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How I jumped financial hurdles to build a thriving hospitality empire

Janet Chamia, hospitality entrepreneur and president of Skal Kenya Coast. [Robert Menza, Standard]

Like kids who grew up in the tiny dusty village of Ndundune in Kitui County, Mombasa’s prominent tourism player Ms Janet Chamia, walked to school barefoot.

Girls who grew up in the county then had little dreams but Ms Chamia was to later prove many wrong. At first, she was a ‘jack of many trades and master of none” as she tried many things in life.

“I was born in a family of nine siblings and was the third in line. There were five girls and four boys. Like many girls in the village, I went to school barefoot but I always had big dreams,” said Ms Chamia. Her father served as an assistant chief while her mother was a peasant farmer.

“It was when I finally joined the Coast Girls High School in Mombasa that I started wearing shoes,” she said, adding that shoes formed part of the school uniform requirement.

Upon completion of high school, she enrolled at the Mombasa Polytechnic (now the Technical University of Mombasa) where she studied clerical accounts. In the evenings, she would attend part-time language classes at the Alliance Francaise.

Later, she also enrolled to study Product Development and Innovation at Strathmore University and other personal development with Shetrade (a UK-based NGO) on business management and marketing. “Later I worked at Shell Chemical as a clerical officer as well as in the front office. But I developed a knack for business and started to sell ground nuts and carry ice pops I made at home,” she said.

After a short stint at Shell Chemicals, Ms Chamia left employment to open a wholesale shop in Changamwe. After five years, she had to quit owing to insecurity.

With the port of Mombasa offering various business opportunities, Chamia, who owns a three-star holiday resort in the upmarket Nyali area in Mombasa County found herself supplying the much-needed workforce there.

Today, Ms Chamia sits on prominent boards that run Kenya’s multi-billion-shilling tourism industry.

She is the President of Skal International Kenya Coast and chair of the Kenya Association of Women in Tourism - Mombasa chapter.

The mother of three also sits on the board of the Kenya Coast Tourist Association. She employs over a dozen workers permanently.

Her hotel is also used as a training venue for hospitality staff who want to join cruise ships as crew staff. Still yearning for more, Chamia tried her hand at the export of handicrafts to Germany, France, and Portugal. When her husband died, she stopped the export business to fend for the family.

It was at this period that she decided to venture into the hospitality industry - putting up a hotel in the affluent Nyali suburb.

Her grand plans to put up a modern hotel began in 2006 when she started construction on a half-acre parcel of land in the Nyali upmarket area.

With a loan of Sh2 million which she took from the then Barclays Bank of Kenya (now Absa), Chamia ventured into the hospitality business.

“Hotel business is not a walk in the park. I had to seek a loan to enable me to carry out my intended project. I secured my first loan with Barclays Bank and added more loans from Housing Finance to complete my hotel project. Money was never enough.”

However, the funds dried up even before the hotel construction could take shape.

“I nearly abandoned the whole project. There was little I could do to salvage my pet project of owning a hotel,” she said. Dark clouds hung over her project when the country experienced post-election violence in 2008 after the contested polls.

“Nothing was moving and I was giving up each day. I turned to God and prayed for a miracle to happen. We needed peace as a country for the economy to prosper,” she said.

When peace finally prevailed, Chamia knocked at the doors of the Housing Finance Corporation asking for another loan to salvage her dream project of putting up the hotel.

“I presented my case and after lots of paperwork, I was allowed to borrow Sh12 million which enabled me to complete the hotel by 2009. By this time, I was already a member of some key associations like the Rotary Club, Kenya Coast Tourist Association and the Kenya Association of Hotelkeepers and Caterers which broadened my network of friends and accomplices who would prove helpful in my hotel business,” she noted.

“Quite a number of guests coming to stay with us since we opened business are those who were referred by people close to me,” she said.

She says her first client was served using her home appliances. “A good friend of mine gave me some mattresses she had purchased to host a large group of people from upcountry,” she said.

Over time, Jacyjoka Holiday Apartments has continued to attract guests from Kenya and beyond. The premises attract both locals and international tourists who like holidaying on the coast. It is near the blue waters of the Indian Ocean. She is quick to add that when Covid struck, her business just like the rest of the hospitality industry nearly went under but the Economic Stimulus Programme saved the situation.

“I was able to navigate through and pay off the remaining bank loans. Here I am today still in business,” Chamia explained. Among her children, Cyrus - the eldest assists her mother in day-to-day operations at the three-star holiday resort.

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