Tale of Accra-bound partners who ended up investing in Kigali

ON AUGUST 7, the national carrier, RwandAir, was named best innovator at the 16th edition of the Rwanda International Trade Fair. Reason: Putting up the most outstanding stall at the Gikondo Expo Grounds. 
A stall at Gikondo Expo Grounds designed by JKK. Sunday Times/Courtesy
A stall at Gikondo Expo Grounds designed by JKK. Sunday Times/Courtesy

ON AUGUST 7, the national carrier, RwandAir, was named best innovator at the 16th edition of the Rwanda International Trade Fair. Reason: Putting up the most outstanding stall at the Gikondo Expo Grounds. 

To achieve that fete, it replicated the interior design and fuselage of a Boeing 737-800 NG for its exhibition stall. During the two weeks that the expo lasted, visitors were thrilled to simply enter and marvel at “the Boeing” which, apart from the missing engines, wings and landing gear, bore exact resemblance to a real aircraft. When the dust had settled, the question on most expo goers’ minds was one: Who came up with this idea?

Apparently, design proposals were received from different bidders, but the one from JKK International Holdings stood out. 

It turns out that JKK is one of the big events and exhibition service providers in Kigali. 

The JKK stands for John, Kurien and Koshy. Kurien and Koshy are the two Asian partners /brothers and owners of the company. Koshy is the managing director, while Kurien is the CEO. James Wood, another Asian, is the country manager.

JKK first made its entry into the local events market in 2010, the year that it set up base in Rwanda. That year, the company won its first major tender to construct exhibitor’s stalls and stands for 2010 expo. The company has since handled all subsequent Trade Expos, and this year, its work simply stood out. 

To achieve this, the company built what the Managing Director, John Koshy describes as “temporary structures which look good”. These specialised and customised exhibition stalls replaced tents that had been used since the very first expo. 

Apart from the RwandAir stall that scooped the award for best innovation, JKK also built all the major corporate stalls, including MTN, Tigo, Inyange Industries, Equity Bank, PSF, RDB, Bralirwa, Bank of Kigali, and KCB, among others. 

Basically, the erected stalls were built with assembled materials that could be neatly disassembled and stored away after the Expo. Indeed, most expo-goers could only afford to stop and marvel at the exquisite designs of the different corporate stalls. What they could never bring themselves to imagine is that these were assembled structures that could be adjusted or brought down according to the exhibitor’s whims. Some of the stalls were housed in storey structures, complete with interior décor and fittings like water taps and sinks, bedrooms, side drawers and working windows. 

But the list of the company’s credits goes a little further than that. They also rigged the stage for the Primus Guma Guma Superstar finale in 2012, as well managing and building stalls at the RPF Expo that coincided with the party’s 25th anniversary. 

The company’s latest assignment was the just concluded Transform Africa Summit that closed this week at the Kigali Serena Hotel. Currently, they are working on new showrooms in two different locations for UAP Insurance, and a new Kiosk for Bourbon Coffee at the MTN Center in Nyarutarama.

James Wood says: “When we came here in July 2010, the expo had just started picking up, and no one had thought of coming up with inspirational designs for the stalls. We realized a need and decided to take the risk.” On why the company chose a relatively small market compared to Dubai where the parent company is based, he observes that “I don’t think Rwanda is a poor or small market. What I know is that people have the money but are not getting value for it. Most people settle for substandard work because they can’t think of better options.” He contends that “Rwanda is a small but steadily growing market and, who knows, tomorrow it could be the Dubai of Africa.” 

The company also dabbles in interior design and decoration, and boasts a spacious showroom in Gikondo where it displays some of its design concepts. 

The genesis

John Koshy, had been making final preparations to travel to Accra, Ghana for a business conference when he decided to call up and inform a Rwandan friend about the upcoming event. 

But other than join him for the conference, the friend instead invited Koshy to make a stopover in Rwanda before connecting to Accra. And for a man that had never experienced Africa, let alone Rwanda, Koshy gladly accepted the offer. 

“I came here a week ahead of the conference, which enabled me to spend between 4-5 days in Rwanda. Immediately I settled in, I felt quite comfortable here. The weather was beautiful, the landscape was green, and one felt a sense of security that is rare to find in most African cities. I also observed cleanliness everywhere I moved. Basically, I just fell in love with the land of a thousand hills.”

While in Dubai, Koshy had invested his time in reading articles highlighting Africa’s growth and business potential in local dailies and business journals. “I took note of about six countries, which prompted me to research closely about each of them through the internet, taking note of the comparative advantage of each country over the others,” he explains. 

Making the leap of faith armed with information about a few African economies, he made up his mind to do something in Africa. He notes that the initial idea was to extend the existing shipping, logistics and construction business the brothers already run in Dubai.

“I had never been to Africa up to this point, save for Kenya, where I had stayed for only four days. When the idea to invest in Africa came, I didn’t want that place to be a relatively developed country like Kenya, Nigeria or South Africa for two reasons: The more developed the economy, the more the competition, and we already had enough of that in Dubai. The second consideration was security, because my Kenyan trip had opened my eyes to so many security concerns that I had vowed never to return to Africa.” 

Koshy researched extensively about Rwanda, and about the country’s Vision 2020. “I soon initiated communication with RDB, and in just four days, I had the company registered. All this pointed to one thing: that this was the right place for me to start a project,” he says, adding that “first impressions are usually the best, and my first impressions of Rwanda had been very good.”

By the time he left Kigali for the conference in Ghana, he had all the paper work for JKK International Africa Ltd. 

About working with brothers, he says: “We work independently as brothers within a formal arrangement. We’re a good combination.” 

However, using the latest technology goes hand in hand with the need for skilled hands, and about this, Kurien, the chief executive officer laments: “We still have challenges with getting the right people to work with. A case in point is the just concluded Transform Africa Summit at the Kigali Serena Hotel, for which we had to fly in two experts from Dubai.” This scenario, he says, is further compounded by existing labor laws that limit investors on the number of expatriates they can hire. “Design carpentry is not at all available here in Kigali. You can get electricians, plumbers, painters, etc but not a design carpenter.” 

“The three of us are workaholics. We prefer to work and work and work, not work and drink,” remarks Wood. A native of India, Wood left the country some 30 years ago, and has since then pursued his interior design dream in places as varied as Qatar, Oman, Brunei, Dubai, Muscat, Iran, and the Sudan.


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