The Kenyan Dollar millionaire cooking ugali at US Cultural Fete
When Kevin Onyona took a flight to the US on September 23, 1999, his heart was pulsating, blood throbbing and mind racing for only one thing: his girlfriend in Maryland.
But upon touching down at Washington Dulles International Airport two days later, his heart fell for a different temptation— the beauty that was America.
He proceeded to deliver red roses to Lynn Senda, but as his heart quenched its thirst, the mind sneaked and started thinking about what it could accomplish in the famed land of opportunities.
Kevin, 48, dared to dream and today, he is a proud owner of a five-year-old business empire worth $3.5 million (over Sh300 million).
The owner of Swahili Village restaurant, which serves authentic Kenyan cuisine in Beltsville, Maryland, started with a seed capital of $150,000 (Sh13 million) in 2009.
For the last 11 days, the man born in Ugenya and brought up in Homa Bay Town has been cooking ugali and nyama choma for visitors at the 48th Smithsonian Folklife Festival, which ends Sunday in Washington DC.
The annual event of culture, food, song and dance is organized by The Smithsonian Institution with the aim of bridging cultural divide among nations. It attracts over 1.5 million visitors from across the world.
Averagely, Kevin says, he has been preparing 2,500 kilogrammes of ugali and 25 goats per day.
Chefs have been making 250-kilogramme mountains of the cornmeal mash in giant electric kettles at ago using a whisk.
“By conservative estimates, we’ve served 100,000 people in the last two weeks,” he tells Saturday Nation in his mobile office at The National Mall, the venue of the cultural fete.
Upon settling in Maryland in 2009, Kevin realised that his love for Lynn, 38, and America was likely to supersede and weaken his bond with Homa Bay and Kenya.
To stave off the shame of being deported, which was very common at that time, he immediately started chasing the US citizenship dream.
“The visa on which I entered the US was to last for five years but I started talking to lawyers early enough.
They advised me, I followed the advice and I finally became a US citizen in 2004,” says the father of two, whose hobby is cooking fish and ugali.
Months after settling in the US, the then General Motors salesman landed a motor dealership job with the help of his bosses back in Kenya.
“It was during this time that I was intrigued by a country where systems work,” says the investor who schooled with Caroli Omondi, the former Chief of Staff in former PM Raila Odinga’s office, at Homa Bay Boys High School in 1980s.
“A country where people respect the law and the only limitation to your success is you yourself. Not your tribe.
Not your last name or sexual orientation.”
While in motor dealership, luck kept on smiling on Kevin, with job offers— most of which he never went searching for— occasionally landing on his table.
In 2001, he bade bye to motor dealership and joined The Home Depot, an American retailer of home improvement and construction products and services.
“They wanted managers with proven performance records to lead their Home Services and I gave it a shot,” says the man who claims his only post-secondary-school training “was to become a pastor”.
He rose through ranks and became the regional sales manager for Baltmore Region, which comprises Washington DC, parts of Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania. From nowhere, he became one of Home Depot’s managers with the Midas touch.
But while success had become his second nature at job, the gold that Kevin and his team struck for Home Depot in 2009 left a bittersweet taste in his mouth.
“We built the venture around home services from scratch, with small capital and nine years later, it was sold for 50 million dollars (Sh4.3 billion),” he says, adding that the success made him thirst to deliver a similar one unto himself.
Inspired and equally heartbroken by his own achievements, he left his air-conditioned office and plum managerial post in Baltimore, armed himself with a spoon and sufuria and headed to try his luck in a more familiar territory— the kitchen.
The Sh13-million investment, which some of his friends thought bordered on daredevilry and crapshoot, was informed by Kevin’s big heart for cooking.
“Sometimes he would re-cook the food I prepared for him and it always came out better not because I was a poor cook but because he had the passion,” Lynn, who was born in Kendu Bay and now the wife, says.
“On several occasions, he had also joked about selling the nyama choma that people used to enjoy very much in our house. He never knew it was his calling.”
The couple started small in their business venture, with no workers.
Americans are paid per hour and labour is not easily affordable to many small investors.
In Maryland State, for instance, the current minimum wage per hour is $7.25 (over Sh600).
“I cooked all the food as my wife wiped and waited tables; it was not easy,” says the investor who currently has over 50 permanent staff and hires hundreds during big events like the Smithsonian.
“But I loved what I was doing because it was for me and not for someone else.”
And while Kevin no longer cooks all the food at Swahili Village, he must taste and approve it before it reaches his customers’ taste buds.
“I designed all my recipes and I know how each food should taste,” he says as he hands me the menu in a brochure.
Some of Swahili Village’s popular dishes in the US are deep-fried tilapia, grilled goat meat, ugali, chapati and samosa.
These foods have also emerged favourites among Smithsonian visitors, with ugali running out as early as 1pm on several days.
“I’ve learned that we Kenyans sell ourselves short all the time. Some people still believe you cannot serve ugali to a Whiteman.
Very silly mentality,” says the charming investor with both Kenyan and US citizenship.
The business model of the food dealer with pastoral education mimics that of Steve Jobs— the American inventor and co-founder of Apple Inc.
He generates and owns ideas and capital, and lets other people do the job for him. His general manager, for instance, is a Master’s holder.
“He works for me and it doesn’t matter,” the master chef says, adding that what matters most in the US is not education but passion.
The next dream for the investor who owns real estate in Nairobi, Kisumu and Homa Bay is to build the first African authentic cuisine franchise across the US in the next one decade.
The short, chocolate-skinned man who could easily pass for an African American living hand-to-mouth on my first sight courtesy of his casual dressing— a checked trouser and a black Tusker Lager T-Shirt— has one message for Kenyans aspiring to be make it in life: “Do what you enjoy most. Follow your passion.”
How to realise the American Dream, according to Kevin Onyona
• Come to American with brains and innovative ideas. However, you can still make it in the US without academic papers so long as you have the passion
• If you wish to get citizenship, seek legal advice
• Follow the law and avoid run-ins with police and other authorities
• Avoid working for other people and be your own boss. America loves investors and job creators
• Be disciplined, devote time to your venture and be patient
• Be humble and know God
• You can still make it in life without leaving your county and country