changes its ways

Mr Martin Dunford

Interview with

Mr Martin Dunford,
Managing Director,

Nairobi, June 18th, 1999

PO Box 74493, Nairobi, Kenya
Tel: +254 (2) 728090 / 1 / 3 / 4
Fax: +254 (2) 724209

The Tamarind Group has become the leading Restaurant chain in Kenya How it has become what it is today?

We started in 1972 as a small but ambitious restaurant in Mombasa, specializing in seafood. Then through the 1970's and 1980's we continued developing by adding the Nairobi Tamarind in 1977, and The Carnivore in 1980, which went on to become much more than just a Restaurant. The Carnivore is a night club and amusement center. Now we have water slides, go-cart track, and recently, we started out-door concerts. So it has become an entertainment complex.

In Mombasa, we have added facilities to our original restaurant. We have a fifty-five apartment condominium, we have two floating restaurants known as the Tamarind Dhow, we have a casino on the roof-top of the restaurant, so we have invested heavily in the tourism sector in Mombasa.

We have dabbled in other ventures, basically integrated into trout farming and animal feeds, but we stuck to our core business at the end of the eighties. In November 1993, we started our first overseas franchise, which was The Carnivore in Johannesburg. That was a joint venture franchise with a South African Group who came here and who was so impressed by the Carnivore that they wanted one.

The Tamarind Group has recently expanded its activities to Hotels such as the Tamarind Village in Mombasa and a luxury casino. Do you any plans to expand further into the hotel and entertainment business?

We do not specialize primarily in tourism, although tourism is an important part of our business, but we are diversifying into leisure. We believe we have got a particular expertise, being qualified Kenyans, brought up in Kenya, educated overseas, being fun lovers. We think we have an edge in the entertainment business and can provide quality. The Carnivore is poised to expand. We have just started an outdoor concert venue, we are looking at a nature walk, at some shopping facilities, cinemas, and basically developing the whole Carnivore site to its full potential.

Some of the major Hotels are signing agreements with international firms, such as the Block Hotels with the Sheraton Group. Do you have any plans to obtain any strategic alliance with any international hotel or entertainment group?

We are looking to expand our operation through Africa and into the Middle East. So we are looking at franchise or joint venture opportunities at this moment in Oman. We have done some exploration for Zimbabwe (which is having problems of its own right now) and Cairo. We are looking at the major markets which are not as volatile as the tourist markets of Africa. We don't want to spread ourselves too thin. We think The Carnivore is something quite special, we don't want it to become the McDonald's of Africa. It needs of course the atmosphere, and certainly the economies of scale, the volumes to keep it running.

To get an idea of your group size, could you give us some other figures such as turnover, total number of employees, number of restaurants etc.?

The Carnivore receives eleven hundred people a day coming through to eat and another thousand people daily for nightclub activities. The figures are stunning at the Carnivore: we have 9 managers and 330 staff at the restaurant, forget the Water Park and the go-cart track. Just the restaurant and nightclub employs 330 people, and we cook between 30 and 40 tons of meat a month.

The Carnivore's the most significant business we have. This translates into an annual turnover of about US$ 8 million just at The Carnivore. It might be less, because Shillings are worth less Dollars now, but last year it was about US$ 8 million. Mombasa's Tamarind restaurant turnover is probably US$ 2 million and Nairobi's is US$ 1.5 million. The Carnivore is a significant contributor and employer of our total staff of 600.

Our group's operation in Mombasa is very dependent on tourists. I believe 60% of our business relies on tourists and tourist business has fallen by over 50%, not only in quantity, but also in quality. When you lose your reputation, which is what has happened to Mombasa, you can't attract the high spenders. You're looking at price to attract people for the cheapest possible deals, and these people do not tend to eat in the best restaurants in town. So, we have lost out. Our volumes are about half of what they were two years ago which is very critical. This has forced us to lay off 65 staff and 2 managers. It is very important that we in the tourist business rebuild Momabasa's image as Mombasa is still a wonderful tourist destination with lovely beaches, wonderful people with an excellent tourist infrastructure for water sports, fishing, diving, wind-surfing are all world class.

How have your selected and trained your personnel?

I like to choose people on their attitude and their energy levels because I think that you can teach them anything. Having said that, we are very fortunate that Utalii College, which was established here by the Swiss in 1975, continues to provide us with very good basic entry level people, who have enough qualifications and awareness. If you they have in-built enthusiasm, we can end up with excellent people. We use a lot of Utalii graduates and then obviously we do a lot of in-house training, we offer a lot of courses, we expose them around the company, we send them overseas, we send them to other establishments here, etc.

I think the most important thing that we do here, and the reason why we are so successful is because we do take a very personal interest and care about individuals. Ours is a very paternalistic style of management which is no longer in favor in the developed world, but absolutely necessary here, because people look to you as the only real solution to their problems. You spend a lot of time listening and trying to help out on a very personal level rather than at a purely business level. That gives us a very big edge compared to people coming in from overseas who have gone away from that style of management and just want pure efficiency.
You are very well known for your quality. How have you achieved such high standards?

There are several reasons for that. One, we've specialized. We've gone out of our way to do limited items extremely well. Seafood is a difficult form of restaurant to run anywhere in the world. To open a seafood restaurant in Nairobi would be extremely difficult without having the back up from Mombasa, where we acquire all our sea food from, and without the expertise that we require through hotel schools in Europe. That has given us the quality and the local knowledge about implementing the expertise through good human relations. We are particularly good at human relations and we have a very well motivated, very enthusiastic staff. Enthusiasm comes through time and time again. We are enthusiastic, we love what we do. We're hands on, we don't run the company by memos. We talk to people, we move around.

We have actually got a bit on paper work now that we have been looking into ISO-9000. It is kind of horrific because it is very different to how we have ever done things as it is so bureaucratic. We like the qualitative aspect of it and the control side of it, but sometimes, you focus more on the administration rather than the customer care and the product and service. And yet, we must go that way. We have just done a hazard analysis (HAACP) training for all our managers and all our cooks.

I think that when you travel to the tropics, if you come from Europe or America, where everything is squeaky clean and sealed with polyethylene, you can get some reactions, such as Delhi-belly or whatever it is. It happens, and then people pick up on it and blow it out of proportion, but that is one risk of the risks of traveling. We want to minimize that in our restaurant to a zero chance. We want this more than anything else.

How do travelers or tourist get to know you at all when they come from abroad?

"Word of Mouth" is by fat the best promotion for us which also guarantees repeat clientele. But we have had extremely good reviews in many respectable magazines and papers - Gourmet, Herald Tribune, NY Times, LA Times, etc. We also have a web-site and we come well recommended by Tour Operators and the ubiquitous guidebooks. Moreover, American clients are very well informed. They do their research before they leave and they know exactly where they are going in advance. Fortunately for us, they get extremely good reports from tour operators and guides on The Tamarind and The Carnivore. We tend to get them twice in Nairobi, once to The Tamarind and once to The Carnivore and they are very aware, very well travelled, easy to deal with and a pleasure to have. We do not see that many American businessmen, except the ones that are regionally represented such as from the Coca-Cola Company, but when they do come to town they do find us.

Are there certain amount of Zebras, Elephants, Gazelles, Giraffes, etc. that you are allowed to kill, or do you have a specific area where you hunt for these animals?

This is a very important point. There are no wild animals used in our restaurants. They are all farm reared. We are great believers that the future of Africa's herd is that they have to have some economic value. One way to do it is to game ranch and have some economic value to the animals. That way, people will protect them in the future. Right now, in many areas, wild animals compete with grazing for domestic animals. Wild animals are a nuisance to the local people living around the parks. These people get little from tourism. Tourism benefits the operators, central government and people directly involved in the parks who are not always the people from that area. The reason is that locals from the parks do not have the waiting skills or the chef skills. Other people are brought from Utalii College or Nairobi, and are taken to the Mara, where they take all the top salaries. The local people do not get the top salaries nor much out of the animals.

Game ranching started about 15 years ago, and this is quite controversial because, there are those that say that it encourages the killing of animals. But if you think about it, the Masaai do not kill all their cattle. They look after their cattle because in the long run they know that's their wealth. So, if they can see wealth in the animals and if there is a developed market to gain from, they will look after their wealth. They are not going to wipe it out. We work very closely with one game farm called Game Ranching. It happens to be the first one ever established at Athi River. We are not selective. He will tell us what he needs to crop. He will crop his older animals, almost natural selection. We do not say we must have Impala, because if he has just 100 Impala, he is not just going to crop them; but if he has 600 Wildebeest, then he is going to take these Wildebeest for that week/month. As we all know, game is much healthier in terms of fat and cholesterol and it can become a very viable economic resource for this country, if properly controlled. But if there was to be no usage of game meat, I think there would be a lot of resentment from the people around the parks

Isn't there a danger in poachers for game meat if it becomes a valuable commodity?

Not if it is regulated, and not if there is an ownership of the game. Kenyans, particularly Maasais who are the most threatened by the wild animals. They know how to live in harmony with them. If the animals have commercial value then they will protect them for posterity, as it becomes their livelihood.

Do you have a final message for our readers?

I think Kenya is still one of the most outstanding countries in the world in terms of its physical beauty. That is undeniable. It has got variety, and unparalleled natural resources that need to be protected for future generations. Added to that, it does have outstanding people. The people genuinely are wonderful, very open, very friendly and they are very enthusiastic. What Kenya needs now is sound, honest and progressive leadership so that Kenyans can realize the full potential of this wonderful Country.

 Read on  

© World INvestment NEws, 1999.
This is the electronic edition of the special country report on Kenya published in Forbes Global Magazine.
November 29th 1999 Issue.
Developed by AgenciaE.Tv