Eric Chonjo: The ebony tree seedling that sprouted an entrepreneurial spirit
Eric Chonjo, the CEO of Eco Homes Tanzania recently gave a talk to a group of postgraduate students sponsored by Shell Tanzania. He talked about his experience as an employee and as an ambitious businessman. He later talked to this writer.
By Sam Karanja
When Shell Tanzania approached Eric Chonjo to give a talk to a group of sixty-eight university graduates sponsored by the international oil and gas giant, he did not hesitate to accept the invitation. In fact, he was enthused with the opportunity, especially when the organizers briefed him about the program.
Here was a chance to mentor and perhaps change the lives of young graduates. The fact that almost all the university graduates in the room had chosen to undertake science based degrees made the occasion even more appealing to the B.Sc. Electronics and Communications graduate.
‘’When talking to the young people. I seek to inspire them by telling my story. I was once in their shoes. I felt entitled to opportunities but it is important for our younger siblings to understand that opportunities are not labeled. At times, the chances come dressed in overalls and seem like work”.
Chonjo, who is now the CEO of Eco Homes Tanzania has a riveting story to tell. His entrepreneurial journey and ambition kicked in early in life. As a 12 year-old boy, Chonjo recalls approaching his parents with a bright idea of planting a forest of ebony trees.
His eyes light up when he recalls the moment he sold the ideas to his parents but at the same time furrows appear on his forehead as he recalls the disappointment from the his parents verdict. He had not researched enough to understand that ebony trees mature after thirty years.
Despite the setback, he trudged on and took lessons along the way. He had ideas for setting up a garage and even a farm. The ideas fueled his ambition.
He graduated from University of Dar es Salaam and immediately embarked on a search for employment. His first job was at one of the largest shipping companies in the world – Maersk where he worked as data entry clerk.
During his interview, the often asked question of where do you see yourself in a few years was met with a clear-cut answer. Mr. Chonjo was going to own a business in two years’ time.
He recalls that the work toughened him up. “I had a demanding and at times insolent boss. My pay was small and I could only save approximately twenty five thousands Tanzania shillings per month and for that I had to befriend my workmates who would offer transport after work.”
His world changed when one of Tanzania’s bigger telecommunications companies by subscriptions – Vodacom - came looking for young engineers. He applied and consequently received an offer.
Finally, he was working in a profession that he relished and aligned to his course work at the university. The perks were mouthwatering. He earned five times his pervious salary, a car, a laptop and smart phones at a time they were associated with only big shot executives.
Was Eric Chonjo going to rest on his laurels? After all, he had everything a young professional in a booming industry sought.
“I wanted more. As a group of young recruits, we envied the expatriates who worked with the company. They lived a good life in up-market residential areas of Dar Es Salaam such as Masaki. That egged us on. Every day after a 5pm, we would research more and even enrolled in online courses to ensure that we kept abreast with developments in the industry.”
Yet another opportunity came knocking. Vodacom’s competitor Tigo issued a tender for the maintenance of telecommunications masts across their operations. The tender committee comprised of thirteen panelists did not envisage that a group of three young engineers with little experience would apply for the tender. Add the fact that they currently worked for their competitors stacked the odds against their success even higher. The interviews were rigorous after all the contract was worth a princely sum of 100million Tanzanian shillings.
Finally, after five rounds of interview and shortlists, Chonjo and his partners were awarded the contract. They later on brought on board a fourth partner – Vodacom contractor. He brought the market experience to the group.
“Upon winning the contract with Tigo, we didn’t have money. We had three months to mobilize. We thought it was easy. We would approach financial institutions but none would accept to finance an upstart with equally inexperienced partners.”
On the third month, they had nothing to deliver. Luckily, the management of Tigo saw the group’s uniqueness and was supportive despite the stringent requirements for contractors. Eventually, the team of Eric, Rabe, Mugisha and Joshua mobilized funds and delivered the task. They also had to quit their jobs at Vodacom.
Their contract work enabled them to establish links across East Africa. In less than seven months, the business had broken even. However, successes brought along missteps.
“We started and built a company from the ground up without a business plan. We divested into other lines of business including a hotel in Kigali. We lost a lot of money and it was painful lesson.”
The lessons learnt have made them wiser. However, the same ethos such as hard work, discipline and persistence are still driving him and his partners. Their latest venture is Eco Homes Tanzania – a specialized contractor in building and construction using the technology of cold steel forming. The use of light gauge steel is gaining momentum as it is seen as more advanced, efficient and affordable way of constructing business and residential houses.
As Tanzania seeks to develop her economy through industrialization, Chonjo opines that science based careers will be very crucial. “Science is the backbone of development. We are in the information age where technology is playing a very central role in development of emerging economies such as Africa’s.”
“Ours is a contradiction. On one side, we have breakthrough innovations such as the mobile payments and on the other, we import consumables. Science based thinking will propel the adaptation of modern practice in sectors such as agriculture by through methods such as hydroponics,” he says.
Chonjo is a consummate businessman and storyteller to boot. His experience resonated very well with the young graduates. Brian Kamoga, who is currently pursuing a M.Sc. in Petroleum Geology was enthralled and motivated by Mr. Chonjo’s entrepreneurial journey.
“All the successful people such as Bill Gates have mentors and Chonjo’s vast experience can be life-changing and extremely valuable for young aspiring professionals and business people. I would like to appreciate efforts by companies such as Shell Tanzania for empowering graduates to draw experiences and deepen their career choices.” Kamoga says.
Shell Tanzania has offered scholarships and career building opportunities to postgraduate students, especially in courses closely associated with the operations in the oil and gas sector, and continue to do so as the country embarks seriously on the development of an important oil and gas sector.