Meckson Innocent Okoro is a leading figure in the Nigeria Real Estate Industry. He is the Principal Consultant of M.I Okoro and Associates, a professional firm of estate surveyors and valuers based in Ikoyi, Lagos. He also hosts a television talkshow focusing on the real estate business. In this interview, he talks about the profession in the midst of COVID-19 pandemic and lots more.
How has the pandemic affected your sector?
As everybody knows, COVID-19 caused widespread disruptions to the operations of all sectors. For us in the real estate sector, we have had to contend with a situation where, most times, people who want to buy property are not able to come and inspect properties. It is not that they cannot inspect, but the problem is that they cannot conclude. Also, most tenants now claim that they won’t be able to meet up with their rents at the due date because the long period of lockdown affected their businesses. Even within Lagos where you could say people are moving around, but maintaining social distancing, some people are still sceptical. They don’t want to come out to inspect properties, lease or buy; they will tell you to hold on until the situation improves. For those who are looking for loans to finance real estate project development, I’m not too sure that the banks are granting any facilities now. The banks are waiting for the present situation to settle down. As a result of the pandemic, the price of crude oil went down and everything else crashed. The positive side is that astute investors believe that real estate is a hedge against inflation, because they know that values will always increase. So they still want to invest in real estate. That is the positive aspect of it.
Now that the easing of the lockdown is progressing, how is your sector responding to this?
Well, I’m positioning my company to take advantage of emerging opportunities. I have set up a television programme, National Real Estate Today, a platform for creating awareness about and education on real estate. The idea is to reach as many people as possible since we cannot go to their offices. We can use the TV programme to drive our message and bring it into homes.
As I said earlier, the pandemic affected my profession and caused the practitioners a tremendous setback. We were supposed to hold the national conference in March this year. Because of the lockdown and the social distancing issue the conference is still hanging till today. Even those that have been elected officers to run the affairs of the professional body for the next two years have also not been able to take over. In response to this, we have decided to hold our annual general meeting online, that is virtual conference. All the things we benefit when we gather together, believe me, we don’t get it this time around. I think it’s a major setback indeed in our industry. But there’s nothing anybody can do about it. I believe that once things come back to normal we will continue from where we stopped.
Why is it that getting mortgage loans is difficult in Nigeria?
For a very long time till now, apart from what Babangida gave from 1992-94, when he created primary mortgage institutions and it all crashed due to mismanagement and lack of proper regulation of industry. Since then till now nothing has happened in the mortgage sector. Just two months back, President Muhammadu Buhari created another mortgage institution. There were about 15 of them with mandate to open up offices in all the states of the federation. But this is still at the planning stage. We hope that it will come to reality and they will be able to give mortgages to people. I think that 15 branches are too small for the entire nation. I think that there should be about four or five in every state, so that it will be easier for people to have access to them. Under the current arrangement the process of getting approval will have several bottlenecks. But when the approval time is short, it will be easier for people to get their loan. Right now, nothing seems to be happening in the mortgage subsector. Believe me, unless that happens it will continue to affect real estate development and funding of real estate development.
Why can’t we have mass housing in Lagos state? Isn’t it possible for your profession champion such a project?
The government is not interested in housing the masses. That is one thing you must know and that is why they have not done anything in order to create a social housing. The mass housing you said is called social housing and social housing is unprofitable. No developer will want to go into such business because they know that the class of people you are trying to catch through such development are the lower class. It is only the government, either at the federal, state and local levels that can motivate people. The government must contribute the major percentage of funding for such housing development. For instance, government should give loan free because the people you are targeting do not have enough financial muscle to even buy those houses. It’s not profitable. Jakande was passionate during his time to get houses for the masses and he achieved it. But the governments of today are not interested in such things; I must be frank with you. That is why we don’t have them doing it because it is not profitable. They don’t make the kind of money they expect to make there. That was why they left everything in the hands of private sector. Private sector will never go into developing houses for the poor people or the masses because it is not profit-driven. Maybe with time, when we get governments that are passionate about it, we will know. The dynamics will be there and I believe that everything will be alright.
We have increasing incidence building collapse. What do you think should be put in place to stem the tide?
This question should be addressed to members of the Nigeria Institute of Builders (NIB). It’s their profession that they are killing. They should pressurize the state and local governments to involve them in the investigation, arrest and prosecution of people who build with substandard materials. And the Standards Organization of Nigeria (SON) what are they doing? They are supposed to make sure that whenever they see a new foundation coming up they have to frequently go to the site to ensure standardization of materials being used in the construction. And substandard material should be confiscated and even the owner of the building could be prosecuted. Another one is, the government has to be very serious that any developer whose building collapses for whatever reason (s) will lose the certificate of occupancy of that land to the government, and the property becomes a public asset. Most of the people involved in these projects are not even professionals and members of the Nigeria Institute of Builders. They are just illiterate developers who just need small money to make ends meet. They don’t belong to Nigeria Institute of Builders and because of that the NIB can’t even punish them. It boils down that it is only the government through the instrumentality of SON or the Urban and Town Planning Department or the Department of Public Safety Department of the state government that would make sure that the people found guilty of this should be properly punished. That is the only way the incidence of building collapse can be stopped.
When you are not thinking about work, how do you unwind, what makes you happy?
I’m a golfer. When I am not working, I play golf. That’s how I unwind and it’s enough to keep me busy.
What lessons have you learnt about life?
One must always do what gives him passion. Whatever it is that gives you passion, follow it to the end. Above all, it doesn’t matter how much you have acquired in life but how have you used it to help humanity. Take for instance, COVID-19 pandemic has taught us a lot of lessons. That means, at the end of the day, it is not what you have acquired. What you have acquired in life may not make any meaning to you at a particular time as we have seen this during period of the lockdown. You must have noticed that people who have private jets, yacht, exotic cars could not even go out to drive or enjoy them. But at the end of the day, it is what gives you passion that keeps you alive. How you have contributed to help humanity that is what will speak for you. That was how people got involved in palliatives, and they began sharing and making people happy and thereby contributed to humanity. It is not about being busy and acquiring wealth that matters. At the end of the day, what matters is this: when the chips are down, can you give account of yourself very well? How you have helped humanity, how you have contributed to the development of your community, your state and even your nation, these are the things that would matter. That is the experience I have learnt and I’m very happy about that.