Kevin Onyona, a native of Kenya, once wanted to join the priesthood before turning his sights on a sales career – selling cars and then becoming a corporate executive – making his mark at General Motors in Kenya and, after relocating to Maryland in 1999, holding his own at Home Depot.
However, the move from East Africa to the Greater Washington Area, he admitted, was more about visiting his girlfriend, then a student at Howard University and now his wife and the mother of his children, than to embark upon a career path that would allow him to fulfill his greatest desires. He said it was his then-girlfriend who “challenged him to explore opportunities in America” – the best idea he could have ever heard and which he soon followed.
Looking back on his childhood when he often watched his grandmother cook fish and after becoming increasingly frustrated with the lack of restaurants in his Maryland neighborhood that had “clean restrooms,” he decided to follow his passion – to open his own restaurant where he could utilize his culinary skills and become an entrepreneur in the hospitality industry.
“Cooking is in my soul,” he said adding, “I believe everyone should know how to cook something. Even children benefit, learning communication and life skills from learning how to cook,” he said. Still, he realized that he knew very little about operating a successful restaurant. So, he sought the skills of a consultant who could teach him the rubrics. And on July 13, 2016, Onyona opened the doors to Swahili Village, setting up shop in Beltsville, Maryland – a historic town located in northern Prince George’s County, about 19 miles from Washington, D.C.
He was on his way to becoming an entrepreneur – one committed to connecting the world to authentic African experiences that included more than just serving food and beverages. Popular items on the menu include a Kenyan delicacy, nyama choma (marinated chunks of goat meat or beef, char-grilled and sautéed with onions), deep fried tilapia fillet chunks in coconut curry or sautéed with onions and cilantro and slow cooked goat soup with onions, carrots, and greens. And he wanted to dispel inaccurate notions about the African community. “The African culture is interpreted globally and it is time we stood up and displayed the authenticity of our originality in culture, food, arts and music,” Onyona said.
With the former president of Kenya, Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga, the leader of Azimio la Umoja– a Kenyan political alliance and party for which Kenyatta serves as the party’s patron – Onyona opened a second location in February 2020 in Northwest D.C.
However, he would face a series of setbacks after the pandemic struck, forcing him to first lay off employees as most of his target customers, including those at the World Bank, State Department, and foreign embassies, began to work remotely – eventually finding it necessary to close his doors because of COVID-related restrictions.
Undaunted, Onyona used the time to renovate before reopening on a smaller scale in June 2020. And with ingenuity, determination and a bit of luck, the top chef, entrepreneur, and philanthropist successfully opened a third location on June 8, 2022, in Newark, New Jersey. Ras Baraka, the city’s mayor, attended a festive ribbon cutting and sampled delicacies on a newly refined menu while enjoying live entertainment and taking advantage of networking opportunities.
The bi-level restaurant, located in the heart of Newark, is just a stone’s throw away from one of the city’s gems – the New Jersey Performing Arts Center – and features an impressive wine cellar, an indoor balcony, and a beautiful outdoor patio. Onyona said he hopes the Newark location, like his restaurants in D.C. and Maryland, will become a fixture in the area, garnering both local and international acclaim. “We pride ourselves on the charity component of our business and want to be part of the community,” he said.
And with Valentine’s Day just around the corner, Onyona has something special planned for couples and singles – an evening of love songs, cocktails, and fine dining–even roses for the first 30 women who arrive after 6 p.m. Food, music and entertainment, ambiance and service serve as the collective hallmark of Swahili Village restaurants. And Onyona said he has even greater plans in store including his next two locations slated for Tyson’s Corner, Virginia and Manhattan, New York. “We want to open restaurants in other cities across the U.S. so others can enjoy authentic motherland experiences and connect and bridge the culture of
Africa to non-Africans within those communities.”
Something tells this writer that Onyona’s dreams of expanding his franchise will soon become a reality.
For more information or to make reservations, visit
Swahili Village Bar and Grill -African Restauranthttps://swahilivillages.com