• Sunday, April 14, 2024
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Why most architects in Nigeria are not attracting the desired patronage, by Inedu-George

James Inedu-George (1)

HTL Africa Limited is an architectural firm that designs and builds multi-scaled housing solutions for megacities in Nigeria and beyond. Its projects range from housing and retail buildings to spiritual spaces, cultural buildings, and institutional campuses. In this interview, James Inedu-George, founder and design head at HTL Africa, speaks on how the company is driving the convergence of the business world and architectural industry for economic growth. He also speaks on the challenges impeding the growth of architectural and construction industries in Nigeria. AMAKA ANAGOR-EWUZIE brings the excerpts:

What is your assessment of the construction and architectural industry in Nigeria? How large is that industry and why is it not getting the desired support from the government?

In my assessment of the industry, I see a couple of things. I think Nigerians have become too dependent on the government handling things, rather than think of what they can do for themselves.

In other countries of the world, the scale of construction is determined, not by the government, but by the population mass or by what business does. But in Nigeria, the scale of construction is determined by the manifestos from politicians. The politicians’ job in principle is to create the ability for people like architects to perform their duties while private sector businesses provide the needed funds for the projects.

I also noticed that in Nigeria, there is a problem of belief, ambition, and a lack of understanding of what the real priorities are. As a country, we should be looking at ourselves as an opportunity not as a threat.

The Nigerian business world or its major architectural world is threatened by anything that they are not familiar with. Instead of finding its own path, and looking at the population as a canvas to create a solution to the problem, the country is threatened by patronage and will be threatened by patronage for the next 100 years.

It is going to get worse if we don’t begin to look at the things that are necessary. It is the job of a professional Architect to sit with this business to fashion out systems.

Sadly, the architects in Nigeria are laid back or waiting for patronage to come. A lot of them are not developing themselves to the level that patronage can attract them.

You set up your company to address certain known challenges in the country. Kindly tell me what the company does and how its operation helps to solve some of these homegrown challenges.

Since 2011, HTL Africa has been designing affordable housing. In 2022, we started to build these urban houses because we had to change the strategy, by which we approach the market. So, instead of trying to build the smallest of affordable houses, we have to balance being a growing business and scaling up. We also need to be intelligent enough to create solutions for the future.

So, we decided that we would build houses on the middle scale, not on the lower scale. We commenced two of those houses, they are called Compact Houses. They stand on a very small footprint, environmentally sustainable; they are built cheaply for the middle class. We want to spread that model so that we can now deal with the lower classes.

At HTL Africa, we are becoming successful at what we do and we are also building a lot of bigger houses to fine-tune technology that is going to help us industrialise the smaller market. We had to spend a couple of years understanding the strategy as to how we could even make the technology available, possible, and usable.

Key sectors can be seen as vital to the transformation of the Nigerian economy. How can technology help to build, expand, diversify, and scale up the sector you play in?

The construction industry has different facets. It has art, science, and business in it. So, with technology, the speed of production, quality, and precision can be enhanced. When these three things are enhanced, the artiness and the personalisation of things in the industry would show.

We have to create a factory-based method of solving the problem, and this is where technology and computer revolution come in.

We need to build systems and enhance the environment with those systems, we build with business not for business, and we build to solve problems because architecture can either be on two spectrums, when it is happy, it solves problems, and it embraces the world, but when it is sad, it becomes the dominating killer object of a thing. So, technology is very important, but the how is what is more pertinent to me.

How have the experiences garnered from your past working life shaped your strategies in running your company?

I think that all architects in Nigeria are doing a great job, but we can always do better. It is good to criticise yourself so that you can grow, but we have no ambition collectively as a people.

In Nigeria, there is money, intelligence, and human capital, but those things haven’t come together to make our mission. A city should be built collectively not as individuals. Architecture is in a position to enhance this economy, but we haven’t taken the step. HTL Africa as a company is trying to take those steps.

How is the operation of the company structured to attract and sustain patronage going forward? What are some of the unique selling points that stand the company out?

HTL Africa is a very hard-nosed, extremely competitive, and innovative company. We will break down everything into the smallest possible things and find the best way to do it. As a company, we are 100 percent open to working in the business world.

The biggest problem businesses have in Nigeria is that we divorce ourselves from politics and business. HTL Africa knows that we are part of this system, so politics is welcome but we won’t be politicians, but we want politics because politics can help enhance the systems to help businesses work.

Over the years, the company has used collaboration as a way to start to build some of the biggest buildings that have been built in the country right now. It’s working with people who other architects shy away from. Our motto is to take the smallest opportunity and the smallest piece of land and make a masterpiece out of it.

We have taken that kind of thinking to a place where people know that when there is a difficult thing to do, HTL Africa is called to do it. We have a track record of taking on the hardest problems in the most succinct and poetic way and making something out of it. That is the reason we are building in several countries now. We want to be more exposed to the business world in Nigeria because building a personal house is beautiful, but building with business changes economies, and we are set up to change the economy.

What are some of the challenges you have faced in the cause of operating this business?

The first challenge is financial. Architects find it impolite to talk about money. We work for the money in the long run. Banks don’t support your business because they think you are not bankable. To them, you are a guy with a sketch pad who knows how to draw; this is a very funny idea that is in fact bad for their business.

So, the only way out of this financial challenge is to find a way to put all the money you make from the smallest projects into the everyday business. The financial problem is one that you must surmount by finding a way around it.

Another challenge is staffing. In a country of 230 million people that has 8 to 10 percent unemployment; it is even harder for an employer to get quality talents to work.

There is the challenge of getting patronage. Architects were trained to wait on a client and we will do all we can to attract clients. There is also the country’s challenge which is insurmountable because the country is going to outlive us. We experience challenges with power, no proper housing, and bad roads. All those things come into play.

Then, there is the ideological challenge because people think that architects like us are competing with people in our country. We are all great, but every profession has its guts to change the world, which is what we want to do. You have to deal with the guts. That has been the greatest challenge aside financial that we have.

Read also: Consider impact of your work on people and economy, ARCON urges architects

Given the challenge of getting the right talents, as an employer, how do you retain or attract the best hands?

Basically, when I get the right talent, I beg them to stay and give them challenges. At HTL Africa, the way we work, everybody has to be responsible for something like a mini-CEO; this frees me up to be able to do other things. I believe in this country. So, I make every effort to export the Nigerian spirit through architecture around the globe.

Ultimately, our goal is to train the hands and then export them around the world. To us, that is another way that we are trying to retain talents. We give people opportunities that other people don’t give.

I don’t take credit because architecture is a team sport and the team is more important than the individual. The team makes the head; the head doesn’t make the team work. I would rather be known as the architect who wrote than the architect who took the credit for the building.

Where do you see your company in the next five years?

In five years, HTL Africa will be smack in the middle of the world stage. We will be building in the West and Dubai. In five years’ time, we would have started building the biggest housing blocks in Nigeria. This is our short-term ambition.

In the same time frame, we would be looking for businesses and captains of industry who are brave enough to take on our ideology to put together masses of people comfortably in one space so that we can harness that production.

So, I urge the government to embrace architecture. I think that the captains of industry should find us. I think that we need to collaborate to consciously take Nigeria to where it ought to be in terms of skill, factory production, and technology.

We need to be able to turn our buildings and our building process into apps so that we can do it a lot more from our cell phones, which is one of the things that we are thinking about.

HTL Africa works at the central intelligence of megacities, building the megacity toolbox of infrastructure, manuals, installations, products, and apps.