Mama Zahra: Whetting Juba appetites

29 Mar 2012

Mama Zahra: Whetting Juba appetites

When Rose Pita began cooking in the backyard of her home in the South Sudanese capital of Juba 19 years ago, she never imagined becoming a role model for aspiring restaurateurs.

Popularly known as Mama Zahra, the 44-year-old woman has built her once meagre business up into two large restaurants in Juba -- one at Customs Market and another in Nimra Talata.

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

Along the way, she must have picked up a marketing sense in attracting an ever-expanding following. "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, Mama Zahra's eateries have created employment for a diverse range of people from the country as well as neighbouring nations.

"I have employed almost 90 people in the two restaurants," said Mama Zahra. "I have employed almost all the tribes in South Sudan (and people from) Uganda, Kenya, Eritrea and Ethiopia. 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."

Modest beginnings

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

Instead, she found work as an administrator in the National Electricity Corporation, where she met and married her first husband, Gabriel Pitia Gore. The couple had three girls and two boys.

To supplement their income, the ambitious go-getter ventured into business, armed with a bag of beans and an interest in cooking.

"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 it. If it was not all bought I would give (it to) my children to eat. At that time hunger was serious in Juba."

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

But the business initially stayed within her compound due to the unpredictable nature of the civil war.

"Movement was difficult, you could not do business," Mama Zahra said. "Those who had the money were able to flee to Khartoum or outside Sudan, but we remained here in Juba until the peace agreement was signed."

The signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005 brought peace and stability and also 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, doing most of the work herself.

"When I moved my restaurant to Juba town I was the one cooking because there were few workers," she said.

When her husband fell ill, she asked the electricity corporation for two years unpaid leave so that she could care for her husband and build 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 first husband died and the budding businesswoman 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 will disturb you ... I decided to marry so that I am respected and my business is also respected."

When the land opposite the assembly was sold in in 2007, Mama Zahra was given an eviction notice, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

She moved to more premises in front of Customs Market taxi park, where she erected a large sign clearly marked Mama Zahra Restaurant.

Since then, her business has grown beyond expectations. In 2009, Mama Zahra opened a second restaurant in Nimra Talata, which she said was also due to pressure from people seeking employment.

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

With business flourishing, Mama Zahra 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 an orphan, but now I realize it ... trained me to work hard."

She attributed her success to hard work, patience and perseverance.

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

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

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

She encouraged other women to start businesses with whatever capital they had.

"I encourage women to risk doing business even if they don't have enough money to start,"said Mama Zahra. "When they are determined ... they will not be disappointed at the end. Start businesses according to your interest, capital and ability to manage it."

Emmanuel Kenyi