BusinessDay

ADEROJU OPE-AJAYI is fostering sports advancement in Africa

Aderoju Ope-Ajayi is an innovative entrepreneur and professional who is highly focused, dynamic, and motivated with over 20years’ experience in sales, channel strategy and management, business development in the telecommunications (GSM) and Pay TV industry, with a flair for business strategy, sales, key account, management and customer care relations.

She is currently the Founder & Lead Instructor at Dolphin Swim School and Dolphin Aquatic Centre. She is a sports development advocate with a passion for fostering positive change in the sports industry in Africa.

Her mission is to help develop the sports industry in Nigeria by partnering with the right stakeholders, helping to build sustainable sports businesses, and providing knowledge to new entries in the industry. She has made her mark in the corporate world before transitioning into entrepreneurship and setting up her businesses.

Aderoju serves in various board capacities locally and internationally as follows. She is the Vice Chairman and Board Member at Lagos State Swimming Association. An advisory Board Member of the International Swim Schools Association, a Charter Board Member of the Global Water Safety & Drowning Prevention Rotary Club and also a member of the United States Swim Schools Association.

She is a certified water safety instructor and trainer, certified lifeguard and equally certified to administer first aid, CPR and AED. This is alongside her various degrees obtained from the prestigious Lagos Business School & the Metropolitan School of Business UK.

She has received multiple awards that are a testament to her skill and tenacity in breaking new grounds.

Take us back memory lane and influences

I am a true Lagosian, born and grew up in Lagos island, where I’m the baby of the Amodu family. My family is very close knit despite the age differences among my siblings. My parents brought us up knowing that family is number 1, and we had to be there for each other. It is always your family you can fall back on.

My greatest influence definitely came from my parents, especially my dad who was very pivotal to the development of swimming and sports in Lagos state and Nigeria as a whole. My parents instilled in me the love of people, teaching me that everyone deserves a chance to experience good things in life and if you can, be a facilitator of the good experience.

Tell us about being a sales, channel strategy and management expert, including being a business development professional in the telecommunications (GSM) & Pay TV industry

I started my career as a newbie back in 2002 when Econet was launching its GSM services in Nigeria. I was very excited to work at the call centre. I believed that the call centre staff were the engine room behind the company. We knew everything going on in the business; from new products to outages and everything in between. During that experience, it brought to light the fact that I loved interacting with customers, solving issues and most importantly selling and upgrading. When an opportunity came to move from the call centre to the corporate sales department, I jumped at it… knowing that I had received a solid foundation and was ready to build on it. The journey of the company’s various transitions from Econet to Vodacom to Vmobile to Celtel to Zain and finally to Airtel took me through various sales roles, partnerships management (B2B & B2C) channel management and business
development. I was privileged to be part of the team for 3 of those transitions and had the opportunity to travel extensively to learn the peculiarities of each home market, and the strategies that would eventually fit and be implemented in Nigeria.

I then further translated all the knowledge into the PayTv industry after 11 years in telecommunications. In Pay Tv, my skills developed over the years enabled me revamp and grow the distribution channels, the route to market and the business development and partnership management of the company. Overall, the experiences gained in these two major industries are invaluable and shaped my career in the long term.

What lessons did you learn in the years of your involvement?

People, structure, processes. These three drivers are the most important lessons I learnt. Without these, implementing sales strategies or managing relationships with our partners would almost be impossible. Another important lesson learnt was the need for flexibility and the ability to execute on the go. As mentioned earlier, the various company transitions forged in me the need for quick execution of agreed strategies. We had to develop sales and business strategies almost on the fly and ensure that the business partners were not left behind as well. These skills have served me well during my stint as a business owner.

Your flair for business strategy, sales, key account management and customer care relations, how was this birthed?

These are key areas I discovered that I have a lot of passion for. I believe these areas also speak to my strengths which were shaped during my career path from a call centre/customer service agent to a corporate sales key account manager, to managing dealers and partners, then the sales team as well as developing business strategies to ensure the viability of the value chain. These experiences have formed a bedrock of the skills cultivated over time.

Share with us on being founder and lead instructor at Dolphin Swim School and Dolphin Aquatic Centre
Setting up my businesses was one of the greatest achievements of my life. Dolphin Swim School and Dolphin Aquatic Centre were forged from a period of uncertainty, and they prove to me that nothing is wasted in life.

Dolphin Swim School started as a hobby as far back as my university days at the University of Lagos. I come from a background of aquatics i.e. I’m a 2nd generation swim instructor after my dad. My Father, (Late) Y.A Amodu was popularly known as Ejalonibu. He was the Head Coach of The Nigerian National Swim Team, served as a sports administrator in Lagos State; served on various Boards and a very avid swimmer. I had little choice but to be a ‘fish’ as well from an early age. I swam competitively through age group swimming, and this culminated with me swimming at the Nigerian University Games & West African University Games for my school, University of Lagos.

During this time, it was just natural to teach friends how to swim and then friends’ friends approached me. This went on throughout university until I graduated and then went on for NYSC.

While working and starting off my career, I could find some time to still teach swimming on the side. It was something I was extremely passionate about, and I loved teaching people a new life skill, meeting new clients, encouraging those with aqua phobia and just passing on knowledge of water safety. Then life happened, and I completely moved on from this side business to focus on my career and growth.

Fast forward to 2017, when I had to unexpectedly leave my job. I was at odds on what next to do. A few no, a lot of people who knew me and my business then reminded of Dolphin Swim School and how it is so very much needed. Reluctantly, I decided to give it a shot during this period of transition pending when I find what next to do. This seeming stop gap business from the very first launch date on April 17, 2017, surpassed all expectations. It grew so quickly I had to formally set up a business structure i.e., an LCC on July 10th, 2017, to carry the business.

The main reason for founding this business apart from being a stop gap, was to address the rate of deaths by drowning of children. I had friends who wanted their children to learn how to swim, however, they wanted a female instructor, and most, especially one they can trust. I had past students who wanted refresher courses and had tried other swim instructors and realized that they were not being taught properly. All these gaps needed to be filled, and who better to do it than me.

My love for swimming and all things aquatics was re-ignited, my passion for people and making difference was triggered and Dolphin Swim School was birthed. By December 2017, I had received formal trainings and certifications as a water safety instructor, lifeguard trainer and first aid responder from the United States of America. These certifications gave me the edge to better serve our clients and make a much-needed difference in the art of teaching swimming. This was also quickly followed by my first grant from WIMBIZ in recognition of the business idea and the progress made.

By the end of 2017, the business had grown quite significantly that I had to recruit an additional instructor to help manage the flow of customers. We have now trained over 3,000 women and children from then till now with our team growing to 12 female Instructors: 3 female admins and 1 male instructor.

How has the experience been so far? Who are your clients? Take us through registration process

I have absolutely enjoyed the experience so far. I’m not sure I would trade anything in, even the hair-raising moments. The journey and experiences so far have tested me in many ways, and I have leaned heavily on divine wisdom from God, my years of experience in corporate and my innate skills and abilities. They have all culminated into what we see today as a well-known, most professional swim school in Nigeria.

Our clients are typically women and children (from 6 month – age 16); young families, corporates and schools. Our registration process is usually very smooth and seamless. We have many points of contacts for our clients from email, telephone, social media (Instagram and Facebook) and our website. Clients usually reach out through any of the above media which have comprehensive details about our swim levels (what to expect from each level and the skills taught), cost of lessons, registration procedures, location of pools and most importantly our terms and conditions.

Once interest is indicated, our admin team reaches out via email and phone calls, to help the client decide on the best fit for them in terms of lesson structure (private at home lessons or group lessons) and best lesson time. As soon as that is concluded, the client makes payment and class schedule is sent with relevant information such as pool location, instructor name, skills to be taught, time of class, materials needed (swimsuit, caps, goggles, towels and so on, which can be purchased from our online store) and safety rules.

The client resumes their swim lessons on the agreed start date, where they meet their instructor who takes them through expectations for the class, talks about the pool location, safety, and shows other relevant information.

Group classes typically run over 10 lessons with 1 make up class making total of 11 classes. At the end of these 11 classes, our clients would have learnt how to be water confident, swim the freestyle stroke across a 12 / 15-meter pool and learnt how to be water safe.

What changes have occurred in comparison to when you commenced?

The landscape has definitely changed, we started off as pioneer, now we have opened a lot of eyes into how viable the swim school business or any sports business can be. We are seeing a lot of innovations in the way lessons are taught and the awareness that swimming is a life skill that must be learnt.

I’m looking forward to more partnerships and collaborations in the sports business value chain. i.e., expanding the value chain to include apparel and kit production, equipment production, facility management and so on and of course, I can’t fail to mention the massive potential for the public and private partnerships that can be facilitated by the state and federal governments.

We are working on more capacity building opportunities, and a physical world class aquatic center, where families and individuals can learn to swim, consolidate what they’ve learnt but also have a community center for leisure.

What safety measures do you have in your facility?

We currently work out of leased pools; however, safety is one of our major priorities as a business. Our first safety measure is that we are all first aid and CPR certified. This means that every member of staff of Dolphin Swim School is certified to carry out CPR and first aid as the need arises.

Then we have water watchers on deck during lessons. These are members of staff that ensure that eyes are always kept on the children in the pool. They watch and supervise that no child is left unattended in the water and those outside of the water are to be supervised by their parent or caregiver.

Another safety measure is what we call line of sight. This means that the instructor ensures she has line of sight to each child in her group class regardless activity. This ensures that no child slips into the water without anyone seeing. Supervision means constant eye contact and being within arm’s reach when children are in or around water.

As part of our safety policy, we ensure that we have active accident insurance cover for our swimmers in case of any Incidents or accidents on site.

There have been 3 major reported pool mishaps with children involved, what are the safety tips for those who own swimming pools in their houses?

These have been very heartbreaking to read about. Our heartfelt prayers and condolences to the affected families. Here are some safety tips for pools at home or any aquatic environment that children have access to:

1, Create safe areas around the pool. This basically means blocking access to the. Pool using fences, gates and doors that can be securely locked. This also means investing in installing pool covers that can be put in place when the pool is not in use.

2, Install Alarms: As we have burglar alarms, we should also have pool alarms that would be on always. This is another layer of safety that can be triggered when a child falls into the pool i.e., wave alarm or an alarm on the fence or gate that goes off when the fence or gate is opened.

3, Life Saving Equipment on hand: Have lifesaving equipment on hand for quick rescue efforts i.e., Pool buoys, rings, and pols. This can come in handy for quick rescues when needed.

4, Constant Supervision: this means that during pool activities, there must be a designated water watcher to ensure adequate supervision of the people in the pool at every moment. This means the designated water watcher cannot be distracted by their phonier conversation.

5, Make pool safety a whole family habit: this simply means, get everyone involved, including the domestic staff and security. Get everyone trained on first aid and CPR so they can offer lifesaving help. Teach everyone how to swim or be water safe. Create list of pool rules that everyone would be held accountable for. Always check the pool first before a child goes missing in the home.

When a mishap occurs, before the medics come, what must be done?

The need for first aid and CPR cannot be over emphasised. The victim must be brought out of the water immediately and CPR must be performed. This is the best way to ensure survival before medics arrive. Drowning is a form of asphyxiation and it’s important that the victim is helped to breathe to ensure that the brain and other organs are receiving much needed oxygen, and this is achieved through CPR.

As a sports development advocate, what other ways are you fostering positive change in the sports industry in Africa?

I believe in collaborating with industry colleagues and educating people on the immense value that can be found in the sports industry. Recently, the 2022-2026 National Sports Industry Policy was approved by the Federal Government of Nigeria. This document was facilitated by a diverse team of public and private sports industry stakeholder software which I am a part of. With the approval of this policy, many opportunities will arise to drive the change we seek in the industry and open the sports industry landscape.

In my own capacity, I have recently started looking towards local production of swimwear by indigenous manufacturers. This is to enable us to build a robust value chain where we minimise and eventually eliminate importation of apparel and equipment into Africa.

What stakeholders have you partnered with to help develop the sports industry in Nigeria?

I have partnered with the NESG and the Federal Ministry of Youth & Sports Development to develop the sports industry policy in Nigeria. I’m also serving on the Board of the Lagos State Swimming Association where we are directly helping the sport of swimming in Lagos State. There are several collaborations with other industry colleagues on seminars and speaking engagements where we educate stakeholders on the development of sports in Nigeria.

As Dolphin Aquatic Centre Ltd, we currently run a CSR initiative where we train women who are interested in becoming water safety instructors or swim teachers for free with both local and international certifications. We also provide a token for the trainees to assist with their transportation and so on. These Ladies would eventually transition into owning their own swim schools or continue with the option of working for Dolphin Swim School as fully certified instructors.

What are your responsibilities as Vice Chairman and Board member at Lagos State Swimming Association?

In 2017, the Lagos State House of Assembly passed 2 bills that are meant to promote sporting activities in Lagos state.

These bills are to help in ensuring that sports are developed in the state and to foster the growth of sports in the grass roots. Our role and responsibilities would be to support the Lagos State Sports Commission to implement and enforce this plan in swimming. The Board would be responsible to develop, grow and maintain every aspect of swimming and aquatics in the state.

As Vice Chairman and Board member, I am responsible along with the Board Chair to develop and implement the strategy for the state. We support the Lagos State swim team in all their endeavours to prepare for competitions. Unfortunately, the poor infrastructure in the state incapacitates a lot of the efforts of the Board. Swimmers that don’t have suitable training facilities and as such will struggle to achieve much.

Why isn’t swimming a leading sport in Nigeria to the extent of representing Nigeria on the international scene? How are you working to change this narrative?

Swimming definitely isn’t a leading sport as opposed to football or athletics, this is primarily due to various reasons like: Lack of continuity, lack of infrastructure and very few qualified swim coaches and training expertise available.

Though there have been swimmers representing Nigeria in several international competitions, especially the Olympics in several years, culturally, it is not yet a widespread sport. Swimming is a very individual sport and as opposed to a huge team, we have had individuals swim on behalf of Nigeria.

These challenges are quite substantial especially the lack of infrastructure. Most suitable pools are not easily accessible as they are situated in private schools and clubs across the country. The public pools are mostly in a state of disrepair.

In terms of continuity, we find that a lot of private schools and clubs have well trained swim squads. With excellent swimmers, however, we find that these swimmers eventually travel abroad and either continue their swim careers or drop off after a while. Those that do continue then sometimes opt to swim for Nigeria as individuals fully sponsored by themselves. This we have seen even in some less popular sports as well.

At Dolphin Swim School, we are helping by ensuring we have more qualified coaches equipped with all the knowledge and expertise needed to take these young swimmers to great heights. We are also committed to ensuring more children learn how to swim. In doing this we can find swim talent from as early as 6 years old and nature these talents through the years.

As a certified water safety instructor and trainer, certified lifeguard, first aid, CPR and AED administrator, what have you observed with partakers that needs to be addressed?

Partakers and parents need to be patient with the process of learning to swim. Learning to swim is like learning how to walk or talk… neither of these processes can be rushed, if it is, the probability of injuries and incidents would increase.

This means that parents and partakers need to listen to their instructors and help them lead at a comfortable pace in the learn to swim process. Rushing is not a sustainable way to learn to swim, so Patience! Patience!! Patience!!!

Why the decision for women and children strictly?

This was facilitated based on our prevalent cultural and religious preferences in Nigeria. I find that women are just generally more comfortable with other women providing some services like swimming, spa services and so on. I also find that from a safeguarding and child protection angle, most female instructors are better than male instructors in providing child services. Hence the need to focus fully on this niche.

Our focus has proven to be very impactful as we find that women who would normally not learn how to swim are feeling safe enough to learn with Dolphin Swim School through our private or group classes. We have had several muslim women learn how to swim and thereby giving them the opportunity to enjoy an activity that would normally not be possible. We have also succeeded in building another community of women where they can enjoy water related activities without prejudice.

Unforgettable day and why?

I can never forget… 9th December 2018 at Casablanca, Morocco when my name was called as the winner of a $75,000 grant from the BMCE Bank, as part of the Africa Entrepreneurship Award for African Entrepreneurs. It was a defining moment for me, and a further validation of my dreams and vision to equip women and children with water safety skills, and competitive training.

In that moment, I knew that my mandate was clear. The transitioning from corporate to entrepreneurship was not a mistake and it was for a purpose much bigger than me. The win brought about exponential growth that made Dolphin Swim School a household name in Lagos and its environs.

I continuously reflect on this win, and it gives me the courage to continue moving forward and building despite all odds.

What does swimming do to the body that people need to know?

Swimming is a good all-round activity that anyone can participate in. It is the best form of exercise that burns calories with minimal impact on the joints, a perfect form of exercise for people with impacted mobility and the older generation.

With amazing benefits such as keeping the heart rate up, taking some of the impact of stress off the body; building endurance, muscle strength and cardiovascular fitness, swimming helps you maintain a healthy weight, heart and lungs because of the high intensity cardio.

Swimming has many other benefits as it is a relaxing and peaceful form of exercise thereby alleviating stress, improve coordination, balance and posture as well as improving flexibility. Swimming provides good low-impact therapy for some injuries and conditions. As we also live in a hot climate, it provides a pleasant way to cool down on a hot day.

You are a member of international swimming (and non-swimming) organisations, what can Nigeria learn from those who have gotten it right in that aspect? What is your desire for the sports sector in Nigeria today and how can it be achieved?

One major thing that stands out as being part of these organisations is the innate need to be dedicated to a cause, to be organised and implement effectively. We need to learn as a country to put the right people in the right places. We need to be more effective and dedicated to the causes we have committed to and create structures to support them. This applies not only to the sports sector but also generally.

My desire is to see the sports sector achieve its potential of being a billion-dollar industry. Sports in other countries are cash cows and we are sitting on gold mine. From infrastructure to capacity building, manufacturing to productions, the possibilities are endless. When we collaborate and have the right things in place to make this happen, the sky would be our starting place.

Concluding words

My concluding words would be one of My favorite bible verses: “Whatever the activity in which you engage, do it with all your ability, because there is no work, no planning, no learning, and no wisdom in the next world where you’re going.” Ecclesiastes 9:10 ISV.

This should be a mantra of every person that has something in their hands to do. Whatever we decide to do, we need to do it well, do it with all our might, plan effectively, never stop learning and always seek wisdom so that we leave lasting legacies for our future generations.

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