Business in South Sudan

Earlier this year, I did some reporting around a project for Roads & Kingdoms on some of New York City’s hidden ethnic enclaves. I spent hours flipping through the phone book looking for ethnic names and running around the city following 3 year old blog posts to find ins with hidden communities of Kurdish historians, Sri Lankan porn distributors, Caribbean Voodoo practitioners, and Pacific micro-Islanders. Most of the leads ended up being duds.In the end, I did 3 stories: a Harlem nightclub owned and operated by a collective of revolutionary rappers from Burkina Faso, the last Cambodian temple in Brooklyn, and the hidden history of Somalis in New York.

What I found was the best ‘in’ for these communities were their restaurants and grocery stores. Food binds communities and its the last bit of a culture to be washed away in the tides of Americanization, or whatever adoptive culture have you.. Wherever someone settles away from their home, they’ll always yearn for their mothers cooking. Find the food, and you’ve found your in.

So when I tried to find Indians in Kampala, I took the same tactic. And for the best Indian cuisine in the city, there’s only one contender: Khanna Khazana. And perhaps just as legendary as Khanna Khazana is its proprietor: Aman Kapur

A portly man about 5 feet tall, Kapur is everything an Indian Don Corleone could hope to be. Gold rings on every finger, gold chain, labored speech, a debilitating golf habit, and a commercial empire to boot. His establishment is just as regal, pulled right out of Mughal paintings of palaces. Even the Ugandan staff is decked out in Rajasthani garb.

As per Indian custom, Mr. Kapur’s office behind the restaurant does not betray his immense wealth. The room is bare save for some harsh fluorescent lighting, some plastic chairs, and a desk made of chipboard and vinyl veneer. I had heard Kapur had done a bit of business in Juba, bringing food into the country along the notorious Kampala-Nimule-Juba highway. Mr. Kapur sets the tone for the conversation when he begins citing revenue figures in the millions. Dollars, not shillings.

Kapur enumerated the go-to list of complaints that every businessman has given me about doing work in South Sudan.

*Outside the capital, there’s little infrastructure. Within the capital, you’re at the whim and fancy of government officials and rogue soldiers. You lose a lot of money at every check point, a few hundreds pounds here and few hundred there. Where are the margins?*

*It’s impossible to do business with South Sudanese Pounds. Who the hell wants to deal with it? The currency is in free fall. It’s easy to bring dollars in but requires a miracle to get them out.*

*And don’t get me started on these South Sudanese. Man, they’ve had everything paid for them by the international community for 50 years. They’ve never worked a day in their lives. You’ll set up your business there and work for years to grow it and then one day some South Sudanese will walk in, take a look around, and now all of a sudden, you’re sent packing and this guy owns your baby. And of course he runs it into the ground.*

Needless to say, Kapur no longer does business with South Sudan.

But surely, there must be some Indians that still do?

Kanpur pulled out his iPhone and began scrolling through his contacts. Ah, Tony Gadhoke of Mukwano Industries, one of the largest conglomerates in Uganda.

“Tony? How are you? We haven’t seen you at the golf course! Anyway, I have a kid here asking about Juba. You still work there? Yeah, I thought so. Anyway, let’s get out to the links soon.”

The scene repeated itself for 5 of Kampala’s most prominent businessmen, Indian of course.

Trade to Juba is dead.

But where the formal market fails, the informal flourishes and for businessmen once bitten and twice shy by dealing in South Sudan, there remains one avenue. The open air, one lane, congested, beautiful market that is Kikuubu. Here you can buy just about everything from Dora the Explorer trapper keepers to cheap Indian whiskey, and if you’re savvy, a one way ticket for your product to South Sudan. At Kikuubu Market in downtown Kampala, Uganda, million dollar deals are struck on the street amongst toothpaste salesmen and mattress hawkers. It’s here that essential commodities trade hands from Asian suppliers to Ugandans much more adept at maneuvering the quixotic system of bribes and hand greasing levied on every truck entering South Sudan.

Trucks are loaded before the morning rush that paralyzes Kampala’s streets and take to the Gulu highway which hosts some of Uganda’s most scenic views of rolling hill country and the raging Nile. My own bus ride along the road was accompanied by an all too perfect Kenny Rogers playlist. Though the road has become much more secure in recent years the areas around Gulu, which once played host to Alice Auma’s rebel forces and more recently Kony’s LRA, are still a bit hot. Just last week, a police station in Gulu was overrun by ADF militia forces hoping to free one of their imprisoned inside. After 8 hours — or about 4 Kenny Rogers albums — along that road you arrive at Elegu, where a wrought iron bridge and 2 vastly different police forces are the demarcation between Uganda and South Sudan. Going into South Sudan are a line of trucks and tankers. Coming out of South Sudan are a steady stream of refugees fed up with rising insecurity and a falling South Sudanese Pound.

The road up to Elegu has been a cakewalk. The next 184km of tarmac are some of the most bloody in the region. In a matter of one week last month, 12 people were killed by ‘anonymous gunmen’ who did not even bother to loot their spoils. And don’t sleep on the Arrow Boys who allegedly have 15,000 soldiers roaming through the region. But the largest threat undoubtedly comes from South Sudan’s military itself. Soldiers that haven’t been paid in months fulfill their arrears through frequent checkpoints that impose taxes of whatever cash or cell phones drivers carry in their pockets.

When you finally reach Juba, you are subject to even more checkpoints and hastily drawn paperwork that demand additional taxes paid to ministries you’ve never heard of. By the time you’ve unloaded your truck, the cost of your goods has doubled. I wish I could say that all the trouble was worth it, that you’ll sell your product at healthy margins. But alas, this is a country wracked by war and mismanagement and economies don’t tend to thrive in such situations.

When I was in South Sudan last year, the bank was trading 3 SSP for one dollar but on the street you’d get 12. Now you’re looking at 45-50 pounds to a dollar, but next week you could probably get 60. You’re selling your products at a loss, there’s no way around it unless you’re on contract with NGOs in which case you wouldn’t be going to Kikuubu in the first place. The Indian traders that are buying up these goods in Juba are only here because they’ve invested too much to leave now.

So they’ll stay for now, wishing they were in Kampala dining at Khanna Kazzana, but they also ready to pack their bags if this country goes back to war, which given the current situation, is not such an impossibility.

Rajiv Golla is a T’17 Alum.

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