Zambian Jishan Ahmed makes the Forbes Africa 30 under 30

Zambian Jishan Ahmed made the 2017 Forbes Africa 30 under 30 list

Zambian budding entrepreneur Jishan Ahmed has made the Forbes Africa list of 30 under 30. The 2017 FORBES Africa 30 Under 30 is the most definitive gathering of today’s leading young change-makers and innovators in Africa. This list helps to give other upcoming entrepreneurs an example of what it takes to make it in todays complex business environment. Below is Jishan’s verbatim interview notes he had with Forbes Africa

Q – How did you get into entrepreneurship?

I always had a budding entrepreneurship fire inside me from a very early age. Mostly because my father was and is an entrepreneur himself and so I would always look up to him and want to be one too. From college days I would be making a few deals such as selling phones, flash drives, laptops and even a few cars at one point. I always knew I wanted to do business but just never knew what exactly.

After leaving college (ZCAS), I got my first job in a popular hardware store in Lusaka as a sales rep. Pay was very very low and conditions just as bad but I needed a job desperately and had no other option. Our family was going
through some tough times back then due to my fathers business collapsing and at one point we were completely broke where my mom had to sell her jewelry just to support the family with groceries.

While working in the store, I noticed that a lot of bankers would be coming to buy a lot of goods from the store and so I secretly started handing out my Cv’s to every banker that came in and made my acquaintance and within
three months, I got a job at Access bank as a corporate relations manager. I was only 21 years old at the time.

Working in the bank I met a lot of people and made many connections. Within a year and half I grew a very strong relationship with a client of mine, Saltech Enterprises Ltd Zambia Jv with Impact Engineering South Africa, and
they ended up offering me a job at their firm as a General manager. This is where I discovered my passion for steel structural engineering. The company was in charge of all steel works at LEVY shopping mall Zambia and I was
heading the construction works and general operations for the entire company.

After 2 years working there I decided to leave and start my own Steel Structural Company. Unfortunately, I was living an expensive lifestyle at the time and ended up with almost nothing in savings when leaving. I had about K5,000 (USD 500) saved in my bank, a laptop and a diary with my name on it (I still use the same diary till today).

I used to sit at a local gas station that had a café and pretend that was my office and make all my appointments from there. I would call all prospective clients and meet them and actually lie that I have all the equipment and workshop facilities and a team when in fact I didn’t. I would meet prospective employees and tell them I had big clients about to sign up with us for big jobs when in fact I didn’t. It went to a point where I had to plan my meetings accordingly because I had no money to put enough fuel in my car. My dads transport business was performing poorly and so money
was a problem.

Anyway, after a lot of trying, knocking on people’s doors, failing, trying again and again, I received my first ever job. Making 10 chicken nest boxes for Hybrid poultry Zambia. I didn’t have a single machine to my name and so I asked for an advance payment (to which I received thankfully), bought very small machines from town, hired someone’s small workshop in the compounds and made these 10 chicken nest boxes. While doing this I searched around for a small place to set up my own workshop and found a very small yard filled with junk cars that had a small workshop and a very very badly built office space (No walls inside, No ceilings, No tiles, No Windows). I took that as my first office space and workshop and kept on pushing for more jobs and contracts. I bought a small school table desk and took a plastic chair and started my work. I still have that desk stored away in our storage as a constant reminder of where I came from, also including my first baby machineries that I had bought from town.

Cut long story short, I kept pushing and never giving up when I failed at something, always took a fail as a lesson and managed to get my first big sell with Hybrid Poultry worth USD 500k + and now 4 years later today, we are one of the biggest structural companies operating in Lusaka. From having less than 200sqm of workshop space to now having over 3000sqm or workshop space and still expanding another 2000sqm. From cheap machineries bought from town worth less than USD 1000 to having state of the art machines from Germany and Japan worth USD 150k +. From having a broken down office space to a fully professional equipped office with A/C’s and Tv’s and beautiful rooms. From owning one corolla used to transport workers to site, to owning three 20-ton trucks, one crane truck and three 5-ton canters. From employing only 5 employees in the beginning to now employing over 80 people. From a turnover of USD 75,000.00 to turning over USD700,000.00 last year and looking to cross the one million dollars mark this year. All this was done from very minimal help and support from others.

Q – What kind of upbringing did you have?

I was brought up in a very simple home. It is only my dad, mom, my little sister and myself. During my early years we had a very high class lifestyle, my dad’s business was booming and money was never an issue. However, just after around the year 2000, my dad’s business collapsed and our lifestyle took a complete 180 degrees turn. Money was always an issue, it got so bad that I never went to school for a good 6 months. I was home schooled by one of the
schoolteachers just so I could keep up with the syllabus. My mom had to sell her jewelry to be able to buy us food and give dad some money for the business. Unfortunately my dad’s business was forced to shut down and he ended up getting into normal employment in order to continue supporting us. This was truly a blessing in disguise for my family and myself. This extreme hardship taught us all to be humble and never look down upon any person.

Q – What hardships have you faced in your business that you have overcome?

There are countless numbers of challenges I have faced in my entrepreneur life. One of the biggest and most common challenges every entrepreneur faces specially when starting out is funding. No one wanted to give me money in the beginning due to the unsteady economy that was and is in Zambia. I was lucky enough to have my best friend support me with the little that he had. Also our currency took a major blow to its value during 2014/15 and this caused many businesses such as myself to incur huge losses. Coming out of that debt took a long time for me, I remember being so disappointed and sad but still I never gave up. I got more jobs and started paying back the debts little by little. Another common challenge an entrepreneur will face is the EMPTY BANK ACCOUNTS. Even at my level right now, I still face this challenge. Not until you are a multinational corporate, you WILL face this challenge. Overcoming this is done by one simple rule, NEVER STOP LOOKING FOR SOURCES. Whether it is a client yet to pay or personal funds or even a loan that you may need, a source will always be available. You just need to know where to look; it’s what makes
an entrepreneur great. I always keep looking for sources and I am extremely persistent with the things I want done. Persistence and never giving up is truly the key to every entrepreneurs success.

Getting the right team as well is key. Get people that are very smart at what they do and reward them generously. Never hold back and cut their pay just to increase your own. Rather cut your pay and increase theirs. Because
my employees are the bread and butter of my company and I go the extra mille to keep them happy and earn their loyalty.

Q – What inspires you to keep going?

IT’S NOT OVER UNTIL I WIN! I repeat these words to myself everyday. Every year I write down my goals and targets for that year and stick it right in front of my bed so everyday before going to sleep and waking up, I am reading my targets and that really inspires me.

Secondly, I am a big fan of Steve Jobs, and he said, “ If you were told that today was the last day of your life, would you be happy with the way things are?” For me, money is not really an inspiration, what really inspires me to keep going is the fact that I am building an empire little by little from absolutely nothing into something I could only dream of. My company is feeding families for 80 people and taking care of their families. And one day, when I die, I want people to be able to say “He provided employment for so many, he built this empire from nothing, he built these beautiful structures standing here and there” I want to be remembered by the legacy I leave behind and not the money I made during my life.

Q – Where did you get the money to start the business?

Initially, all I had was my diary and laptop with a bank balance of USD500.00 and I moved around with that for like 2 months. Then afterwards my best friend got wind of what I was trying to do and got all the details of my business. He then gave me his savings of USD 3,000 only and that helped me buy the school table desk and pay the rental deposit for my first broken down workshop. Other than that, all other monies were made clearly upon getting advance payments from clients.

Q – What is your most proud of achievement?

I am very proud of my achievements on all the projects that I have done especially the ones mentioned above and also two more projects that are due to begin. However, that is not my most proud of achievement. My most proud achievement that is extremely close to my heart is something completely different from my business life. Earlier in the story I mentioned how my mother sold off her jewelry to buy food for us at home and help my dad with money.

Not too long ago, like about 8 months, I was viewing this property that I was interested in buying and I met the owner of the same property. After a few table discussions, we started discussing our personal and family lives.
I told him about my dad and mom and where I grew up and immediately he recognized me. I was too young then so he couldn’t recognize me at first but after telling him whose son I was, he straightaway knew me.

He told me that my father had taken to him my mothers jewelry to sell. He told my father that you can come collect this jewelry after you have paid the money back and he did not want to buy it and intended in returning them. 15 year later and he still had them. My proudest achievement was going to my mother and handing her those jewelry back into her hands!! At first she didn’t even recognize them, but later the tears of joy weren’t enough to explain how happy and proud she was of me

More on Zambian success stories