My time in Juba between 2006/10 and 2012

by Esther Goossens

Like in the biblical legend, I met three wise men looking for directions, but in their case for a hotel venture. These men were the three directors of a company and my future bosses at HERON HOTEL.

With their business plans far from complete they approached me to help prevent key start up mistakes, to look over their project feasibilities and strategy and refine it and adapt it to the Juba hotel market.

I accepted the challenge and after agreeing terms joined the venture, initially as a lead consultant for three months. Thereafter, based on my success, I was offered the appointment of General Manager of the Hotel. I ran their hotel business for a total of four years before I resigned to attend to family matters and carry out another consultancy.

I have fond memories of my trials and tribulations.

I was given a South Sudanese name “ALUWEL” by my client Simon who appreciated the hospitality and client care I implemented with my team. That is a traditional name for a ‘red cow’.

These memories extend to all the people along my path who have given me guidance and inspiration and created new horizons in my life. I salute them for that.

Back to my Juba journey.

I knew I needed abundant dedication and support to accomplish my goals. I was ready for both, especially in an emerging NEW country, where citizens and foreigners were coming for the first time from the farthest corners of the earth, to settle, work and invest. I had to deal with a variety of people in my daily work, employees, clients, suppliers and officials from government too.

In my prior appointments I had mastered different personalities and their reactions which helped me manage the day to day affairs of the hotel.

My ability to read people and anticipate their moves made our business smooth and with patient planning and hard work I sailed on with a product that was at the onset not very well planned but which I adapted to the requirements of a properly run hospitality business to make it work in the end, resolving shortcomings in design and layout. The owners had by then given me leeway to make key decisions during this process.

There was less competition then in Juba as most ‘camps’ were still just that, tented accommodation without air-condition and fixed doors.

Heron Hotel was only the third hotel with all amenities in Juba in 2006, offering a 300 seater conference hall and the only health club facility in Juba. Heron launched a steam bath, sauna, a fully equipped gym with a professional trainer and in addition offered professionally administered deep / reflexology massage services which were instantly in great demand.

To add revenue streams I launched outside catering services and our biggest client was the South Sudanese Parliament where on many occasions we were contracted to cater for over 600 clients at a go.

Heron was rated a 4 star hotel at the time, though it was never clear who awarded such grades and certainly it was not by common international standards, but by Juba standards at the time.

The hotel was set up with prefabricated units and because we were not on the power grid – which was not working anyway at the time – we used a large commercial scale generator of 250 KVA plus a back up to power the lights, ac units, the freezers / fridges in kitchen and stores.

Septic tanks could not be dug deep due to the rocky nature from the past volcanic eruptions. For water we were among the first to sink a borehole but initially only got salty water which at a later stage caused us problems.

Business boomed as there was little competition and we at Heron were renowned for clean functioning rooms and good F&B services.

I planned to make the hotel appeal to an upscale market through observations of competition and of course from past experience in the hotel industry. That did not prevent us from once in a while offering budget friendly packages especially for conferences which boosted our earnings considerably.

We won the Support of several key NGO’s, for outside catering, accommodation and conferences. One of our biggest and really faithful clients was UNDP, Juba.

The hotel was located only a two minutes walk to the River Nile, which during breaks I regularly walked to and it boosted my energy by just hearing the water roar upstream.

The scenery, the huge mango trees lining the river, branches  swaying in the wind, here I was standing by the longest river in the world, in the soon to be youngest country in the world and knew the waters came all the way from Jinja in Uganda, tying the two countries together like with a watery ribbon.

Heron Hotel become an oasis for many and under my direction we grew indigenous trees as wind breakers and also to beautify the environment by creating shade. The trees I planted were widely appreciated in the hot season and it was comfortable and cooler to sit under the tree just like our

Ancestors did. After all this is Africa where we have to preserve our cultures for future generations.

Juba Bridge Hotel was the other neighboring hotel and the Da Vinci joined later and together we named our area ‘The Bay’. We were there for each other, and when overwhelmed with business as it often happened in those days we shared overflows and even equipment, a mutually beneficial arrangement which kept us on top of the Juba market.

Purchases of all the hotel materials were brought largely from neighboring Uganda and Kenya where hospitality supply companies existed while none were on the market at the time in Juba.

All my staff at the front office / reception, for housekeeping, in the restaurant and kitchen was hired from Uganda. I choose people with proven qualities and skills plus job specific experience expecting them to follow proper rules and uphold higher standards plus efficiently handle customers’ requests and meet their requirements.

The three owners also hired some locals to work with the security department and others in the house keeping and laundry services.

My interaction with these local ladies was a pleasure. I cared for them and we become sisters all the way. My dilemma with them was the language barrier as I could not speak Juba Arabic and they could not speak English but we communicated with sign language and at times the assistance of a translator when they needed to be given specific job related instructions and briefings.

The staff, expatriate and local worked hard as a team to make the hotel a well established and respected property. They were taught by me that when one department fails the whole hotel fails, causing potential loss of our clientele. Our reputation depended on feedback from clients and we benefited a lot from word of mouth publicity.

As a special gesture towards my local staff I bought from my monthly salary some learning materials and started to teach them to practice the Latin alphabet, give them writing skills and it was a process. In turn I also learned words like “mafi mushkra”, meaning no problem in Juba Arabica. By the time I retired from my job it was an almost sad parting with them all. Most could by then speak basic English and I left knowing that I had added value to their well being and future lives.

The owners were by then literally smiling to the bank and had gotten back their initial investment, and one decided he had had enough and was ready to sell his shares and go back home. He was the engineer and contractor of the hotel. Did he know anything his partners did not know about the engineering side of the hotel and I am sure he kept much of his knowledge close to his heart?

I would like to recognize here some personalities that made a difference during my long stay in Juba especially when I inherited a new boss after one of them, as mentioned, had sold his shares. At that stage one of the other shareholders gave proxy over his business interest to a Lieutenant Colonel in the army. Sadly he had no clue how a hotel is run, and it was his word against mine on the day to day running of business with his decisions often based on his own personal interests but not the interest of the hotel at large nor the other director.

Once he came to my office, spoke a lot and I thought if I kept quiet without interrupting it would solve the problem, he told me not to speak for an hour, otherwise he would shoot me, an indication what sort of person he was, who could not tolerate professionalism nor could accept that I was the General Manager as a woman.

I was threatened and not knowing my fate, I decided to let an elder in the community know, a concerned citizen none other than C. Garang Ring Lual.

He was a guest at the hotel at the opening, in the early days when we hosted the first General Meeting of SPLM members with participants from all over the world and the Diaspora staying at our hotel.

He had been a special guest who introduced himself from Germany and after telling him I could speak Deutsch he only spoke to me in German. He struck me as a kind and caring individual. He asked me what a person like me would be doing in Juba. We laughed about it and I remember telling him that Juba needed people like me too.

He helped me overcome this nightmare of the other not very wise man, don’t ask me how. But the officer went back to where he belonged, into the barracks and still received his dividends. Thank you Garang. I don’t know what would have been my end?

The three year old hotel was by now getting a beating from the wear and tear of constant change in weather patterns. We suffered from floods which literally ate away at the prefab buildings and in the hot seasons the doors often expanded, not closing properly. I drew up a maintenance budget and proposed that preventive measures be taken, like to erect shades over the prefab units to extend shade, refurbish air condition units, and use carpentry work to fix water damage. Yet here another problem struck us, and it was the salty water from the borehole. That water corroded the water pipes which should have been replaced by industrial quality plastic piping but at that stage the directors started to disagree and denied essential maintenance work as it would have eaten into their take away profits.

We needed a constant supply of diesel to keep the a/c units running, but with broken bridges and impassable roads in the rainy season the supply was unpredictable, often leaving Juba without diesel and the rooms hot to the dislike of clients.

The initial design now revealed the build in flaws but with no budget approved to mitigate such problems and resolve them in a lasting fashion operations become more and more difficult. Meeting with the owners started to mainly focus on myself pointing out the engineering problems and technical faults, combined with estimated budgets to fix those problems, but as they continued to refuse the allocation of funds, gradually several and then more of the 100 rooms became unserviceable denying us revenue.

Meanwhile hotels mushroomed in Juba as all and sundry anticipated quick returns with cheap input. By the end of 2012, there were 97 so called

‘Hotels’, most of them in the same category as Heron, but many others still worse. That did not stop me to charge rack rates per person per night per room, with breakfast still attracting up to 150 US Dollars. Our occupancies remained high though the reduction in available rooms due to faults impacted eventually on us as those exceeded 20 percent. In addition, slowly the competitive pressures took a toll on the rates as lesser rated hotels cut their charged substantially, and with our room product no longer state of the art we started to feel the pinch.

In meetings with authorities, especially over safety and health issues it was becoming difficult to implement law and order with players in the industry. Following my suggestion to the then Minister of Wildlife Conservation and Tourism I was mandated by the ministry to start the South Sudan Hotel and Catering Association. It made life easier to address us as an entity and all who were not registered with the association would be closed down, giving the government at last a platform with the private sector, where issues would be addressed and members then informed accordingly. In turn, members’ concerns were equally brought to the attention of government and a partnership of sorts emerged.

The absence of  rules and regulations, as I discovered, was a major reason why SS‘s big influx of not up to date facilities survived, leaving a lot to be  desired in terms of client safety, fire standards, book keeping and even food standards.

It was by then noted by authorities that most of the work force came from neighboring countries but in the absence of a hotel training school it was hard to employ unskilled workers for jobs where extensive skills and experience was required.

I proposed that there should be a hospitality training school for the local youth as that is the future leaders’ generation.

As Vice President of the hotel association I also recommended that authorities should screen and vet proposed building plans to keep up with international standards.

Communities should be empowered to be self sustaining in agriculture because it turned out that Uganda was the food basket of South Sudan. The lack of local production caused too many items to be imported and subject to supply bottle necks, be it bad roads or lack of fuel for transport of such goods. Product prices would sharply rise when the flow of supply was disrupted. Therefore, local production of vegetables, fruits and even for instance chicken and eggs would cut down on the cost of living as overheads make the product expensive to import.

Another observation to the authorities was to let the Industry players be committed and raise awareness of  not polluting the waters of the River Nile   and related issues, and to motivate the community to protect this vital resource.

Juba in 2006 was one of the most expensive places to live in the world.

As I mentioned above, I retired in 2010 to attend to urgent family business and other consulting work, but not without leaving the staff and the owners with a detailed work plan of how to rejuvenate the hotel, repair the rooms which were out of service and attached a budget to it, so that they were aware of the cost of such major maintenance and refurbishment.

A secret I gladly share with whoever is ready to listen, South Sudan is also gifted by nature. There are breathtaking sites to be discovered and explored.

Did you know that the SUDD is the biggest wetland in the world and there are nearly 4.000 Elephants inside the wetlands? The migration of the white eared kobs and other gazelles from Boma and the Sudd to the Bandingala National Park is thought to be the largest in the world, outnumbering even the Serengeti migration and amounting to a staggering 2 million animals on the move.

A rare type of antelope named Nile Lechwe is also found here, with long hooves as its special feature.

Scientist recently discovered a new genus, a stripped bat dubbed the ‘Panda Bat’.

I returned for a second tour of duty to manage two hotels, the Rockshield and the New Rockshield Apartments and served my initial one year contract following which I returned to Uganda to concentrate on my business of interior design and art for upcoming new hotels in Uganda and Rwanda.

I look forward to going back to South Sudan, opportunity permitting, as saying has it that when you have tasted the waters of the River Nile you always go back.

Sun set over the River Nile

“Our past, our present and whatever remains of our future, absolutely depend on what we do now.” Unknown Author