In Dubai, Kiza, Africa’s largest restaurant, is changing history –Osawaye – The Sun Nigeria
By Fred Itua
Sir. Joe Osawaye, a Nigerian, is the owner of Kiza Restaurant and Lounge, located in central Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
Kiza Restaurant is the only destination in Dubai that offers a distinctive taste of Pan-African cuisine.
For those looking for a unique gastronomic excursion, Kiza’s tantalizing menu of alluring tastes, fragrant scents and soft ambient sounds resonates with the true spirit of Africa. In this interview during AfroZons Dubai Soundoff, Osawaye talked about his long journey in building his business.
What inspired you to do business in Dubai and what has life given you?
I arrived here in 2005. And I noticed the opportunities that were there already then, let alone today. By settling here, you get all the support. Everything works in Dubai. It depends on your vision, on your courage to realize 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 got here and the success story, but you didn’t tell us about the journey to where you are now. How did it happen?
I consider myself a serial entrepreneur. Kiza is just one of the things I do. I started my business a long time ago in Nigeria after college at the University of Ibadan; I play in the energy sector in Nigeria. I play in the oil and gas sector. I have played in the telecommunications sector for the past 18 years in Nigeria. So, it’s my return to Africa. Kiza is my gift back. Africa is so lucky, 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 African culture with the rest of the world. Dubai, being the center 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 a success. Maybe you can tell us other places you have Kiza and what makes you choose your locations.
It’s telling the story. Our main vision is to be able to tell the story of Africa, the cultures of Africa, through sight, sound and taste. So food, music, arts, culture, our way of life, showing our people to the rest of the world. Kiza was in Kenya, but we have now changed the name to Contour. It was in Canada once. It was in Nigeria once, but at the moment only Kiza Dubai is working.
What advice would you give to African entrepreneurs looking to get 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 need to find value to bring to the table. It’s not just about saying I want to start a business. Dubai as a place has set very high standards. Even from the government’s point of view, if you want to come and play here, you have to be able to improve your game. That’s not how, sometimes in certain places you play at a certain level and you always shine. In Dubai, no one will notice you. You must do great things. You see, everything they do here is important. So if you want to be honest in this space, you need to be prepared to play big and bring that value to the table, not just say you want to do business. It is therefore about value creation.
In addition to telling the story of Africa away from Africa and giving Africans a home away from Africa, sponsorship is key to the success of any business. How many outposts do you have that have really brought to life what you’ve put together here today?
We label ourselves as home away from home, so we are the melting point for all Africans. Not just Africans, but Afrocentrics and Africa lovers. We are not just talking about Africans, we are talking about Afrocentric people, including Caucasians who have lived in Africa and Africa now lives in them. So we give them this place where they can all gather and have a good time. On the sponsorship side, we have Africans who live here. They come to Kiza. We also have transients visiting Kiza. But our story is not just for Africans, it’s for the rest of the world. Many people don’t understand Africa. It is still a black continent. If you talk about Chinese cuisine, you have an idea. If you’re talking about Japanese food or French, Italian food, but if you’re talking about African food, it’s different. What is African cuisine? Nobody knows. So we have taken upon ourselves the serious responsibility of showcasing this part of the world of Africa which is sophisticated, which is unique and all that. So, according to patronage, we get patronage not only from Africans but from the rest of the world.
Does this mean that African food, as part of tourism, has not penetrated this part of the world?
Unfortunately, that is not the case and that is what we have been trying to do for nine years. To introduce people to this delicacy, which is African food. If you don’t celebrate yours, no one will celebrate you. You have to understand that. It’s when you celebrate yours that people start to see, “Oh there’s something here.” For example, Afrobeat, years ago we sang like Americans. When we went to the roots and started singing as we know it and our culture, look what happened. It penetrated the whole world. It’s the same with food. The moment you start celebrating your own food, people want to find out what’s so special about it, and little by little it starts to spread. That’s how Chinese food started, that’s how French food started, and it all started. We must be proud of what we have; when we are proud of what we have and celebrate ourselves, as a people, others will begin to appreciate and learn about your culture.
Are there barriers to indigenous African businesses here, and how are businesses regulated between indigenous and non-indigenous?
Yes, it’s different. It is their country, they have certain privileges. In the same way in your country you have certain privileges. So that’s natural, but the main thing, if you bring value to the table, our chef here says he wants this place to be the best place for people to live, work and play. In any of these areas, if you can add value, they will welcome you. Things are done well here. If you are someone who likes to follow certain regulations and follow certain patterns, this is a fantastic place to do business. Sometimes it gets a bit difficult when there is a cultural change. Coming from a place where things aren’t too organized and now being forced to follow a regimented system, it’s a little difficult. But if you adapt, I think as they say, “heaven is not the end but the beginning”.
What do you think is the reason why the number of Africans coming here recently has increased over the past 10 years?
The reason it went up is because the guys here have diversity. So if you came to Dubai two years ago or even six months ago, and you come now, there are different things you come to see. So they are very, very dynamic. This is your strength. Look, when you visited, 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 look at our strength and work on our strength so that we can also attract the rest of the world to our various locations in Africa. They did pretty well here. They are very good at marketing what they have because of one thing, they love each other. As we begin to love and celebrate our own, people will also gravitate there and also come to see what we offer. Everyone is unique. This is how you tell your story and showcase what you have. So I think African countries can also learn a lot from what these guys are doing here and try to replicate in our different 55 African countries.
Are there any challenges your business is facing here?
If you say you’re in business and you’re not facing challenges, then you’re not in business. It’s part of the journey. First of all, I asked the question initially. What is African cuisine? 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. It’s a big challenge. Secondly, there is a perception that many people have of Africa. They don’t think we can play at a certain level. So when you say “hey, we have an African restaurant”, people can’t even perceive or understand the level at which you are speaking. This is the top of Dubai where you have the best restaurants. You have all the financial institutions and banks and everything. So for us to be here, that tells you that we want to be able to tell this story on some level.
Challenges? Yes, there will be challenges, but that’s what an entrepreneur’s life is for. It’s about overcoming challenges and making the most of whatever situation you find yourself in.
For African entrepreneurs who intend to come here, what are the other key areas in which they can get involved? Maybe real estate, transportation, medical, other areas where you think huge returns will still be available to them?
There is no area you cannot enter. It’s about what you bring to this field. The bar is already high. If you come here, you have to reach a certain level to be able to add value to this space. So we play in hospitality, you just said something now, real estate, engineering. So many things you can do here. But you must understand that this is not the game of little boys.
If you come to Dubai, it’s not just for the food, for the fun and the party. We are also very big on networking. We can be your one stop center where you meet other Africans to help you navigate this space. It’s a little intimidating when you arrive in a new place and don’t have the support of your people. Kiza provides this support. So it’s not just food, it’s not just party, but we help you grow in a new environment like Dubai.