Tamunowapiri Eli, a graduate of Petroleum Engineering from Rivers State University of Science and Technology, Rivers State, is an entrepreneur and the Chief Executive Officer of ZAtaeFoodmart and Service Hub, who, in this interview by TAYO GESINDE, speaks about how she has been able to maintain a balance between her business and the home front, among other issues.
What informed your choice of career?
I studied petroleum engineering at the university because I have always been good at mathematics. I am good with numbers, so I knew I would tilt towards engineering and not medicine because I was not good at biology. When I graduated, I did my National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) programme at the Nigerian National Petroleum Commission (NNPC), Abuja. After my service year, I worked at NNPC for nine months before I got married and moved with my husband to Warri, Delta State, in 2010. In Warri, I worked with Lym Consults Limited, a company that was into safety and risk management consulting. From Warri, we moved to Lagos and I got a job at International Energy Services Limited, an engineering consulting firm. That was the last place I worked before I started my own business.
What was the experience like working in a male-dominated field?
There was no issue at all. The men supported us. They are always ready to assist us. It is a field where if you know your onions no one will put you down. When it is time for us to work, there is nothing like this is a man or woman, we all work together. My gender has never been an issue, even in my university days, we all worked together as a team.
When did you decide to go into entrepreneurship?
When I stopped working, I started thinking of what I wanted to do; whether I wanted to get another job or start my own business. I decided I was going to be my own boss and that was how my journey into entrepreneurship started on December 15, 2018. I thank God for the journey so far, it has been good.
What motivated you to go into the food business?
I decided to go into the food business because I knew that there would always be a need for food, people will always eat. Also, when we travelled in 2017, we went to a store in Geneva, Switzerland and the store had different sections, cold room, supermarket and so on. Everything we needed was available there. The place was always busy with people who came in to buy one thing or the other. I thought to myself that we didn’t really have many of such places in Nigeria, where everything you need is available and you don’t have to go to another shop. That was how and where I got the idea from, to have a supermarket, cold room for frozen foods and other services combined in one.
What were the challenges you faced when you started your business?
I started with the cold room first so electricity was the major challenge. Visibility was another challenge, It took me months to get people to know that there was a cold room in the area. Like I said earlier, I started the cold room first and after three months, I added the supermarket and after another three months, I added the car wash. After some months, I added the grill spot. It took almost 10 months for people to know that there is a place called, ZAtaeFoodmart and Services Hub along Abraham Adesanya Way.
How have you been coping with competition?
When I started my business, there was a supermarket at the same location, I was the second person. Now, we have over six. You cannot overrule competition, it will always be around. What has made me stand out is my consistence. What I noticed is that people want to come and meet the goods on the shelve. If they come today and what they need is not available and they come tomorrow the same story, they will go to another shop. My unique selling points are meeting my customers’ needs and creating value for them. We are always trying to meet the need of each family at a time.
2020 was a challenging year for many businesses. How were you able to cope during and after the COVID-19 lockdown?
During the lockdown, those of us that were in the food business were permitted to open, so, for us at ZAtae, that was when our business spiced up and increased. We were meeting needs. For us, 2020 was not bad by the grace of God. It was okay. The grill bar and the carwash were not opened but the supermarket and cold room were in full operation. Last year was good for us by God’s grace.
What lessons have you learnt as an entrepreneur?
I have learnt a lot of lessons. When I started, the first six months, I was just running the business but I noticed I needed extra knowledge, so, I went to Lagos Business School to do a course in Entrepreneurial Management and that helped me a lot. As a business person, you need to learn, you unlearn, relearn and keep on learning. Learn leadership skills, business etiquette, sales and marketing and financial record are things to learn. Also, if you are based in Lagos, you need to know the tax law, what it entails to do business in Lagos and also you need to know the strategy for growth. You need to strategize, you need to be innovative and creative. Business is about growth, I can liken business to a child, you need to be patient, diligent and passionate about your business if you want it to grow.
Who are your role models?
Anyone that is making an impact is my role model. I look up to people like Aliko Dangote because I know how he started, I also look up to Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. She is also making an impact in the financial sector. And every other strong woman out there that is doing one thing or the other to make a difference in the world.
How have you been combining entrepreneurship with the home front?
It has not really been easy because one has a husband and children as well as a business to run. Business is not something you open and you go to sleep. You have to be there to oversee things. You also need to put a structure in place, so that when you are not there, it will still run. What I do is that I make sure my children are always with me after school. My husband too has been wonderful, he has been assisting me. I ensure that there is a life/work balance. I plan my time such that I spend quality time with my family and I also spend time at the office attending to business. We are usually together at the weekends when I go to work at the weekend, they usually follow me. If I need to work at home, I will wait till they have slept before doing anything.
As a mother, how do you think one can raise godly children in this era of social media?
It is still possible to raise godly children. The word of God says, “train up a child in the way he should go. And when he grows, he won’t depart from it.” As a mother, keep training them in the way of the Lord and keep praying for them. In our time, though there was no social media, there were bad people but we grew up to become responsible adults. Social media has come to stay. However, if we give them good training, they will turn out well. As parents, create time for your children. Inculcate in them values like hard work, perseverance and teach them to have the fear of God. Everything boils down to the parents. They need to, keep talking to their children, keep cautioning and keep grooming them till the time they are old enough to make decisions on their own.
As a follow-up to that question, how can parents protect their children from sexual abuse?
Parents need to be at alert. A lot of parents living in big cities are always on the move, when you are leaving your children at home, you need to check who is at home with them because it usually starts from someone close to the children and not strangers. Who you leave your children with is very important. And as the children grow, educate them that they should not allow anybody to touch there private parts and if anyone tries to touch it, they should report such a person. Above all, pray and be sensitive. If you see your child is looking dull or starts withdrawing ask questions, probe further.
What do you think the government can do to help entrepreneurs?
The government should create a conducive environment for us. The first thing they need to address is the issue of power. We need an uninterrupted power supply. I know how much I spend on power every month and the same goes for other entrepreneurs. The government should also give loans and grants to entrepreneurs. Many businesses are struggling, they need loans . The government should also reduce taxes, From time to time, the government can organise free training for people in business to help them upgrade.
Where do you see your business in five years?
In five years, I hope to open more branches and also I want to develop and improve my business. Another thing I want to do is to become a business coach so I can help small businesses.
On a lighter note, how do you relax?
I relax in my house with my family and we watch movies. We used to go out on Sundays to have lunch, go to the mall or movies. That was before coronavirus came. We also travel out of the country once a year to relax. Finally, I try to reach out to my friends and family.
What advice do you have for our unemployed youths?
Don’t wait for white-collar jobs, they are getting fewer by the day but if you see a job that does not pay much, go for it. Don’t wait till you get a high paying job, Start with the small one until the big job comes. I won’t advise them to start a business because most people don’t even have the capital to start. And if
you really want to go into entrepreneurship, you need to go and learn from someone. Acquire skills that you can use to work for someone for a while before starting your own business.
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