‘Success that comes gradually has a solid base,’ says real estate entrepreneur

Daniel Ojijo is the founder and chairman of Kenya-based Mentor Holdings, a consortium of ten companies involved in construction, management, marketing, advertising and publishing in the property market. The real estate entrepreneur told How we made it in Africa’s Dinfin Mulupi more about his business and shared some advice to other budding entrepreneurs.

Daniel Ojijo

Daniel Ojijo

Tell us about how you started Mentor Holdings.

Mentor Holdings is a real estate consortium that encompasses ten subsidiaries that are all in one way related to real estate. This began as a dream when I joined the market in 1995 as an estate agent. I noticed that most estate agents had very small portfolios and hence sold very little. Most of them were not thinking about how to satisfy their customers and expand their portfolios. I wanted to do things differently; I invested heavily in marketing, recruiting personnel, going out to identify people who owned property and introduced professionalism. I noticed that when people came to an estate agent it was like they came to a doctor. They required advice; should they rent or buy, how do they get a mortgage, if they have money should they buy land or a ready home? I discovered this was beyond what typical estate agents did. The subsidiaries started growing organically. Today we have businesses involved in construction, management, marketing, advisory, event organising, advertising and publishing.

I graduated from university in 1995 and I was sure I wanted to go into business. I did not want to be employed because I did not want to be confined to a fixed amount of pay. I am a greedy person; I wanted more. Either way I needed to earn a living, so I took the first job I was offered. Eventually I needed a house to rent. I talked to estate agents and realised there was an opportunity in the market.

You ventured into the industry 18 years ago. What are some of the trends seen in the property market today?

The middle class effect is hard to miss. In 1995, [the only people] who could afford to rent or buy a home in a prime estate was a UN employee, diplomat, corrupt parastatal official or someone linked with a politician. Today it is ordinary Kenyans who are buying. Some corporate firms here have mortgage arrangements with banks or their own internal mortgage schemes. In the last ten years there has been a lot of commerce going on.

The middle class has expanded and these people have money. Yesterday I met a lady who visited one of our developments in a prime estate in Nairobi and she wanted to buy a home going for US$294,000 and pay cash for it. People are looking for well priced properties, well designed properties, well located properties and well finished properties. If you are able to satisfy that, you have a market. The increased competition in the industry is proof of the immense opportunities here.

Describe some of the challenges you face in running this business.

We have a poor culture where the end justifies the means. Sometimes clients go behind your back to collude with employees. There was one project we were handling where the fees were running into millions and the client figured out he would rather poach our employees instead of paying the company to do the job.

In our society, people glorify achievements instead of hard work and morality. Everyone wants to get rich quickly. It has taken me 20 years to get where I am today. Somebody is graduating from school and wants to be where I am in one year. It is all about hard work, commitment and honesty. Human resources is also a challenge.

What is your advice to other entrepreneurs?

They ought to be persistent. It is a long journey and success does not come overnight. Success that comes gradually has a solid base. A successful business person has to be greedy. You need to have the appetite for more. That hunger for more pushes your adrenaline levels. If it is not there then everything becomes meaningless. If I make one billion today, I start looking for two billion. There is no limit in what you can achieve. Your achievement is limited by your imagination. I remember the first big project we did was worth $2 million and it seemed too big for us to pull off. Today our construction company is handling a project worth $12 million. I am sure when we finish it we will feel like; that was an easy one.

Describe your future plans for Mentor Holdings.

There are immense opportunities in the business. We have expanded from property management and marketing and created a platform that offers a wide array of products and services. Our plan is to extend our competitive strength and explore other avenues that our companies can invest in and bring returns to the group. The reason we have not expanded to the East African region is because the Kenyan market is yet to be fully exploited. Why would I go to a foreign country [when] I can exploit my own backyard where I have a competitive advantage?