Josfyn Uba And Vivian Onyebukwa
Dr. Obiora Okonkwo, astute businessman and entrepreneur, is the Chairman/ Chief Executive of the Dome, in Abuja. In an interview recently with SATURDAY SUN, he revealed how a personal promise he made after his return from overseas to tap into available opportunities yielded fruit when upon his first visit to Abuja he set up the Dome when the city was only at the developmental stage. The rest, they say, is history. Excerpts:
How did you conceptualise something like this because Nigerians are not used to going for leisure?
Towards the completion of my studies overseas, I knew that I won’t have to waste any extra time looking for what to do. I had a couple of businesses that were actually prosperous, but I had always known that I would be back to Nigeria. That’s the promise I made to myself after 10 years of my sojourn overseas. During the process of my coursework and my PhD research, I visited Abuja for the first time in 1997 and fell in love with the city. From that first visit, I started asking around what could be done to add to the development of the city because at that time, it was at the developmental stage. And almost everybody would say that there was no place of entertainment. People were always travelling to Lagos to catch fun. Everybody gathered at the Hilton Hotel and after Hilton, there was no other place. And this business was one I had already had interest in. I wanted to start overseas so I felt I should bring it back to Nigeria to add to this beautiful city as part of my developmental process. That’s really the story of what you see today at this place called the Dome
Did you take your business acumen from your parents or did you just happen?
As a matter of fact, what you see now, is an entrepreneurship. I may not have to tell you that I am the best businessman. I am more at heart, a public servant but I grew up in business as a young boy, at Onitsha main market to be precise. As a child in the primary school and it was like the tradition in those days, while growing in the East, you would associate yourself with your father’s trade. There was no time for redundancy, recklessness. If your father is a tailor, when school closes, you go to join him. If he is a mechanic, you would also go to join in his workshop. If he is a driver, he would pick you up along the road and you work with him as a conductor. If he is a barber, you would join him in his shop. These were ways parents used to keep their eyes on their children. So for me, right from Primary Four, when I closed from school, I would go to my father’s shop and from there, I started learning about most of the things that I am doing today. When my father fell ill, the responsibility of overseeing the affairs of the business and the apprentices under him automatically fell on me at the age of 16. That experience at that very young age helped me a great deal. However, like I said before, I am a public servant. What you see here is about seeing life from the point of creativity, innovation, and the point of contributing to the society because business itself is relative.
Business is relative?
Yes, the investment I put in at that young age could have gone into buying and selling strictly for profit purposes but I felt that a new city of Abuja can only get to where we want it to be if individuals can also contribute to the development. So, my investment in Dome is one way to partake in the development of the city which, I fell in love with on my first visit and I felt like pushing it.
Is this the only investment you have?
No, I still have a couple of other businesses both here and overseas.
How do you coordinate them?
Now, the world is a global village. It is not a problem anymore. For most businesses today, it is about setting the right structure to run them or more or less, you have some partners who are in charge of the running of the day-to-day business. It is tasking, demanding but we would still have the health and the energy to play our own roles in the various interests. Thank God for them.
What would you say are the challenges of this kind of business in Nigeria?
I have been asked this question over and over. I have made my opinions clear and then, publicly. For the sake of this interview, I will answer that. In anything you do in any part of the world, they have their challenges but these challe nges are peculiar to the different climes but, it is in your ability to understand them and find a way out around it that determines if you would excel in that environment. As for Nigeria, it has its own uniqueness but what I see here as major challenges are instability and policy somersault. I think that these problems are of great concern. When I talk about policy somersault, I am talking about the change of government. For instance, in 2015 which brought about change in exchange rate, a good number of people here have set up a business with foreign exchange-denominated loan but before that time, it was better to get foreign exchange-denominated loan because of the low exchange rate. The challenge is usually the fluctuation in the market rate. It is obvious that we are all witnesses to what it is and the situation.
What else do you make of the instability in the country apart from what you have said so far?
You may be following a direction of business now, maybe in federal, state or other government agencies, it is understandable. The only thing that is constant is change. So, when they change the head, either the governor or head of agency or whoever, they come with their own policy. Such instability is also an issue. For any business that would last and have longevity and be successful, good policies are important, so that even if you are recouping for, say 15 years, when you approach a financial institution, whether local or international, you would see that instability is also a big consideration for financial support and without the confidence of financiers in the business you are doing, you can really not get to the peak you desire because the secret of the success of every business is finance. But you must start from a good business plan and concept, ideas which in fact, in certain countries where funding is not the issue becomes the most critical thing. If you go to other capital economy in the Western world, there is so much funds in different hands and institutions. Their job is just to go and scout for people with creativity, right ideas and vision so they can give them money.
That’s the reason you have the Microsoft of this world and Facebook. These are people who didn’t start with any money but they had good business plans. They have good ideas, creativity and innovations that attracted people to put in their funds. I believe that when we talk about business here, we should not only look at the business of buying and selling. It will not be about business where you would recoup for one or two years. In absence of all those things I have mentioned, you find out about the sustainability of the business which, you may have started with a good plan. It may have attracted some good investors, it goes well in the first, second years, and if change comes, it destabilises you and makes it difficult for profit. That is why you see some of these businesses either suffering or closing down, not necessarily because of lack of ideas or that they can’t do it, but because of instability. But above all, outside this policy somersault and policy, one of the major factors is human capital and skill. We don’t have the skills needed to empower certain business structure. It is inadequate, insufficient and in some areas, non-existent. These things cannot only be limited to training in higher institutions or skill acquisition centres, but also has to do with culture. We are gradually losing our values. Some of the traits of honesty and credibility are hardly what you earn or teach in school. If you have the fundamental values, then, you can be trained. In my experience here, most people are not trainable. Somebody is employed, you are ready to send them overseas, you are ready to bring in experts and no matter what you give, their mind is on something else which is how to succeed financially, personally at the expense of the business of the employer. This aspect is unrelated to education and skill. It is about our values.
Where do you think we have lost our values?
Times haves changed. We grew up at a time where a greater percentage of the parents, don’t have adequate focus in the upbringing of their kids. Most of those things that made it possible then, don’t seem to be fashionable now in our society. Both parents are very busy at work, looking for how to sustain their families financially and so nannies are taking care of the kids. This wasn’t the norm in our days. We are deviating from our core values and culture. Today, the teaching and the learning are on the Internet and social media, and a good number of these things are alien to us. They are not us. We grew up in the villages and growing up of a child was everybody’s responsibility. Then you could see a mother scolding another person’s child without waiting for the mother. It was the society’s responsibility. Priorities in life seem to have changed in the life of the youth these days. What was important to everyone in the society was growing up with good name and doing what was right. It was not necessarily going to make money. Everybody, to a large extent was very contented. If you are a farmer, you would have enough food to eat. In an environment, you could see an old farmer labouring and sending money to the child in America or London. There was almost no difference between the haves and have-nots. Parents at that time were not expecting children to bring them riches at an early age. Today, it is different. Even if you are just 15 years and you buy a car for your parent, they wouldn’t even ask you where the money is coming from. Rather, they would go to church and give testimony and the pastor would claim that the prayer has brought magic to the family. In our own time, the means justifies the end. The opposite is now the case. As a young boy who didn’t have a job, you couldn’t go near certain areas where you shouldn’t be seen otherwise you would be treated as a bad boy. My message has always been going back to the basics. There is nothing wrong with those things that have made us who we are today. There is nothing wrong in learning some virtues from those uneducated parents or unexposed to be able to bring up responsible people to help make the society and Nigeria better.
As a father and custodian of the culture, what role have you played to bring back our culture, at least to where we were before, if we can’t improve on it?
First and foremost, this effort is not theoretical. It is by appreciating the culture, embracing the culture and living it, proudly and elegantly, too. What it means is that if any child feels that I have any inspiration, I should not inspire him only by my PhD; it should not be by the material things the person sees around me; it shouldn’t be in my height or my looks. I identify with my culture, my roots and my people. I play very strong role in the community. When it comes to the issue of culture, I am in the forefront. I believe that with this, I live it. I believe that a people who do not have culture are a people that are lost. On many occasions, I have done some things physically to express my appreciation for our culture. Some of them are those that are already dying off. If you look at the typical case of the new yam festival, it is one thing I have been involved in. I still do and proudly so. It is one thing that you can bring many cultural activities into, like the cultural dance, masquerades and other activities and we practise them. The traditional institutions who are the custodians of our culture should also be respected and supported, because they are at the grassroots with our people. I relate with them a lot and support them. It is in the exchange of my support and to appreciate that I became the most titled citizen of Anambra State as at today. There is no other person that has been appreciated by the three senatorial districts. I am a title holder in the entire kingdom of Anambra State.
You can’t talk about culture without talking about tourism. How do you think we can marry these two to bring about economic sustainability in Nigeria?
It is an understatement to say that a well-planned cultural programme can be a source of economic attraction for the state or the community. This year, we had a festival which is called Nwafor Festival in Ogidi. It is a festival that starts on Friday, the eve, and ends on a Sunday. And from that Sunday, the business activities in areas of entertainment and others accounts for 50 percent of the entire annual revenue of people in that area. That is simply because there is one cultural festival. So you can imagine if the community is able to structure either one or two events in the same year. For the first time, the community tried to emulate a festival that would usher in people who are 80 years and above. It is an occasion when the traditional ruler of the town initiated, recognized and honoured elders of the community. Since it was the first in the history of the kingdom, we had close to 500 recipients. Then, activities were on in those communities non-stop. Economic activities swelled up in all facets of life; Ogidi was agog. People came from far and near. I therefore, say that this is a good prospect for tourism. I urge the government to look into it and fashion out possible ways to turn it into another source of economic empowerment if it is well organized and planned. For us, we support any initiative in whatever way. In terms of tourism, I believe that what you are seeing as the Dome is a tourist destination for the city of Abuja. It has attracted a lot of interest both within and outside Abuja. It is part of our contribution so far, in this area. The Dome is one of the private investments and it is one of the biggest in tourism and entertainment. You cannot talk about tourism without talking about entertainment. They have also aided some rising stars.
Is it all about riches and making money for you?
Riches and money are the least of the things I get bothered about. One single thing that matters to me is to go to heaven. So anything I do must be something before I start my day. And before I start my day, I must have seen it in all my engagements that will bring me close to that dream.
Would we then say that you are fulfilled in all of these?
I am extremely fulfilled. It is not about riches and money but I am fufilled. I don’t have it all
So, what does fufillment mean for you?
Fufillment is about self-contentment and being happy with what you are and what you have. It is not the volume or doing what you like. I will not say that it is all about money for me. I am contented more than anybody else. It is only a height you can achieve with the grace of God.
Is it as a result of consciousness that is attained, spiritually?
Yes, of course. If you don’t have that grace you wouldn’t appreciate the importance of honour.
What would you say life has taught you?
If I have to look at it from the principles of faith, life is a journey where we prepare ourselves for our final destination which is eternity. And in so doing, we have to be fair to all and do to others as you want them to do to you.
Would we take that as your principle?
Yes, my core philosophy is anchored on biblical principle.
You talk about heaven. Would we be safe to ask if you are afraid of death?
I am not afraid to die. The least thing in my mind is fear of death. I am afraid of dying in sin. That is why my consciousness every day is how to show God my little effort to be in His presence. I cannot succeed without God. You can always bring your values and principles to bear in everything you do and even politics. I don’t believe that politics is a sin. Rather politics is meant for those who don’t fear God. A Christian life is a reflection of our daily activities. As a journalist, how you go about your journalism business is a reflection of your Christian life.
Do you have any ambition of going into politics?
I am in politics. I have PhD in Political Science so by that I am a political scientist. It shouldn’t be a surprise to anybody to see me practice politics, from the knowledge point of it and not as a business. I still believe that politics must be nothing else but as a vocation and not a business. I am well equipped as a political scientist for leadership and it is a call to service. Inasmuch as I do business, I derive more satisfaction from public service.