Jamie Pujara – Hospitality Guru Wins Global Award As He Dabbles Into Real Estate To Pivot From Covid-19

Jamie Pajura was recently awarded the prestigious Mark Lincoln Volunteer of the Year Award 2021 by the Entrepreneurs’ Organization for his selfless dedication to helping fellow business owners survive the Covid-19 pandemic. An entrepreneur whose family opened Nairobi’s first Chinese restaurant Tin Tin Restaurant in 1978, he is an avid investor with prior forays into E-commerce and has recently entered the real estate business. Africa Inc. magazine had a chat with Jamie Pujara.

Kindly introduce yourself briefly

I am a second-generation Kenyan. My grandparents moved to Kenya from Hong Kong and India and my parents were born in Mombasa. My grandfather moved to Nairobi in 1978 upon his retirement from Africa Marines and set up Tin Tin restaurant at Kenyatta International Convention Centre, one of the oldest restaurants in Nairobi, and the first Chinese restaurant in Nairobi. I started my education in Nairobi then later to the UK where I studied Management and Economics. I then worked for two years in Tokyo, Japan and later in New York, USA for two years.

In 2008, my father fell ill and so I moved back to Nairobi to help run the business while he was undergoing treatment and that marked the start of my work career in Kenya. I must admit it was a culture shock work-wise.

I later on left Tin Tin Restaurant for a while and started a company called BuyRent Kenya, which is a property portal. We raised two rounds of funding and in 2017, I exited that business after the company was acquired by Ringier Group and returned to the restaurant business. We had a lot of plans of how we wanted to change the business, but Covid-19 struck and we had to put a lot of our plans on hold. Right now, we are thinking and reimagining how to move it forward when things return to normality.

You received the prestigious global Mark Lincoln Award in 2020, what does that mean to you?.

That was an award from the Entrepreneur’s Organization (EO), which has 15,000 members in 61 countries. I joined the Organisation in 2014 with the main of learning and growing through peer to peer network, where my colleagues, who are also entrepreneurs can resonate with what I go through because most probably they have experienced it too. All the positions in the organization are volunteer positions.

I served as the president of the Kenyan Chapter, then moved to the regional council as product director and am currently serving as regional chair for Pakistan, Middle East and Africa. My role is to grow the organization so that the members can have the opportunity to learn and grow not only in their business but also in their communities and families and become better, all-round persons. To qualify to join the organization, one’s business must have a turnover of at least US$1 million per year.

When Covid-19 hit, businesses started to suffer and there was a real possibility that members would not renew or afford their membership but the global board was gracious in putting together a support fund to subsidize their membership fee, which I advocated and lobbied for. Another key action I did was to give people a deeper insight to step ahead of the curve, understand the pandemic from industry perspective, and to leverage on this knowledge to find true value for the members.

What’s the significance of this membership organization to businesses?

Our communities matter to us. This belonging is very important when it comes to self-development. These membership bodies do have an impact in our businesses including our private lives.

I remember when I joined EO, I was in BuyRent Kenya and I was trying to sell a product to a client and he insisted that I join the organization. When I went in and understood it, the first thing I thought to myself was ‘this is going to impact my business’.

And while that has come probably later on, I think the first impact was to me as a person, understanding who I was. Today I have a greater sense of self-awareness than I did seven years ago; I have an idea of what my priorities are. While we are all business people, we have families and the totality of who we are is shaped by the community that we are part of and it really matters.

In these organizations and communities, we have to have such mindsets, give everything we have in order to see transformation.

What are the prospects of the hospitality sector in Kenya in the face of Covid-19?

I believe the sector will recover; the only question is are we going to be prepared for the recovery? As the world gets bigger, things like food remain critical and because people bond over food, it brings good times.

Kenya has seen an explosion in the hospitality sector over the last five years, which have brought a lot of good to the sector but also competition has heightened. A lot of restaurants and eateries have come up. What changes going forward is innovation in delivery and how you reach the consumer and tapping into people’s passion because food elicits passion and creativity. People love new things. We have been closed for so long which has forced us to rethink our business models, try reach the consumers now that they can’t come to us.

As more and more restaurants are being opened here in Kenya, the market is being split and therefore you have to make it to the top of the list in order to survive the competition – you have to be creative in order to attract and maintain your customers. Competition is important because it forces people to be creative and innovative.

The only challenge is shall we able to outlast the pandemic?. The Kenyan middle class doesn’t grow as fast as the new restaurants and eateries that are being opened.

You have recently entered the housing sector. Tell us about your new project Aspire heights.

As an entrepreneur, I am attracted to problems. Back in 2012, there was a problem of how people could look for housing and that’s how I got attracted to it and started BuyRentKenya.com. I have always been interested in that area.  I always look at a lot of data and I realized there was a problem when it comes to affordable housing targeting middle income earners and that is where Aspire Heights comes in.

I always knew I wanted to do development on more affordable/middle class housing. At Aspire heights, we are developing 65 apartments in Riruta: 2 and 3 bedrooms going for US$61,000 and US$70,000 respectively. The area is a great location, close to upmarket Lavington. It’s about aspirational living.

When covid-19 shut everything down and my day-to-day program and I could not come to the restaurant, our plans to grow had been put on hold. We had plans to debut low cost food of KSh. 300 (about US$ 3.00) for office workers, and had planned huge delivery networks. However, when people stopped going to the offices, it stopped, and I started looking at housing as my next opportunity. I had the data, knew the area, the right price point and the designs for the houses, so we just accelerated the process. It’s a great project and I am excited about it.

What are some of the learnings you can share with other entrepreneurs?

My biggest learning is servant leadership – the ability to do things for others without expecting anything in return and this changed my trajectory in EO.

Two years ago, I got an opportunity to attend a course in Cape Town, South Africa and we had the opportunity to visit Pollsmoor prison where we talked to the guards who watched over Nelson Mandela. One thing that kept coming up was servant leadership – you know the ability to do things for others without expecting anything in return.

The second lesson is the concept of a beginner’s mindset. I learnt this when I came back from New York. If you think you know everything then it is very difficult to find opportunity and see the solutions. If you over analyze then you’ll find a reason not to do something.

This feature appeared in the June 2021 edition of Africa Inc. magazine. You can access the full digital magazine HERE

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