By Jim Dees, PMQ Pizza Magazine – November 12, 2007
Virginia pizzeria owner takes pizza to the bush
Pizza is indeed global, and Waleed Zarou of Sterling, Virginia, is doing his part to bring it to Kenya, Africa. After several missionary trips with his local church group, Waleed, who owns and operates Don Corleone’s Brick Pizzeria in Sterling, came back with a new sense of purpose. His mission? Help people in trouble while simultaneously teaching them how to fend for themselves.
“If you visit Africa, you can’t help but notice the need,” Waleed says of the country’s crushing poverty and disease. “When you see people you know dying of AIDS, you think, ‘What can I do to help?’ ” While Waleed was busy with his church group, helping to build churches and Bible colleges, he thought, why not build businesses?
“They have so much time on their hands,” he says of the Kenyans. “There’s so much downtime because people don’t have any opportunities. They can’t be dependent on the U.S., but they can learn their own independence.” He says some might scoff at the idea of putting resources into such a foreign environment fraught with tribal warfare, but he sees it differently. “Where others see dirt, I see money,” he says. “Where they see destitution, I see opportunity.” Waleed did his homework, reading stories of business ventures that had taken place in the area. He even read African history dating back to the 1500s. “There are security issues; that’s certainly an important part of it. I’ve been visiting for eight years now and I know where not to go,” says Waleed.
After his fifth trip, Waleed began working with his brother who is a missionary and a skilled baker in the town of Eldoret. Their plan is to teach a group the baking and business skills necessary to open a bakery in town. Once open, the bakery will eventually expand into a pizzeria. Waleed plans to work through the churches (there are currently 45 congregations administered by the Calvary Temple of East Africa) and develop training programs to teach the congregants skills such as typing, accounting and running an office. “We need to teach them how to use a computer,” he says, “but also how to build one and take it apart.” Waleed foresees such training programs eventually being available online to reach the far-flung masses. “We’ll start the kids when they’re juniors in high school and bring them along until they qualify for on-the-job training.” Waleed takes teams of 20-30 people on each trip who also lend their expertise.
“I don’t have the skills necessary to give the kids a well-rounded education so I’m blessed that others will take the time to spend a few weeks in the jungle helping people to help themselves,” he says of his colleagues.
It was in the jungle where Waleed got the idea to open a pizzeria. “I was visiting a friend of mine, another missionary,” he recalls, “and his wife told me that pizza was his favorite and that they really missed it. That gave me the idea that if I could round up the ingredients out in the countryside, where he lives, I could make pizza anywhere.” It was then that Waleed saw the idea of opening a pizzeria as a viable business to teach the Kenyans.
“I looked around at my options; saw what was available, and what was not. I found wheat flour, a little vegetable oil (though I preferred olive), tomatoes and tomato paste, and some garlic and onion at the little market in town—even oregano.” Waleed assembled a pie and instructed a small class in how to do it. He later made 10, 12-inch pies. He says the villagers gathered around him excitedly as the pies came out of the oven and he cut them on a wood table and handed them out.
“They all loved it but some didn’t like the cheese. They aren’t used to eating cheese,” says Waleed. The basic diet in the western provinces of Kenya where Waleed works is “ugali” which he describes as “like grits only more dense and made from corn. The corn they eat is basically what we feed horses in the U.S. It’s really big.”
Keeping the Dream Alive
Waleed’s next trip is in May 2008 when he will once again convene business classes and also secure a location for the bakery.
“We’re going to take this one step at a time and make sure we structure our training and implementation in such a fashion that it sets them up to succeed,” Waleed concludes. He’s taken “thinking outside the box” a whole continent further, he’s thinking outside the country. And he’s not just thinking about pizza. Ever the adventurer, he’s already dreamt up another business opportunity for the impoverished residents of Eldoret. “I’m thinking about raising chickens and starting a rotisserie chicken business. That would really do well over there.”