How trading in Onitsha market sharpened my business instinct – Okonkwo
The story of Obiora Okonkwo who recently floated a new airline, United Airlines, is an interesting one. From a humble beginning as apprentice trader in the popular Onitsha Market, he today holds a Doctor of Philosophy Degree in Political Science, with distinction, from the Russian Academy of Science, Institute of World Economy and international Relations, Moscow.
A business man, politician, entrepreneur and one of the key contenders for the forth-coming Anambra State governorship election, Okonkwo sits on the board of several companies including Solicom Engineering, N-Glory Development Limited, the owners and operators of the Dome Entertainment and Event Centre in Abuja. He is also president of the Nigeria-Belgium Business Forum. He coordinated action for debt forgiveness for Nigeria by the Belgian government worth $500million. Recently, he instituted a research on reasons for the decline in Onitsha market apprenticeship. He spoke to BusinessDay’s Member of Editorial Board, Obinna Nwachukwu in Abuja on a number of issues:
At a time operators of local airlines are quitting the business you are floating a new airline called United Airlines; what gives you the confidence that you will succeed where others failed?
Well, as far as I am concerned, there are many airlines coming up, we know that as some airlines go out of business, new ones are also coming up, but for us, we believe that if you work hard, you will remain in God’s favour. The only outcome of it will be success, so that is the only reason.
What then gives you the confidence that you would succeed?
Anybody looking at the industry today would know that there is a lot of gap to be filled. The road transport is very risky, there are fewer aircraft around with many passengers; so, in such a market, you don’t need a soothsayer to tell you that there could be success hiding somewhere; it is a matter of strategy. So, what we saw is the gap in the market.
Does the name ‘United’ connote joint partnership or ownership?
If you have a child today and name him, it is the wish of what you want him to be in future, the name is our hope and prayer for Nigeria.
So how far have you gone on this?
We have our certificate, we will soon start operations; the stage now is planning our expansion.
Do you think this is the right time giving COVID-19 pandemic and the lull in the aviation business?
I doubt if there is a best time for anything. No doubt, the Covid-19 pandemic has hit us really hard, but, with the passenger load that we have, there could not be a better time. Those who started at a different time don’t have as much load we have within a short period of our operation. The passenger load is what matters, it is quite encouraging, it shows that there is truly a gap; the market needs a lot more airline.
You were once a trader in the popular Onitsha market. That was before you travelled to Russia for studies where you obtained a doctorate degree. Would you say the experience from the market made you what you are today?
It was like the tradition growing up, you go to your father’s place of business, if your father is a trader or barber, after school you will go and join him, that was my time in Onitsha, that brought me face to face with the realities of the situation in that market. I still have my nostalgia; I am looking for every opportunity to pay back to that society because my experience in Onitsha market helped a lot to make me what I am today. I was born in Gombe in December 1965 and was a baby in arms when my family, like all Igbo, fled the north as a result of the pogrom that ultimately led to the civil war. Following the war, my father, like every Igbo male, picked up the pieces and re-stablished himself at the Main Market dealing in beverages or what our people commonly call provisions. Unfortunately, few years later, he took ill forcing me to combine my high school education with managing the business and his apprentices. That basic trading experience, in many respects, helped my business instincts and also instilled in me a deep sense of industry and hard work that have defined my life’s journey to date.
How far have you gone with the Onitsha market research project which you commissioned and in what ways would it improve our traditional idea of market?
We have not gotten to that stage yet because they have to publish, so the research project is still ongoing, we hope that the result will help us to re-engineer, to use the experience to design the next phase of our entrepreneurship for the young people who are coming up and for the modern dynamics, that’s what we are looking at. Today, we might not be talking about the typical commerce of buying and selling, it might be online, but, as long as I am concerned, the methodology is still the same and the system could remain the same whereby you have willing people who are ready to be tutored with knowledge and you have someone who is ready to help them, impart knowledge on them. Technology is the same, but in those days when you go to learn mechanic, carpentry or whatever, what matters was the methodology.
From your personal experience, do you advise traders to acquire formal education so as to improve on their service delivery?
What actually brought me closer to the thought of this project is because I have developed a programme that helps to impart academic knowledge on the traders through part time studies, so it’s already there, we are encouraging them, if it becomes a necessary tool for them to improve themselves, why not, they should be encouraged to take advantage of that. But, in all the things we do, practical experience is nothing compared to what you can learn from classrooms as far as business is concerned.
With your involvement as an entrepreneur, what experience would you share with Nigerians especially those that want to go into private business?
In every situation, as far as business is concerned, one can still see an advantage in it. As bad as the Covid-19 pandemic was, there were people who made more money than they would ever make in their entire business life, so will you tell that person that the pandemic is bad? So for us, we take things one at a time, when we face a situation, we study the situation to find out how we can navigate around it and adapt to it. The experience is general, it is not different from what most people can easily see which is depending on the type of business you do. Today, the nation is going through a whole lot, both monetary and fiscal policies are facing some challenges because of obvious problems. Covid-19 and the fluctuating price of oil in the global market are affecting government policy in terms of stability and policy consistency. Some businesses require foreign exchange like the airline and you go through a lot of stress to get it. Sometimes, it affects the operational plans. You might have the money in local currency, but until it is converted you can’t give a supplier, you don’t have to count it as already paid. These things are there and different sectors have its own challenges but I just believe that with the COVID issue gradually getting to different places, we will see what the government will come up with to soften the situation that most people have been in, in the last few months.
In the entertainment sector which you have been in, in what ways did the pandemic affect the Dome?
Covid-19 affected us in so many ways, because, for the industry to thrive, you need movement of people. At some point, there was a total lockdown in the nation and some of these things are patronised by external visitors on business, conference and tourism, those things are usually not very common today because we are in an era of zoom meetings. And then different states have their own internal policy to contain the pandemic and some public places were locked down. It is understandable though, but, with these, some companies could not survive the lockdown, with the banks calling on you, with the suppliers and other things. I think it’s one of the hardest hit sector, even when you look at the places outside Nigeria, like Disney, they are still on lockdown, they have not even opened for over a year now, so you can just imagine that.
In monetary terms can you quantify what The Dome lost?
Well, The Dome was locked down for many months and we lost huge sums of money. I would only let you know how much, if you promise you will write it off for me (laughs). Just know that The Dome like any other centre lost multi-million naira due to the pandemic.
What is your impression about leadership today in Nigeria, particularly in the South-East?
For me, I believe that every leader who comes to power has his or her own vision or objective and intention. Though sometimes, what we conceptualise outside may not be what you see when running there, but, when I observe, I probably don’t look at things being done wrong or right, but I see from my own position what can be done better. It is not only a leaders affair, it is a collective effort and that is why I have always called on people of goodwill, no matter how comfortable or successful you are, you must show interest in leadership. You should not allow it for the self-attaining politicians. Politics is the only profession people proclaim by word of mouth without any certificate or regulatory board. Somebody wakes up and say ‘I am a politician’ and then he or she becomes one. Then somebody else who is an influence, a promoter of one thing or the other in his community, wakes up again and says ‘I am not a politician’. What does leadership require? If you have influence, if you talk and people listen, in leadership, you don’t have to lead in the state or national level, even in the family we are all leaders at one point or the other. So, people should not shy away, because when you do, maybe you are that right person who can make that difference the man at the helm of affairs need.
Sir, recently food stuff sellers and cattle owners blocked movement of goods to the south; do you see that as a call for southeast leaders to do more in terms of economic revival and self-sustainable?
It was an unfortunate incident that is unexpected in a nation like ours. And when such a thing happens, it is not affecting one side at all. Because, if you are a tomato seller, and you need to move your tomatoes to south east to sell it and you don’t move it, it could rotten. If they perish, the buyer may not buy and the seller will lose his produce. So, it is not good for either those at the receiving end or those who are making the decision not to sell it. However, it should be a lesson to a good leader; we have seen world leaders who have been able to do the impossible, unimaginable in the midst of such challenges. It served as a wake-up call for us to embark on policies and activities that make you sustainable in some of the things that we know how to do best.
Why are you interested in being the next governor of Anambra State?
Well, my interest in being the governor of Anambra State is due to the fact that by nature, I am someone who is given to public service. I have shown in my other business endeavours that they are service-oriented, whether it’s the entertainment or aviation industry, these things are similar. Then, if you look at other leadership activities that I acquired … there are also things we have been doing in our micro level as individuals, but seeing how much that still needs to be done, we felt that we can migrate from micro to macro, and that macro is being in a position like governor that will give you a bigger platform to do things; where even simple policy can make a whole lot of difference in people’s lives. So, this is like an extension of what we are doing individually. We have done these things at the individual micro level as a pay back to the society and appreciation to God for his mercies and favour upon me.
In terms of economic development, what are the things you plan to do differently?
We want to leave a legacy, we want to bequeath some legacy in our lives and in the society, the difference is that we are bringing our experience from the private sector into leadership and that is what is lacking, until people take governance as a serious business. Most of us in our own individual lives succeed in business and entrepreneurship, but when it becomes government we fail. For instance, some time ago in this country when there was auctioning of licence to operate GSM in Nigeria, private companies paid as much as $300 million to get the licence. There was a government company that got it for free, they did not pay $1, you cannot count them today as one of the successful ones. So, sometimes it’s not about how much you have or do not have.
That government company that even had bigger and wider spectrum felt that it’s just taken as government business. So, we are bringing into governance our rich experience from private sector. As a key player, there is something different from being employed in the private sector and then coming into leadership, it’s like having been involved in start-up, training, planning, execution and realisation, that’s the difference we are bringing to governance and that will come with accountability, courage, responsibility and will also come with very serious financial management that will be nothing but prudent. All these things are what we are bringing and that will make a difference in the way that we are running the system that will produce the results.
Are you in support of those calling for power rotation? With the current governor Willy Obiano coming from Anambra North, would you want the next governor to come from Anambra Central or South?
Well, I have no problem when different people who have a common item sit together and ply all known principles on discussion, agreement and understanding on how they will rotate. But, one thing is to discuss and another thing is to respect it, because, if it is discussed and not respected, it’s already a violation and it’s not going to work. But, as it is today in Anambra State, there may have been intentions and discussions that is not general and we don’t know where and how those things were discussed, but one thing that we know that is obvious and glaring is that every four years of governorship in Anambra State, you have multiple contenders from different senatorial zones. Not only that they multiply internally from different political parties, some of them also emerge flag bearers from different political parties across the 3 senatorial zones. There was never a time that we hear that the only people eligible to contest are people from this zone or that zone and then we see all the other zones respecting it. So, with that not having happened and now the timetable of INEC is out and the parties have issued their timetable, some people have seen they are probably not meeting with the pace of others and they are throwing that out.
If you go to the South for example, the major players from different political parties who are coming out to contest, four of them are from different political parties and have contested at different times. Even inside the ruling party, APGA, the story is the same. Peter Obi went through hell to deliver the ticket to Obiano; in fact, at a point he had to come to the gate of the Women Development Centre to ensure that it does not slip out of his hands. And when that primary was over and Obiano emerged, he fought with everything he had to contend against other aspirants from other political parties, the same year when Tony Umeh emerged from the North in PDP, the strongest opponent he had in the process were two persons from South; Nicholas Ukachukwu and Senator Andy Uba. They fought him to a standstill, nobody said ‘oh, it’s the turn of the North, let’s let him be’ so much so that even when he was declared the winner, they took him to court, from Federal High Court, to appeal court, up to the Supreme Court, it was just about 10 days or one week to the election that the Supreme Court made a final pronouncement that he was an authentic candidate of the party. Was he a candidate because he was from North? No, it was the Supreme Court that declared him. And besides, for him to get to that extent, if he did not have the financial muscle to march them cash to cash, with the delegates’ election, he would have lost out. And in the same year when that happened, there were other contenders, that was the year Ifeanyi Uba contested, he put up a very strong campaign and eventually he won his local government, Nnewi North. Today, we have candidates from the same Nnewi Local Government, who have said it’s their turn. Going back to PDP, being given a ticket is not a guarantee you will win the election, after winning the primary you still have a lot of work to do to actually win the main election. PDP has the best chance which is in the centre, because we have strongest PDP base in the centre, it was evident in the last election. We won all the National Assembly seats in Anambra Central. Apart from the fact that 60percent of Anambra vote is in the central, and apart from the fact that you are a party on opposition, you don’t have to give what you don’t have, you only have to try your best, to use the best to get it from the opponent. I am one person that wants PDP to win and I know that 99percent of PDP faithful want PDP to take over from APGA, they are tired of APGA. It’s not going to be an easy task. For me, the best thing is for PDP to open up, get the best person who cannot only win the ticket, but capable of winning the election and delivering on the promises. These three things are critical, we have seen those who won ticket but did not win the election, we have seen those who won the ticket, won the election, but became a disgrace even to the party that gave them that ticket.
One thing common with Anambra is that almost everybody who had been a governor had a godfather; who is your godfather?
We have said it over and over again, we don’t have a godfather, but we have a Father God, the Father almighty who is all in all, to whom all power belongs, so he gives to whom he wants, its only in his name that we are in this race and we have totally surrendered ourselves to him, for His will to be done.