Mama Zahra: Whetting Juba appetites

17 Feb 2012

Mama Zahra: Whetting Juba appetites

When Rosa Pita began cooking in her backyard in the South Sudanese capital of Juba in 1992, she never dreamed she would one day become a role model for aspiring restaurateurs.

Popularly known as Mama Zahra, the 44-year-old businesswoman now owns two large restaurants in Juba -- one at Customs Market and a second in Nimra Talata.

Her restaurants, both aptly called Mama Zahra Restaurant, serve up a wide range of South Sudanese dishes, with over 28 items in the menu.

"I am a regular customer in this restaurant because it provides all the types of food you need and the taste is very good," said Juba resident Deng Chol.

For newly independent South Sudan, her restaurants have created employment for a diverse range of people from South Sudan and neighbouring countries.

"I have employed almost 90 people in the two restaurants," said Mama Zahra. "I have employed almost all the tribes in South Sudan and Ugandans, Kenyans, Eritreans and Ethiopians. At one point I even employed an American."

"I am planning to open another branch so that I can employ as many people as possible," the restaurateur added.

Modest beginnings

Mama Zahra graduated from Juba Girls Secondary School in 1985. Despite performing well, she was unable to further her education due to financial constraints.

Soon after, she was employed as an administrator at the National Electricity Corporation, where she met her first husband Gabriel Pitia Gore. They had three girls and two boys.

To supplement their income, the ambitious mother ventured into business, armed with an interest in cooking a bag of beans, rather than bags of money.

"I didn't think at any point in my life that I was going to open a restaurant,' she said. "What I did was to cook food and sell. If it was not all bought I would give it to my children to eat."

As her hard work and delicious food attracted more customers, she introduced fish and chicken to the menu. With her initial profits, Mama Zahra bought a bicycle to peddle to the market for ingredients.

But the business failed to expand outside her compound due to the unpredictable nature of the civil war and limited clientele.

"Movement was difficult, you could not do business and there was serious famine in Juba," she said. "Those who had the money were able to flee to Khartoum or outside Sudan."

The signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005 brought peace and stability as well as an influx of new customers for Mama Zahra.

She leased a piece of land opposite the Central Equatoria State Legislative Assembly and formally began operating a restaurant, with a skeleton staff. "When I moved my restaurant to Juba town I was the one cooking because there were few workers."

When her husband fell ill, she asked the electricity corporation for two years unpaid leave so that she could concentrate on caring for her husband and building her business.

"They gave me only one year," said Mama Zahra. "I asked for another leave but they refused so I decided to remain at home."

In 2006, her husband died and the budding restaurateur decided she would remarry.

"I wouldn't have decided to marry another man -- after all, I have five children," she said. "But working in the market is very difficult especially for women. If they know that you don't have a husband, men disturb you so much. I decided to marry so that I am respected and my business is also respected."

Mama Zahra was handed an eviction notice after the land opposite the assembly was sold in 2007. Though it did not seem so at the time, the eviction was a blessing in disguise.

She moved to a more spacious area in front of Customs Market taxi park, where she put up a large sign clearly marked Mama Zahra Restaurant.

Since then, the growth of her business has more than surpassed expectations. In 2009, she established a second restaurant in Nimra Talata. She said opening the second branch was also the result of pressure from people seeking employment.

"They disturb until you give them the job, "she said. "You can't deny them because they want to survive."

Mama Zahra has expanded her business interests to include outside catering services for weddings and other occasions.

"When they were opening South Sudan Hotel here in Juba in 2006, I cooked food for nearly 4,000 people that day alone and my restaurant was also running," she said.

Hard work pays

An orphan, Mama Zahra was brought up by her uncle Elisa Mathew, who nurtured within her an unwavering work ethic. "When I was growing up I thought I was mistreated because I was orphan, but now I realize it was good -- it trained me to work hard," she said.

"For a business to develop it needs patience and hard work," Mama Zahra added. You should not be lazy. Do not say I have workers and sit back. If there is a shortage of workers and there are many customers, I have to put on the uniform and help in service."

But she added that doing business in Juba was tough due to high rental and soaring food prices.

"Up to now I have not acquired land of my own in which to operate my business," said Mama Zahra. "I am renting, which is very expensive and the price of food keeps going up. At times I make a loss in some items, but I continue to cook them because I want to maintain my customers."

She encouraged other women to stop worrying about capital and start businesses with whatever little they have.

"I encourage women to risk doing business even if they don't have enough money to start. When they are determined, however little they have, they will not be disappointed at the end," she advised. "Start a business according to your interests, capital and ability to manage it."

Emmanuel Kenyi