28 April 2018

South Sudan Child Soldier Turned Businessman

Photo: Kerbino Wol
South Sudanese entrepreneur Kerbino Wol.

While South Sudan is predominantly known for war and human suffering, one 35-year-old former child soldier turned entrepreneur and philanthropist is giving hope to the youth.

On our first encounter, Kerbino Wol comes across as a well-educated young man with connections in all the right places. His American accent confirms that he has travelled and lived abroad.

Yet Kerbino, who joined the South Sudanese rebels at the age of 13, has never seen the inside of a classroom. He has risen through self-education and interacting with the right people.

Here is a man who believes that one can build a business in a war-torn country that has seen inflation hit an all-time high of 117 per cent and has a virtually collapsed banking system.

Kerbino has built a security business that provides opportunities and hope to the youth whose education has been disrupted by war and poverty.

Kerbino Agok Security Services (KASS), which he started in 2010 with just $200 that he had saved as a soldier, has grown to be one of the leading local security firms and employs more than 2,000 youth in South Sudan.

KASS has its headquarters in Juba, and has established its footprint in the Kenya and Democratic Republic of Congo markets.

"As a former child soldier who grew up in the war, it is my responsibility to support my fellow youth where necessary," Kerbino told The EastAfrican in a recent interview in Nairobi.

Important contacts

His military background and having had the opportunity to serve in the presidential detail helped him build a network of important contacts and understand market demands.

He has previously served as a senior security advisor for USAid projects, the Carter Center, URG, GIZ, and World Vision; the experience opened doors for the right connections to grow his security business.

Kerbino says running a business was not easy in the initial stages in a country where most people believe that it is only the army that can provide security.

"When I began developing KASS as a private firm, I was enthusiastic and ambitious, but lacked proper support. I asked for loans from friends and colleagues to register the business. However, they refused, doubting the potential success of such an enterprise," he said.

Nevertheless, he remained resilient and registered the company and took a huge risk amid discouragement from friends and family, and even personal doubt.

"I decided to become an entrepreneur and founded KASS with nothing but hope and a desire to improve my home country,' he said.

KASS services include guarding, risk management consultancy, cash-in-transit, and vehicle trackers.

When KASS was finally launched, the first few months were extremely difficult, Kerbino says. He was operating at a loss, and supporting the business from his salary as a soldier.

Opportunity

The business started growing when he got the opportunity to offer private close-protection training to high-profile guests visiting South Sudan.

"It took me months before I turned a profit, but I kept moving forward. I studied the market and began to understand how KASS could expand and grow. I was awarded contracts from major NGOs and companies in South Sudan. This allowed me to employ hundreds of locals to help grow the company," he said.

However, Kerbino says that the business climate in South Sudan remains unstable and unpredictable due to the civil war, and KASS often runs into losses.

Second, the security sector in South Sudan is very competitive, which pushes KASS to come up with the latest products in order to survive.

Among his main competitors are Veterans Security Services Ltd, KK Security Ltd and the JJET Security Service.

He is also the founder and executive director of the Nile Foundation, a non-governmental organisation founded in 2016 and dedicated to empower the youth through sports, entrepreneurship, education, and vocational training programmes.

Some 1,620 young people have benefitted through sports and capacity building programmes through the Foundation.

In addition, 49 students are benefitting directly from the Back to School programme offered by KASS Group; some are currently enrolled in universities in Kenya and Uganda.

Guerrilla army

Born in Wau in the larger Bahr-el-Ghazal region, Kerbino is the first born of 10 siblings. His father is a retired veteran army officer, and his mother died a few years ago.

Kerbino left the then larger Sudan in 1986 when was four years old, and relocated to Ethiopia's Jimma region.

At that time, most male South Sudanese were relocating to Ethiopia where the then president, Mengistu Haile Mariam, was offering military training to the rebels -- the Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA).

He joined SPLA's Red Army at 13. The Red Army comprised of the young people that were being trained to take over from the older generation. With time, he became a full time SPLA soldier.

Having served in the South Sudan guerrilla army during the post-Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) period, the tall, athletic young man worked as a guard protecting the president, vice president, and delegates to South Sudan.

He later realised he could serve his country in a different way than being in uniform, and founded KASS.

Kerbino says that South Sudan stands the risk of losing at least two generations because of the continued conflict, and so he decided to equip them with knowledge and skills to rescue them from the cycle of ethnic division and war.

"The youth are the future of South Sudan and we are trying in a small way to build a culture of peace among them by organising regular sports activities in which young people from various communities can interact," said Kerbino.

Foundation

The Nile Foundation approach is to provide home-grown solutions to those that have been affected the most by the civil war. Now international organisations are getting interested in the programme.

Kerbino says that while it good that the foundation is attracting international attention, "our primary goal is to sustain ourselves without depending on foreign funding which could dry up anytime".

The Nile Foundation aims to provide a platform for empowering the youth and uniting the nation through sports, education and training.

"We believe that empowering the younger generation will set a strong foundation for a united, prosperous and peaceful future for South Sudan, because we believe that home-grown solutions led by local youth will likely succeed in supporting and uplifting those vulnerable young people and restoring their dignity," he said.

Kerbino says that the Nile Foundation was founded out of the conviction that South Sudan can only develop as a nation when the youth are equipped with the necessary skills and knowledge to take up the opportunities available.

He funds the Nile Foundation by donating a percentage of his profits from KASS Group Ltd.

KASS Group, Kerbino's full business portfolio, includes security, hospitality, restaurant, and real estate services. The success from the security business has allowed Kerbino to expand and diversify his business portfolio.

Kerbino's also runs a high-end restaurant in Juba and a guest house in South Africa.

Kerbino's Executive Conference Centre and Kerbino's Flame Grill are based at Equatoria Towers in Juba; they opened in October 2017.

Kerbino would not reveal his exact net worth, only saying that his assets are in the millions of dollars.

"It is like asking a soldier how many rounds he has in his gun," he said.

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