Joadah Consults is the Company behind some of the greatest infrastructure projects in Uganda, Rwanda and Malawi to mention but a few. One of their recent projects is the construction of the specialised maternal and neonatal Healthcare unit in Mulago Hospital. In Malawi, he’s been the man behind the construction of five Universities. He’s delivered on water and Sanitation Projects in Rwanda. Joadah Consults also runs one of the most vibrant internship and graduate management programs in the country taking on over 100 students every year under their arm. Ian Ortega caught up with Jaffer Aita Joel, the founder of Joadah Consults for an interview with Great Ugandans. Joining in on the interview was the CEO of Young Treps, Jaluum Luwiiza Herbert and the great Ashraf on the cameras.
Ian Ortega: Good afternoon everyone, welcome yet again to another episode of Great Ugandans. My name is Ian Ortega. Great Ugandans first of all, is a project where we go out to meet Ugandan luminaries who are having high impact in different fields. It could be in Engineering, it could the arts, it could be the sciences. Talk about it. And today we have Jaffer Aita Joel. I hope I pronounced that very well, a Civil Engineering Consultant and we are also happy to be shooting from one of his many projects, the Mulago Specialized Maternal and Neonatal Hospital. Jaffer, glad to have you on the show.
Jaffer Aita Joel: Thank you so much, you are welcome to Mulago.
Ortega: So Jaffer, just a little bit about yourself. What is it that makes you tick? What is your life story?
Joel: First of all I welcome you to the maternal hospital. It is one of the projects which I will say is going to make the country very very proud. About Joel, I was born 38 years ago in Arua but originally from Yumbe district. I started off my Primary and Secondary School in Arua. And then after that came and joined Makerere University for my Civil Engineering. When I completed Civil Engineering in 2004, I worked for 2 years with a German Company called Fichtner. Fichtner is one of the biggest consulting companies in the region.
After two years with them, I decided to set up Joadah Consults which is also an Engineering Consultancy Company looking at the bigger picture, all the infrastructure arena. And that’s basically what I really do. I am married with four kids and live in Entebbe.
Ortega: I would be shocked that after two years working for a company, you get to begin your own company, Joadah Consults and venture out. A lot of people would have the fear of venturing out. For you, what helped you overcome that fear? Could it have been that fear is something you’ve been overcoming all along? How do you make the leap to do what you want to do? Start your own business, the way you started it, start something scary just after two years working for someone? Didn’t you have fear that I could become broke or how will I manage the bills?
Joel: It started sometime back when I was still in Secondary School where I tried to venture into business. My first business was actually making sweaters. My mother had a machine for knitting, knitting sweaters. But it was idle, staying at home. So during my Senior Four vacation, I decided to learn how to make sweaters out of this machine. It actually helped a lot. Up to when I was at University, I was still operating it. Because I had to train two other people who kept on producing. So the business acumen started from then.
When I reached University, I now really had that business in mind and I thought that when I finish my Engineering, I would really want to look at starting up something instead of getting employed.
Ortega: So when you got employed, you just had it at the back of your mind, that I am doing this just temporarily?
Joel: It was targeted. Because one is, when I was still a student I didn’t understand the difference between a contractor and a consultant. So I needed to feel what it means to be one of them. But when I eventually got a job with Fichtner, I felt that was the best thing I would be able to do, to be a consultant, and set up my own business as a consultant. So when I was there (at Fichtner), I was learning. I gave myself two years to learn so that I could set up my own.
Ortega: For the sake of our viewers and readers, what’s the actual difference between a consultant and a contractor?
Joel: The contractor does the physical building, the boys you see running around, building the bricks, those are the contractor staff. The consultant is the brain, the design, and the project manager. They are the ones who sit down, put the brain down in terms of the design of the facility, and then later on, they supervise the contractor. So that’s what the consultant does.
Ortega: Your first years of business. How was it? Where did you get the capital? And how would you define capital anyway? Some people say it is about the money, some people say it’s about the timing. What would you note as the crucial aspects of starting a business? How were your first years as a business? And how would you advise someone in the process of making the same leap?
Joel: I feel sometimes people are let down because of that word called ‘capital.’ Many times you ask an ordinary person or an average person; “why are you not starting this business?” They will straight away tell you; “capital.” “I don’t have capital.” But I always think capital should be the last thing which should come in. What I did, in the two years while I was working with Fichtner, I had already made a plan. I said to myself; “if I want to start this business, these are the things I am going to need.” “I am going to need a computer, I am going to need office space, I am going to need a printer, I am going to need all these.” So I came up with a plan, I added the cost. When I was working in those two years, I was acquiring these things one by one. I acquired a computer, later on, I acquired a printer, then I acquired some desks, some tables. I was acquiring them over time because I had already planned it earlier. So it didn’t just come one day that “Oh I need capital to start a business.” I looked at it in the longer term, made a plan and then said; “for me to be able to achieve this, I should take some time and mobilise.” When the two years were ending, I had already gotten my facilities, the equipment I would need to set up this business.
Then the next thing that came up was survival. “How am I going to survive because there is not going to be salary?” At that time I had also gotten married. What I decided to do was simple. We were living near Nkumba University, we shifted to a cheaper house, I paid for a whole year. And then Nkumba had a restaurant called S&S, this S&S would allow students to pay for a longer period of time. Like you could pay for 6 months. So, I went there, got part of the savings, paid for 6 months, lunch and supper. I now knew my family’s food was covered. After that, I went to the German boss and told him, “I am leaving in the next 3 months.” That’s how I ended up leaving.
So many times I will tell any person; “if you want to start your own company, don’t just jump onto the capital fear. Calculate. What do I really need and then plan over a period of time.” That way you will find, you will not be shocked. You will have already planned over a period of time. So I would say, planning should be the first, and then calculate what you really need, how much money do you need and then you start running after that money.
Ortega: I will have to take you back a little bit, you said you had a wife, you had a family. How do you do it? Was your wife supportive of this? Didn’t it shock her? How did you prepare her for this? Because I know there could be people out there and one of the things stopping them from starting is that; “I have a family, how do I pay these bills? How do I prepare my wife? How do we even adjust our lifestyle? If we’ve been living in 3-bedroomed house, how do we all of a sudden go to a one-bedroomed house?”
Joel: I think it is important to have family support. First of all, if you look at the name ‘Joadah’, the ‘Jo’ stands for ‘Joel’ then ‘Adah’ is wife’s name. She is called Adah. We set up this company together. We are the two directors of the company. So right from the beginning, there was support. She knew; “this is our thing.” We were in it together. So when we fight to look for money, we fight together to look for that money. When we were running around and there was no money, everyone knows there is actually no money. We have to fight to look for more money. For a business to be successful, you really need to have family support. That way you find it becomes easier for you to run around, for you to move everywhere. That’s how we’ve managed to do it.
Ortega: I often want to ask people, knowing what you know now, what advice would you give to a smart 20 year old young-driven motivated University student about to get into the real world? What should they do? What advice should they take? What advice should they ignore? Should they try to build a career? Should they leap and do their own thing? Should they follow their passion or should they chase the money?
Joel: First of all, know what you really want. Know what you really want to do. The moment you have identified what you really want to do, that is the first step. And then the second step, sometimes you find you can jump into something and crash badly. I would advise someone to get some bit of experience, like for example working with some company. Because when I really worked with Fichtner, I learned a lot of things. It gave me a clear picture of what I am going to expect. So there you will find, you will be able to learn from the seniors, how they do their things, it may not be a formal employment, it may be having a mentor, getting a mentor, starting to learn from them, asking them a lot of questions, learning from them, how they have been able to do it. That way, once you have identified your field, you get a mentor, you get employed, you will be able to learn and run a number of things. And through that, when you venture in, you realize you move in a very clear headed way.
Ortega: Did you have those moments where you almost felt like giving up? As an entrepreneur, did it ever get to some point where you regretted and almost gave up? And if you had those moments, how did you overcome them? How did you keep moving?
Joel: Those moments always are there. They come quite often. The worst was at the beginning when I started. Here we were competing against very well established companies. For close to one year, when we would be bidding, our document is just thrown out. There were so many reasons. You put in your bid, mostly these government tenders and the document is thrown out. We bidded for a complete one year without getting any job. Meanwhile your money is getting finished, you have to renew your S&S food, the wife maybe got pregnant, rent is also coming. The costs are going up, meanwhile there is no income, you are just burning the savings you’d made. That can strain you a lot. But one thing which I made clear was, I knew where I was going. I knew where I was heading to. So whenever these things came up, I would just say, these are temporary. They will come and they will go.
And when we were being thrown out, I didn’t take it in a bad way. Because I realized the easiest way would be to convince yourself; “oh people are corrupt. I am being thrown out because someone is corrupt.” That is a nice excuse, it is quick and you don’t blame yourself.
But what we decided to do was that each time we were thrown out, I would go to the procurement department of that government ministry, I would ask for the reasons why were thrown out. And according to the PPDA rules, they are supposed to avail you those rules. So when I pick the evaluation reports, I go and check. I was thrown out because we didn’t put this document, we didn’t put the trading license, then I go we purchase a trading license. The next time they throw you out again, this time you have the trading license, but they threw you out because you didn’t have another document. I would also go and look for that document. So over this one year, we kept on perfecting our documentation and after one year, we were able to fill all the loopholes our documents had and eventually we started winning jobs.
I would also say that many times getting a job is not just a one month or two month struggle, you can even go for two years and not get a single job. But you will be doing a disservice to yourself if you say; “people are just corrupt” or you give other reasons but you don’t look at the major reason why you must have really been thrown out.
The biggest time where I really wanted to give up was at a stage when we only had UGX 500,000 left and my wife was pregnant, ready for delivery. And definitely I had to bring her to Mulago because that time delivery was cheap. I knew a normal delivery, you would pay UGX 200,000 but things didn’t go right. We needed caesarean. So the price went to UGX 800,000 and I only had UGX 500,000.
Let me tell you; “ you know these guys who talk when they are walking, I was talking like that.” Things were tough. You know delivery they remove you after four days. Third day nothing, no money. My mind was just cooking. What am I going to do? I had a vehicle and I wanted to sell it. When people know you have problems, they want to take advantage. A car which I had bought at 10 million, somebody wants to buy it off at 2 million.
But you can’t believe on the third day what happened. One year earlier, I had done some assignment for some private client, this was a hotel. We had designed their sewerage system. But that time I had charged this person one million, and he refused to pay. I did the work and he just disappeared. On the third day when we were in the hospital, I received a phone call from this guy. I saw his number, he said; “Joel where are you? I want my design.”
I said; “last time I did for you when I was still a private person, but now I am a company. So I am going to give you this as a company. So if you are ready, you come with 10 million.” Within one hour, this guy came with 10 million. He paid me 10 million. I looked at this money and tears rolled down. Tears rolled down my eyes. And I got this money, first went and bought things for the kid which I hadn’t bought and came to the hospital just like a man. And immediately after that time, I told myself; “you know what, I am remaining doing this business.” Because I had reached a point where I told myself if that day ended, the next day I am going to call back my former boss. Because he really wanted me to go back. I am going to call him and I go back. I had reached that point. And my idea was the next day I would call him, I will tell him; “please I need this amount of money and I can start working back with you.” But on the third day, that thing happened. And it showed me; “you know what, I am going to remain.” So that was my breaking point.
Ortega: I have realised there is a touch of excellence in every work you do. Where do you get this excellence given that the whole country, excellence is not something that is a big thing? It is about chase the short money, what are those core things that drive you? What drives and motivates you to really express this excellence? What are those core things that you won’t compromise on?
Joel: One is passion. I don’t look at these projects purely as business. I look at them like it is a passion, something you like doing. That is one. As a result each and every project we get, we always make sure we get the best team. For these projects to work very well, you need to have a team. Like for example, I have got architects from Portugal, I have architects from South Africa. These are very expensive guys and I have put them together with our Ugandan team. I paid them because they can bring in the internal experience to our Ugandan team. So as a result all the designs we come up with, you realize they are not Ugandan. Because we have this team who now blend with our Ugandan team to make a project successful. You end up paying them a lot of money. As a company you end up having very minimum profit. But to me, that’s really not what matters now. We are really looking at doing something which is a passion to us.
And we’ve also driven that to our team. Whenever they are doing projects like this, you see somebody owns this project. The project manager, the supervisors, the designers, they are owning this project, they feel this is my project. As a result, even if I don’t move in all the sites. Right now we have close to 30 sites in the five countries, I can’t be everywhere all the time. But each team that is there, they feel this is our project. They drive it with a passion. One thing we really look at is passion with which we take our projects.
Ortega: Speaking of growing sustainable businesses, what is your core formula for doing this? Warren Buffet talks of the economic moats. What is your competitive advantage? What is your sustainable factor? Where do you see Joadah Consults in the next 10 years? Will it still be here 50 years from now? Will it outlast you?
Joel: My father when I started business told me one advice. He said; “you want to start your business, that is right. But I give you one advice. That advice is, when you are dealing with clients, promise less, but deliver more.” That was the advice he gave me. So that has been one thing we’ve been running with. Promising less but delivering more. So that a client’s expectation is met above what they had really put in their mind.
Two is also in our business model, we make strategies. We make 10 year strategies whereby we want to look at where we are moving on. With these 10 year strategies, it guides us to the direction in which we must be moving. Then thirdly, I try to make the company separate from me. We’ve put in systems whereby even if I am not in office for one month, two months, the company is running.
If I am not in a particular site for two weeks or one month, it is moving because there is a system in place. The idea is with me there or not, the company should be able to grow. And my idea is now with time, I also want to involve the staff. With time, we want to give out shares to the staff. That is my target for 2025. Where a staff will be able to own the company. Because with time as you age, you want to start reducing your involvement.
By 2020, we are looking to be able to set up in 10 African countries and then we keep on moving. The idea is we should be able to cover the whole of Africa with time.
Ortega: What are the most impactful projects you’ve worked on? The ones which still awe you up to today? And why those projects?
Joel: I will start with the medical projects because they directly impact on life of which the biggest one I would talk of is Mulago, the Maternal Hospital where we are right now. And then the lower Mulago. These are projects which are going to directly impact Ugandans and even the countries around. And then we’ve also done various regional referral hospitals across the country.
Outside Hospitals, we’ve also looked at water and sanitation. We’ve done various water and sanitation projects both here in Uganda and in Rwanda. These are also impacting directly on people’s lives.
We’ve also done the education sector, both in Uganda and other countries. But our biggest education sector projects are in Malawi where currently we’ve just concluded 5 Universities. These are funded by African Development Bank for Malawi Government. So those are some of the key projects.
We are also in the road sector. We’ve done some road projects. We’ve done some buildings, those we don’t take them so much especially people’s private projects. Those are really a bit minimum. But the major ones are hospitals, water projects and education facilities.
Ortega: Are you a big reader? Do you have the books that really influenced you? And if you do, what are those books you’ve re-read?
Joel: I am starting to learn how to read.
Ortega: You are the hands-on type?
Joel: I think I am very bad in reading books. I wouldn’t say I have read one full book. I have tried to start some. But I have realised it is a very good culture to develop. So as a result, I have actually set up a library at home. And I want to start stocking it with books. But before that, I would say I am really very bad at reading books. The day I start reading a book, where I stop, that’s where it stops.
Ortega: Speaking of motivation and inspiration. You’ve had these series you’ve run on your social media where you’ve given people all these different lessons. What are your rules, your principles, your ten commandments of sorts? That you think someone at the heart of it all should have. One of them for me is that I try to be patient in the long term and impatient in the short term. I believe in things compounding over the long term.
Joel: One key aspect which I have realized really works is uniqueness. Whatever you are doing, try to be unique. Whatever you are doing, in your field, whether in construction, whether in media, whatever business you are doing, try to be unique. These I share a lot to my students who train with us or to another person who is working with us. Whenever you are doing a design, if it looks like another one, forget about it. You’ve not done any work.
Recently we gave students an assignment where we got tree leaves, different tree leaves. We gave these tree leaves to them and said; “let your house look like these tree leaves. Your concepts will come out of a tree leaf.” Actually the best student, I took his design. But that was to build into their mind the aspect of uniqueness, innovativeness. That is one core thing I have seen.
Because many times Ugandans are always starting businesses. But you realise it is all the same business. Somebody in the neighbourhood has started a boutique, everyone then starts a boutique. And it is the same clothes. You move in that same line, every boutique, same clothes. So where is your advantage? One rule I always tell everyone and I always try to follow is the aspect of uniqueness.
Second I would say is Branding. Branding yourself. Many times we don’t brand ourselves. We don’t show what we do. I had someone who does very nice cottages. I asked him to send me his company profile. He said; “you know actually, I don’t have.” But he sent me like 20 pictures of good quality things he’s doing. So I always say one aspect to put in consideration is branding. You should be able to put out what you are able to do.
Another aspect is also trustworthiness. I have realised most of our projects are referrals. Somebody is referring one client to another. This has been because whenever we get one particular project, we do it properly. The client trusts us and then it keeps on rolling. It keeps on moving from one client to another. So trustworthiness is also one rule. Once you put it in mind, you will find you don’t need to actually advertise. People will come for you. They get to know what you are able to do.
Ortega: One last thing, if people take just one thing from this interview, what would it be? If you had this one moment to tell the world one lesson, and the whole world is listening, what would you leave them with?
Joel: Especially to the youths, I would like to say Uganda is a very promising country. Uganda is a country where there is actually a lot of opportunities. Where we can actually make a lot of money inside. Whenever I am travelling, I love to study the Passenger composition.
When you are flying out, so many blacks on the plane, actually it is full of blacks. When the plane is coming in, it is full of foreigners. So where are the foreigners remaining if they are not going out? Meaning Uganda has a lot of opportunities. We can actually do quite a lot of things. But one has to have that eye to see them.
On a personal note I would like to say, we will definitely continue doing many of these impressive projects wherever and whenever we get them. People are yet to see more of these projects we are doing.
Ortega: Thanks Jaffer for having you on this Great Ugandans episode. I also thank the team from Young Treps, that is Jaluum Luwiiza and the great Ashraf. And to everyone, keep locked to Great Ugandans, this is just the start of many more Great things. Just like Joadah Consults, we are yet to see more.