you came to Dubai two years or even six months ago, and you come now, there are different things you come to see. So, they are very, very dynamic. It’s about your strength. Look, during your visit, we were in the desert. Who would think that you can use sand and sell sand and that experience to the rest of the world? What we should also try to do is to look at our strength, and work on our strength so that we can attract the rest of the world to our different locations in Africa as well. They have done pretty good here. They are very good at marketing what they have because of one thing, they love themselves. When we start to love ourselves and celebrate ours, people will also gravitate there and also come to see what we offer. Everybody is unique. It is how you tell your story and how you showcase what you have. So, I think African countries can as well learn a lot from what these guys are doing here and try to replicate in our different 55 African countries.   

Are there any challenges that your business face here?

If you say you are in business and you are not facing challenges, then you are not in business. It’s part of the journey. First of all, I asked the question initially. What is African food? A lot of people don’t know. So, we had to go through the process of trying to educate people and introduce African cuisines to the rest of the world. That is one big challenge. Secondly, there is a perception that a lot of people have about Africa. They do not think we can play on a certain level. So, when you say, “hey, we have an African restaurant,” people cannot even perceive or understand the level at which you are talking about. This is the top end of Dubai where you have the best restaurants. You have all the financial institutions and banks and all. So, for us to be here, it tells you that we want to be able to tell that story on a certain level.

Challenges? Yes there will be challenges, but that is what the life of an entrepreneur is all about. It is about overcoming challenges and making the best of all situations that find you yourself in.

For African entrepreneurs who intend to come here, what are the other key areas they can get involved in? Maybe real estate, the transport sector, medical sector, other areas you feel huge returns will still be available to them?

There is no area you can’t come into. It is about what you are bringing into that area. The bar has already been set high. If you are coming here, you have got to come on a certain level to be able to add value to that space. So, we are playing in hospitality, you just said something now, real estate, engineering. So many things you can do here. But you need to understand that it is not the small boys’ game.

If you are coming to Dubai, it is not just for the food, for the enjoyment and the party. We are also very big on networking. We can be your one-spot centre where you meet other Africans to help you navigate this space. It’s a little bit daunting when you come to a new place, and you don’t have that support from your people. Kiza provides that support. So, it is not just food, it is not just party, but we help you grow in a new environment like Dubai.

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