When Arfoon Abdi completed her university degree at Kampala International University (KIU), she had a baby. While she nurtured her child, she pondered on going into business.
She was hungering to put the knowledge she had acquired after pursuing a degree in business administration. She majored in accounting. When her child was four years old, Abdi felt ready enough to start a business.
“I love spa. I love beauty. There was no good spa in Jinja and many spas and salons were unisex. As a Muslim lady, it was very uncomfortable for me to do my hair in a salon that had a barbershop and where women were on one side and men on the other. So, I had an idea of starting a spa and salon to cater for conservative women,” she explains.
She set up Al-Nisaa Hotel & Spa in Jinja.
The spa facet however, required special attention beyond the structures but regarding the personnel that would be attending to clientele who frequent the hotel. Like destiny would have it, Abdi found her answers in a chanced meeting with Mariam Said. The latter’s nephew, Fred Kamurasi introduced the two women and told Abdi about his aunt’s skills and speciality in beauty therapy.
“I met Said in May 2013. I do not remember exactly the day and time but the person who introduced us brought her to Al-Nisaa hotel and Spa. We had a cup of tea and talked about the training and so many other things,” Abdi recounts.
At the time, Said had just returned from the UK where she ran a spa, in Risley, Cheshire. She has a level three qualification in beauty therapy from Harrow College.
It was just another casual day when the businesswomen met, in the eastern town of Jinja. They shook hands, exchanged contacts and talked about a possibility of working together.
At the tail end of their chat, Abdi had requested Said to train her staff at the hotel, little did she know that was the start of a strong bond, trust and friendship. As a businesswoman, Abdi did not know much about spa as a concept but wanted to have a good product. “I just did not want to have a salon and spa. I wanted it to have well-trained staff. At the end of the day, having a strong team was my dream and Said as a qualified therapist was very important. When Fred introduced her to me, I contracted her to train my staff at Al-Nisaa Hotel & Spa in Jinja. She trained them for three months and now I have one of the best spas in town,” the passionate entrepreneur explains.
Complementary partnership, with tourism
After a year, the two started Signature Hotel Apartments, a 14-room boutique hotel in Jinja. Three years down the road, the duo are happy about what they have achieved and are working towards a feasible wish list of expansion in the hospitality industry.
They complement each other.
Said is good at promoting and marketing the business while Abdi is good at book-keeping and accounts. When the two bring their abilities together, the business works.
For instance, as the final touches were put to the hotel, Said’s skills as an interior designer came in handy. She decided that for Signature Hotel to stand out, each room had to have a unique look.
“Our interior is unique. Our guests compliment us for its beauty and this has helped market the hotel.
I put together designs that would work well with everything. We went with neutral colours which are subtle and gentle on the eye,” explains Said who has a diploma in interior designing from Staffordshire University, UK.
On top of being competitive, the duo understands their business.
They also have similar goals and interests, are open to each other and talk before making decisions.
“You cannot be perfect in everything. Sometimes, you need someone with similar character traits. At the end of the day, as partners, it is about how we complement each other and how you understand each other,” Abdi observes.
And like a committed relationship, during the first year of their business partnership, the two took time to open up about their ideas and merged the outstanding ones. One of their plans was to tie tourism in their bigger picture.
“When people come to tour the country, they need a place to sleep and food to eat and we offer a home away from home experience. We offer a homely environment. We also work with tour companies so that on top of accommodation, we offer other facilities, such as the spa experience and other tourism activities around Jinja, for example, bungee jumping,” Abdi explains.
Last week, the duo took part in the Uganda Hotel & Tourism expo at Hotel Africana in Kampala. Their stall brought to life the services their business provides, with recreations of their rooms, spa treatment centres, lounges and restaurant where visitors at the expo could have meals similar to what is on offer at the hotels.
More than simply business
Offering services in the hospitality industry is a lot more than doing it right and earning a living. They are both passionate about giving their best. Said attributes their accomplishment thus far.
“We take everything, day by day. We joined Uganda Hotel Owners Association (UHOA) and it has been amazing because we have learnt a lot from them especially from the expos such as the Uganda Hotel & Restaurant Expo then at Kwita Izina, in Rwanda where we got to pick lessons on how Rwanda runs their hospitality industry. We learnt that customer care is one of the key factors to the success of a business,” she elaborates.
Abdi, who loves taking care of people admits that the hospitality business is interesting now although it was originally not her preferred field. “It is amazing and I love it and have met many people. I would not want to be in another industry.”
Customer care is an area they have willingly invested in through training their staff. “If we had not trained our staff, the business would be affected because many of our clients have travelled the world, so we would like to give them the best we can. For any hotel to stand out, one has to train their staff privately. The training institutes we have only teach theories,” Abdi argues.
Customer care in its broad sense might not make sense but it is the smaller details such as how a member of staff answers the phone, what they say on the phone, smiles at a client, deal with a client when they are not in their best mind-set, for instance not being happy about something, and a lot more.
The wish list
And while they fix the traits that keep the business running, the business environment could be a little more conducive. The business partners echo the qualm of many.
The taxes hotels have to pay are many. Their suggestion is for revision of the taxes to avoid double and over taxation. For now, they are maintaining financial discipline so that they can ably pay taxes and stay in business. Hands tied, the partners have their eyes, money and efforts on their wish list.
“We are focusing our efforts on expanding in the hotel sector because we plan to remain business partners. We have also talked about doing more charity work and giving back to society through our own charity organisation. Right now, we are doing it generally and through other charity organisations,” Abdi shares some of their aspirations.
Balancing between family and work
Abdi and Said have families. They have created structures in their business to ensure that work goes on without their physical presence. Abdi owns Al-Nisaa Hotel & Spa and co-owns Signature Hotel Apartments.
Al-Nisaa employs about 30 people while Signature employs 20 people. The hotels have strong teams.
“At the end of the day, we enjoy spending time with our families,” Abdi says, affording herself a smile. For Said, her children are grown and have moved out of home, and some out of the country.
“It is just me and my hubby unlike my partner who has a young family. I get to spend quality family time with my family when I go to the UK,” she says.
The two directors take a break from work on Fridays and Sundays. Abdi enjoys cooking while Said finds time to taste some culinary offerings from other hotels when she goes out with her husband for dinner.
On both days, in the earlier hours, Abdi is happy that family comes together for breakfast or lunch.
“I also get to chat with my husband and ask him about his day and plans,” she says, emphatic of the fact that with family, as is in life, it is the little things that matter.
Said adds, “You have to have a good balance between home and work if you are married. Otherwise, business might not work because your husband is going to get angry and not allow you to go to work. The balance is important.”
When at work, Said and Abdi will see to it that they execute their roles and realise goals, while off duty, they make sure that it is family time.
Their Advice on business
“It is okay to start small. Many people do not want to start small. When we started out, we did not look at making significant profits in the first and second year. You might want the big chunk but that is when you think of taking out loans. You can start small and be patient as you grow your business venture,” Abdi advises.
She adds: “You will not become successful immediately. You should have a working capital aside to be able to pay your rent, staff and any other immediate costs. It takes time to break even. Whatever you start, let it be a stepping stone to achieve more dreams in life.”
Said says, “We are both not originally hoteliers so when we were starting out, there were many lessons learnt, mostly from the disappointments we went through. Some of them were from service providers and staff. We learnt to always have a ‘plan B’. If something went wrong, we had an alternative to solve a problem. We have learnt through experience.”
She is a therapist and interior designer. She was born in Jinja and has four brothers and two sisters. They were all raised by a single mother.
Their father passed on when they were young. At the time he died, Said was only four months. Their mother is a business woman, and one of the first African women to own and operate a shop in Jinja. As a child, Said learnt hard work from her mother.
She was born in Jinja, with 13 brothers and sisters, most of them living and working abroad. She has five sisters and seven brothers. Abdi is the last born. She was an obedient and hardworking girl. As a teenager, she was a sportswoman, particularly athletics. She had her primary and high school in Kenya then returned to Uganda to study at KIU.