Traditional Kenyan restaurant attracts expats and tourists

International fast food outlets are thriving in Kenya, thanks to a growing middle class. This trend is however threatening the existence of traditional healthy foods. To fill this gap, Pamela Muyeshi quit her job in software development to open Amaica Restaurant, which offers authentic traditional foods, giving patrons a culinary journey through Kenya. The restaurants have garnered a following among expatriates, tourists, diplomats and the middle class from affluent estates in Nairobi. Muyeshi told How we made it in Africa’s Dinfin Mulupi about running Amaica, the Kenyan restaurant industry and being a woman entrepreneur. Below are excerpts.

The outdoor sitting area at one of Amaica's restaurants.

The outdoor sitting area at one of Amaica’s restaurants.

What inspired you to start Amaica?

My background is in IT and I worked for eight years as a programmer before I quit to venture into business. As part of my job, I travelled to many countries across the world. One outstanding thing was the fact that in most of the countries I visited, people were very proud of their culture and cuisine. Ironically, when Kenyans host foreign guests, they will always apologise for serving Kenyan food. When my friends and colleagues from abroad visited Kenya, they would often ask for authentic Kenyan food, but no restaurant was offering this at the time. So in 2006, I decided to fill the gap with the opening of our first branch of Amaica. We started with western Kenyan meals, which is what I knew well. Over the years, we have expanded our cuisine to incorporate food from all Kenyan communities due to demand from our clients. Today, our menu is representative of Kenya. We currently have two branches in Nairobi.

Who is the typical Amaica customer?

Our main customers are expatriates, tourists and corporate clients who bring their guests after conferences and workshops to have a Kenyan experience. They actually enjoy the experience of eating traditional Kenyan food and drinking traditional brews like ‘muratina’, ‘mnazi’ and ‘busaa’. The Kenyan middle class also frequent the restaurants especially on Sundays to dine with their families. We take care of every detail to ensure that our customers have a true gourmet journey through Kenya. We don’t just serve traditional foods, we also prepare our meals the traditional way. For instance, instead of frying with cooking oil, we steam the food and use peanut sauce and blended tomatoes to improve the flavour. Lifestyle related diseases are also creating demand for the healthy foods we serve.

Describe some of the challenges you face

One of our biggest challenges is getting qualified staff. Kenyan institutions do not offer training on traditional food preparation methods. I work a lot with women groups from various communities who come in and train the staff how to prepare meals. A new employee would need at least three months before they can prepare a proper meal unsupervised. After such an investment, losing an employee is a huge blow to our production. Financing is also a challenge, especially in expansion of the business.

If you could give advice to other entrepreneurs, what would it be?

Start small. When you make mistakes and the business is small, you lose less. It is easier to pick up the pieces and soldier on. Let no one cheat you, you will make mistakes. However, do not fear failure, have the courage to take risks. You should also be prepared to learn from other entrepreneurs.

What is holding back Kenyan women in business?

From my own interaction with other women, I think men (husbands) get intimidated when women go into business because of the exposure, interaction and independence that it gives them. In rural areas especially, women sort of ‘slow down’ for fear of losing their marriages. They compromise and prefer to keep their businesses small or quit altogether. I am just being honest. You will realise that most women who have succeeded in business are very aggressive and not the type to be intimidated.

Your future plans?

What we sell is the Kenyan experience. As much as we would like to expand we cannot have too many Amaica restaurants otherwise the experience and concept will be diluted. We plan to open one more outlet in Kenya after which further expansion will only be outside the country. We also plan to incorporate a few African dishes from West and Southern African countries.